Frugal California University of Pennsylvania cuts back on spending, saves millions
Officials cite university as budget example for State System schools
October 7, 2013 4:00 AM
Cal U students board one of the Vulcan Flyers on Friday. Reducing the frequency of stops that the shuttle service runs was one way that the university was able to turn a deficit into a surplus.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Channel-surfing college football fans may notice one area team missing from this fall's TV lineup.
California University of Pennsylvania decided it no longer could justify spending up to $150,000 a season to produce and broadcast games played by its Division II Vulcans football team -- not with classroom cuts looming.
Suddenly frugal Cal U also pared service on its Vulcan Flyer, a shuttle named for the school's mascot that used to leave campus stops every 10 minutes. Students now wait a bit longer, saving Cal U half a million dollars.
Still more money -- another $1.6 million -- was recouped by telling campus departments to return unspent money at year's end, suspending a practice that had let them amass surpluses, even in years that the university tapped reserves to balance its books.
These are a few of the ways, big and small, that a university once slammed for excessive spending managed in months to turn an $11.8 million deficit into a $5.8 million surplus. It enabled interim Cal U President Geraldine Jones to do this fall what some university presidents across the State System of Higher Education could not: pledge no professor layoffs.
State System officials have said Cal U's situation is not necessarily applicable to the 13 other member universities.
Many of them already have moved aggressively to tackle their individual budget challenges including announced plans to cut under-enrolled majors and faculty teaching in them. In 10 years, the schools collectively have mustered $230 million in savings, spokesman Kenn Marshall said.
Still, the deep and swift reductions Cal U made in its 2012-13 budget have left some wondering if the system ought to look closer for additional budget fat in its other universities, if not to save faculty jobs, then to minimize student tuition and fee increases.
"At a minimum, what Cal U did should be shared with other universities throughout the State System to see what could be saved," said Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
Such cuts might not be possible at other institutions, he said, but the public's mood obligates the system to take a look.
"It doesn't matter what area of state government. The reality is the public is demanding us to get the maximum amount of investment for the dollars we have," he said.
Figures provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggest Cal U found savings in seemingly every corner of campus, from the volume of plumbing supplies it stocks to what it spends to feed donors to the amount it pays to advertise.
"Basically, what they are trying to do is create a new paradigm where you spend what's necessary, but you don't spend money just because you can," Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl said.
Ms. Jones, who declined to be interviewed for this story, put it more bluntly earlier this semester during a speech to employees in which she repeated a promise to return Cal U's focus to its core academic mission.
"For too many years, wishful thinking has taken the place of sound fiscal management at Cal U," she said.
Her predecessor, longtime president Angelo Armenti Jr., was fired in May 2012 by the State System. No reason was given for the move, which came amid escalating campus debt, complaints about spending on nonacademic endeavors and release of a system report questioning certain financial practices at Cal U.
In the months that followed, a sluggish economy, state appropriations cuts and declining enrollment became an increasingly visible drag on the State System. So far this fall, Clarion, Edinboro and Mansfield universities have announced program cuts and plans to lay off employees, including nearly 100 professors.
At Cal U, frugality trumped some popular campus traditions.
For years, the traveling Smithsonian Exhibitions engaged the campus and surrounding community with displays ranging from native American ironworkers and views of the solar system to Pirates great Roberto Clemente. But at $570,000 a year, the Smithsonian/Special Initiatives program became expendable.
"They were wonderful exhibitions. We had children here by the busload," Ms. Kindl said. "It was great to be able to offer that as a resource to the community, but it was not cost-effective."
Also eliminated were dinners for curators, artists and others that accompanied those exhibitions -- all part of a $200,000 reduction in what Cal U spends on food for alumni, donors and other special campus guests at events often held at the university's Kara Alumni House, Ms. Kindl said.
Cal U saved $3.6 million by halting all but emergency spending from May 13 to the June 30 end of the fiscal year, and another $2.4 million by leaving campus positions unfilled.
Athletic spending was slashed by $1.4 million, including $500,000 in personnel decisions such as leaving some coaching and athletic fundraising positions vacant, Ms. Kindl said.
"We cut way back on our video production," she said. "We decided it was not essential."
The school slashed supply costs by $1.8 million; cut TV, radio, print and other marketing costs by $1.4 million; and reduced printing and copying costs by $400,000.
The university cut its alumni magazine, Cal U Review, from four yearly issues to three, and the school's weekly newsletter now publishes every other week.
Cal U saved another $290,000 by eliminating an online undergraduate leadership program based on the principles of the late Stephen R. Covey. It had been subsidized by a $74 fee charged to all students.
"It was not popular. We discontinued the program and also the fee," Ms. Kindl said.
Losing that fee went over well with students. Still, some say life on a more frugal campus is an adjustment, be it the reduced free printing available or fewer trips by the Vulcan Flyer linking Cal U's main campus with its upper campus housing and sports fields.
The colorful buses have exteriors draped in cartoon-like images of Vulcan, a fire god from Roman mythology. They used to arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes off-peak until 1 a.m., but they now operate every 15 minutes during peak times and 20 minutes off-peak. Service ends two hours earlier at 11 p.m.
Alyssa Hirsh, 21, a senior from Pleasant Hills, said she has night classes, and the wait on campus for a bus can be nearly twice the posted schedule.
"I'm standing down there for an extended period and thinking 'Wow, I don't have money to buy a parking pass for campus. This stinks,' " she said.
Ms. Kindl said those reductions saved 450 operational hours and enabled Cal U to trim its fleet from eight to five vehicles.
Cal U also saved $520,000 by leasing less space in its Southpointe Center and used modified class scheduling to cut by $180,000 the "overload pay" to professors asked to teach more than 12 credit hours a semester.
Michael Slavin, faculty union president at Cal U and a past critic of the university's spending habits, said Ms. Jones succeeded by making hard decisions. "She put academics over nonacademic spending," he said.
She also had help from $1.6 million in greater-than-expected income tied to enrollment, housing and investments.
Even with the cuts, noticeable reminders of a different era at Cal U remain. A $175,000 robotic cable-guided Wavecam purchased by the school in 2009 for overhead football photography went unused early this fall.
"Since the Wavecam company is out of business, we are trying to find another company to do the basic maintenance and inspection of this system," Ms. Kindl said.
A second, $172,000 Wavecam earmarked for Cal U's convocation center was nixed. "The contract was canceled before the camera was received." she said.