EDITOR’S NOTE: The News-Press welcomes submissions to our Debate page. Normally, these opinion articles are approximately 500 words in length. This submission is much longer but the News-Press editorial board feels that it’s only fair to present both sides of an issue and allow full discussion to each side.

Missouri Western and the St. Joseph community mean a lot to me. When my time as president of the university began in 2008, my plan was to appreciate and build upon the work of my predecessors, but respectfully chart my own course.

Since my retirement in June 2019, the present administration has taken a different approach that I would summarize as follows: “the sky is falling — but it’s not my fault.” My approach was to turn the other cheek as criticism of the past decade accelerated in the press and with emails. But I think, nearly a year later, it has now reached the point where it would do Missouri Western and St. Joseph a great disservice to stay silent.

In my opinion, the criticisms in comments, press interviews, by insinuation and in emails have been based on a number of false narratives of: financial “hemorrhaging,” plummeting enrollment, faculty over-hiring and majors with low graduation numbers.

Financial issues

Here are the facts concerning the financial baseline when I retired: First, MWSU had 11 years of “unqualified audits,” which means highly respected auditors found no problems. Second, we left the current administration what we believed to be a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2020 (7-l-2019 through 6-30-2020). Third, nearly $10 million in cash was available. Fourth, the state appropriation was an additional $1 million for FY20. Fifth, Senate Bill 389 allowed far greater institutional control of tuition effective Fall 2019.

I take exception with the way the current administration is interpreting some of the financial circumstances of Missouri Western.

The university’s pension liability known as GASB 68 (Governmental Accounting Standards Board) was misinterpreted. This set into motion a claim of huge — and untrue — annual financial liabilities, including that “the university has experienced a 70% cash position decline since 2014.” While the university’s total GASB 68 liability is $45 million, only a small fraction of GASB 68 is actually annually paid by the university.

When I retired, my last budget for FY19 was dated 5-31-19. In the Aug. 22, 2019, meeting, the current administration presented another FY19 budget dated 6-30-19. They presented “Revised Budgets #1 and #2” for FY20 at the December and February board meetings, respectively. These revised budgets show an extra $12 million to $14 million in expenditures with deficits from $2.4 million to $3.1 million over past years’ budgets. There may be a logical explanation, but I am curious how much these added expenditures are factoring into the budget issues requiring layoffs and financial exigency. (See Board Reports Aug. 22, 2019, Dec. 5, 2019, Feb. 27, 2020)

The end of the year FY 2019 the official audit showed that the university had nearly $10 million in unrestricted, available cash. Yet, the current administration claims that it had no reserves of this nature, nor do cash reserves appear on their revised FY19 (6-30-19) and their revised FY20 budgets. My administration had funds well beyond the minimum range recommended by the governing board’s bylaws of approximately $2.4 million to $3.6 million.

We had to use cash funds when budgets were impacted by the significant cuts to and midyear withholdings of MWSU’s state appropriation during my tenure as president. In Gov. Eric Greitens’ year-and-a-half in office alone, the university’s state appropriation was cut by 17%.

We used our cash funds for all types of issues across the campus. But most significant is that all expenditures were discussed and approved by the board, available online, and resulted in clean audits from our various external auditors. In fact, early in my tenure at Missouri Western, the board actually encouraged spending down some of our cash reserves since they provided limited financial returns.

Enrollment decline

Contrary to the current narrative, the enrollment at Missouri Western has been fairly steady during challenging times for open-enrollment institutions. MWSU has gone from 5,535 students in my first fall semester of 2008 to 5,684 students in my last fall semester of 2018. (See Missouri Department of Higher Education website: dhewd.mo.gov/data)

The current administration would have you believe that enrollment was plummeting by comparing what I believe to be an unusually high semester, the fall of 2010, with an unusually low semester, the fall of 2019. It baffles me that a sitting president would selectively use outlier statistics to make the trajectory of the university look worse. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that actual revenue from tuition and fees was reported as $35.4 in the 1-31-20 Budget Report, which was very similar to the previous two years.

Also, the current administration tends to cherry-pick statistics such as the decline in undergraduate full-time students following the required elimination of most of our associate degree programs. This ignores the fact that those losses were more than compensated for by the significant growth of Missouri Western’s relatively new graduate programs.

Faculty over-hiring

Regarding faculty over-hiring, again, statistics used by the current administration aren’t what they appear to be. They argue that 13 additional faculty members were hired while enrollment was plummeting. First, many of those positions were positions of current employees who were upgraded. Second, as previously discussed, enrollment was not plummeting. Third, if you examine the appropriate faculty budget line, you will see that the expenditures associated with faculty members remained relatively flat. Those expenditures remained relatively flat primarily because some retirees with significantly higher salaries were replaced by multiple junior faculty members with lower salaries.

Oddly, you will see that the current administration’s “revised” budgets actually increased salary expenditures despite layoffs already in the works well before Covid-19. For example, my FY19 budget for salaries was $26.2 million, while the current president’s Revised Budget #1 for salaries was $33.1 million. (See 5-31-19 budget and 11-15-19 budgets in June and December Board Books)

Academic majors

Regarding academic programs with low graduation numbers, the explanation for this is more complex than small numbers. A small regional comprehensive university like Missouri Western will out of necessity benefit from and need to have some programs with lower graduation numbers. Faculty in a general education role can support a major without additional cost for that major to the university. Regardless, Missouri Western during my tenure continuously addressed the Missouri Department of Higher Education’s periodic reviews of majors with low graduation numbers and either justified or eliminated programs when necessary.

Without question, I am highly distressed by some of the programmatic and personnel decisions made based upon what I consider to be inaccurate or at least misleading information. I welcome any questions about my tenure as president of Missouri Western. Manipulating statistics to make the university seem worse off than it actually is and drumming up negative local and national press coverage do not serve the interests of Missouri Western or the community. This is particularly true in a time when the university now faces the very real crisis of COVID-19. I am hopeful that the current administration will shift its energy away from misleading attacks on past leadership and instead focus on Missouri Western’s success in the future.

Board reports can be examined at: https://www.missouriwestern.edu/about/bog/

Official MWSU audits can be examined at: https://www.missouriwestern.edu/accounting/

Robert Vartabedian is the former president of Missouri Western State University.