WMU's Safe Return Plan and the latest updates on personnel, budget

Dear colleagues,

Today I’m pleased to share our University’s Safe Return Plan. With a month and a half to go before we start the fall semester, we have a strong plan that will allow us to come back together on Sept. 2. Its development demonstrates our shared commitment to this community. It is the culmination of a continuing effort by a broad group of individuals who have studied the data, consulted with health experts, thought carefully and planned accordingly at a time when we all want answers quickly.

This effort was enriched, informed and influenced by the questions and suggestions of everyone who participated in town halls, sent emails and made phone calls. Please join me in thanking the Fall Contingency Task Force and the COVID-19 Response Coordination Team for coordinating and leading the effort to develop this plan.

This data-driven, public health-informed, collaborative approach is important in fostering a safe campus and supporting a strong academic year. The keys to its success are within our grasp with some fairly simple steps. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Treat each other with respect and consideration.

While we continue to confront a world with great uncertainty, I am looking forward to a great year on our campus. Our teaching, research and engagement will no doubt have a profound impact on our students and community.

I also want to provide you with an update on several administrative matters. We now have some budget information from the state and, while not complete, we have finalized many stages of our personnel plans.

Budget Update

In May, we projected that in fiscal year 2020-21 we would face between a $45 million and $85 million budget shortfall. As a result of the magnitude of these cuts, we began planning for the worst case even as we hoped for better news in the fall. While actual fall enrollment is still unknown at this time, current state budget information and our enrollment trends suggest that our base budget shortfall will be near the $85 million estimate.

Gov. Whitmer and legislative leaders reached a bipartisan budget agreement for necessary cuts to balance the state’s 2019-20 fiscal year budget. State baseline funding for public universities will be reduced by approximately 11%, which is about $12.4 million to Western’s operating budget. Keep in mind that while this cut is for the WMU fiscal year that ended on June 30, its effect will be felt in our 2020-21 base budget. And, as the state considers its 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, our new appropriation level, with the 11% cut, will likely become our new baseline budget. Further, given the state’s projected deficit, it is quite likely that higher education in Michigan will experience another state appropriation reduction that will impact our 2020-21 budget.

Despite this bad news with regard to state support for our base budget, we did receive news that we will receive federal CARES Act monies that the state has already obtained to help back fill the 2019-20 cut. It’s important to note that this is one-time money only. CARES Act funding must be spent on COVID-19-related expenses and comes with constraints that our state operational funding does not.

It remains too early to tell how enrollment will play out. Orientation, one of our key indicators of intent to enroll, is ongoing, and we continue to see movement across all classes as students and families finalize their decisions.

Personnel Update

We received 96 applications for the faculty Voluntary Retirement Incentive Program, which closed on June 30. Applications came from every college. While I’m sure we will have formal goodbyes, I want to thank those esteemed colleagues who decided to avail themselves of this plan for their service to our students and to making the world, and WMU, a better place.

The plan allows these 96 applicants a 45-day window to reconsider and withdraw if they so choose. As a result, we will not know the final number until the middle of August. This potential level of participation will certainly ease, but unfortunately will not eliminate, our budget pressures in meeting the $85 million shortfall. As a result, in mid-May the University took the step to notify all term faculty that they may be affected by a layoff. While no term faculty were laid off, we did not renew a number of contracts.

Among AFSCME employees, the reopening of in-person activity has allowed us to recall many of our custodial personnel. As a result, 130 cleaning professionals will be on hand, all year, keeping our campus safe and clean. We were also able to recall many of our maintenance employees to help us prepare for the start of fall semester. We also anticipate a significant recall of dining staff in a few weeks as well. The recall process takes several weeks and can generate a great deal of position transitioning, so a final picture will be available with fall semester.

Layoff notices for Staff Compensation System—SCS—employees are complete and the bumping process is complete in all divisions except our largest, Academic Affairs. Our best estimate is that all bumping will be complete by the end of July.

Based on seniority, the layoff notice periods for SCS staff vary widely, from four weeks to a full year advanced notice. Layoffs will take effect on or before the first week of class for about 100 staff members with four weeks to four months of notice.

The remaining staff have notice periods of six months or a full year before their layoffs take effect. During the fall semester, we will provide updated numbers for staff whose layoff notices are finalized.

These personnel changes have been extremely difficult for those affected and for our community. None of these difficult decisions were made lightly.  

Once again, I thank you for everything that you have done and are doing for WMU as we work through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will keep you apprised of further developments as we move into the coming academic year, and we welcome your continuing questions and ideas.


Edward Montgomery