About a decade of “emergency-style budgeting” at Delta State University has all but maxed out its credit and created an $11 million hole that is poised to be an unavoidable existential threat.
Fixing the budget won’t be easy, Daniel Ennis, the new president, warned the campus during a town hall on Thursday. It must happen within five years and will require across-the-board cuts, including to salaries and positions, in part because the regional college’s single-best source of revenue — enrollment — has cratered by 48% in the last 16 years.
“Delta State has to exist,” Ennis said. “It must — for the Delta, for the region and for the state.”
The grim update comes a week after Ennis spoke to the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees during its annual retreat, which was held this year at the White House Hotel in Biloxi. Unlike most IHL board meetings, the retreats are not live-streamed.
“If I’m giving this information to the IHL, I should give it to you and then give you the opportunity to ask questions,” Ennis told the campus.
Though he presented roughly the same information at both events, Ennis expanded on the situation in Biloxi, telling trustees that he likely won’t be able to reduce the university’s budget from $51 million to $40 million without becoming the “most unpopular president in Delta State’s history.”
“I don’t care as long as there is another president at Delta State,” he said.
Al Rankins, the IHL commissioner, was also forthright about the stakes: “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing more important than the financial health” of Delta State.
“You have my support,” Rankins added, “because … any friends you have, you’re going to lose them.”
Delta State isn’t alone in some of the issues it faces — colleges across the country are struggling with declining enrollment and its resulting financial woes.
Much of that is outside Delta State’s control. The downturn in undergraduate students correlates “almost perfectly” with population loss in the Mississippi Delta, Ennis said at the town hall. In 2006, when the university had 3,298 undergraduate students, about 70% were from the Mississippi Delta — a percentage that has dropped to just over half of the 1,708 undergraduate students this year.
But, Ennis added, the university’s budget problems are largely self-inflicted. The budget is around $51 million when it should be more like $40 million.
In his first four months in office, Ennis said he found inadequate spending controls and contracted but unbudgeted expenses, such as an employee on payroll who had been hired with pandemic relief funds that had run out. The university repeatedly overestimated its revenue from facilities, merchandise and other non-tuition sources.
“The running of deficits year after year has eaten into our reserves,” he said.
And there were a number of “unexpected” and costly legal and personnel issues, which Ennis said weren’t clear to him when he applied for the job. Among those issues was a lawsuit from a former Iranian art professor who alleged he was discriminated against by the Turkish department chair. In late July, the university decided to settle after a federal court decided the case could go to trial.
“Every university and every large organization has legal and personnel issues,” Ennis said. “There was just, I thought, an unusual number for the size of the institution.”
In his first month of the job, Ennis said he had to find $1 million so the university could meet its statutory obligation to balance the books.
“I had one night of sleep and then the next day we’re in a new fiscal year with a new deficit already in place,” he said. “So, a challenge. Not what I expected, but that’s where we are.”
Though enrollment appears to be on the slight uptick — mainly due to an increase in graduate students — the university won’t clear its financial hurdles through better recruitment alone.
Delta State’s location in Cleveland puts it in a kind of double-bind: It exists to serve the Delta, but there are increasingly less people in the Delta.
“You should be really proud of the fact that you work at a place that cares about a disadvantaged group of people in a part of America that many folks write off or don’t even think about,” Ennis said. “The challenge is, if your investment is in recruiting students from the Delta, and the Delta writ-large is losing population at an alarming rate — for reasons that have nothing to do with Delta State and everything to do with social economic opportunity in other parts of the United States, then you can see we have declined.”
There has to be more fundraising, Ennis said. Delta State should be receiving more federal funding. He also committed to doubling the university’s capital campaign to $100 million. Though unorthodox, Ennis said this is his only chance to increase the endowment.
There will also be cuts that Ennis said will be decided through a budget committee composed of administrators, faculty and staff.
But individual sacrifices will have to be made, Ennis said. He tried to encourage everyone to not turn against each other — or against him — when it comes time for budget cuts.
“At a certain point there’s going to be less of everything,” he said. “Personnel, money, equipment and opportunities because we have to right-size the budget. And there’ll be all kinds of temptation to start thinking about my area, my budget, my place, my stakes.”
When Ennis took questions, Don Allan Mitchell, an English professor, said he understood that “everything is on the table” but wanted to know specifically if Ennis will also consider cuts from the presidential and vice presidential level. Ennis said yes.
Jamie Dahman, a professor who joined the music department in 2016, thanked Ennis for his seeming honesty and transparency.
“That’s something that’s been missing from Delta State leadership since I’ve been here,” he said.