ETSU looks to discourage end-of-year sprees

Nathan Baker • Feb 21, 2014 at 9:48 PM

Belt-tightening measures at East Tennessee State University in the last few months of this fiscal year are designed to bolster reserve funds in the midst of a two-year enrollment decline and prepare the Johnson City institution to face sweeping state higher-education reforms, school officials say.

In an email this week to faculty and staff, ETSU President Brian Noland outlined changes to the college’s purchasing policies before the end of the fiscal year in June, lowering the requisition cost limit requiring approval from department directors and college deans and freezing spending on personal electronic devices and renovations.

The new policy lowers the requisition limit needing supervisor approval in the eBucs electronic purchasing system from $5,000 to $1,000 and requires purchases more than $5,000 to be approved by a vice president.

Noland’s email said the university considered an early cutoff date for purchases, but instead decided to lower the limits to “empower colleges, departments and units to exercise judgment and make informed decisions regarding end-of-year expenditures.”

University Vice President for Finance and Administration David Collins said Thursday that the changes come in part to discourage end-of-year spending sprees to clear out budgeted money in hopes of ensuring the same level of funding in the following year.

“We’ve always told our department heads, ‘If you leave money unspent, we won’t necessarily take it,’ ” Collins said. “We just want to ensure that the expenditures are needed. We want people to buy what they need, but to also keep in mind where we are financially and not to spend just to be spending.”

After reaching a record high in 2011, ETSU’s enrollment fell 3.7 percent in the next two years, reaching 14,957 to start the current academic year.

In a speech to the college’s faculty in August, Noland announced a soft hiring freeze and a 1.5 percent across-the-board budget cut, pointing to the $2 million revenue loss from 2012 to 2013 brought about by a 447-student decline in enrollment.

“Enrollment’s been down, and as we’re working back through the budget process, we’re asking deans and vice presidents to review spending at the year end,” Collins said.

Looking ahead to next year, when Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” to provide two years of community college courses free of tuition and fees to the state’s graduating high school seniors could take effect, Collins said thankfully, applications at ETSU are up.

“We’re taking a lot of steps to improve student retention,” he said. “We hope to be even, good would be if we were up, but down is always a possibility as the economy continues to struggle.”

Also making the faculty inbox rounds this week was an email from Pat Van Zandt, the Dean of University Libraries, showing part of the effect of this year’s budget cuts.

According to the email, the Charles C. Sherrod Library canceled its subscription to some infrequently used electronic databases and journals and 75 print journals to help cope with the cuts and the increasing costs of maintaining the subscriptions.

Among the cancellations were the ATLA Religion Database, VAST: Academic Video Online, Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period and Sage Research Methods.

“We know that, unfortunately, the cancellation of any resource may be a hardship for someone, and we deeply regret any inconvenience this has caused,” the email read.

Likewise, a notice on the university’s Research Development Committee’s website attributed to Chairman David Hurley cites the cuts as explanation for the closure this year of the committee’s small grant program.

The grants were used to help researchers with the costs of travel to present findings, meet with collaborators or for certain pieces of equipment.

The 1.5 percent mandated cut has meant adjustments for all of the departments, Collins said, but that’s the nature of across-the-board reductions.

“We’re looking at anything from fuel to keeping paper usage down,” he said. “Every department has pitched in.”

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