Editorial: We need to talk about CWRU’s budget

Editorial Board

By most measures, Case Western Reserve University is in a pretty good financial position. Since President Barbara Snyder’s “Forward Thinking” campaign raised $1.82 billion for the university, CWRU has seen a flurry of capital improvements, with a new university center and new walkways all being built over the past decade. Recently we’ve seen renovations to the Fribley Commons, refurbishments to the Case Quad and the start of construction for two completely new residence halls in the South Residential Village. We will also soon see a new $300 million research building joining campus in the coming years.

Looking from the outside, the university seems to be flush with cash. President Eric Kaler himself told The Observer in April, “now we’re emerging into a situation in which our budget is as strong as I think it’s maybe ever been, certainly in the past 20 years.” But taking a deeper look into CWRU beyond all the shiny new buildings, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Over the past few years, there have been consistent reports of staff turnover due to the salaries that CWRU provides their professors and administrators. As they walk out the door, the university loses years of institutional knowledge and valued community members. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been staff shortages throughout CWRU, forcing resources that used to be available to students 24/7, like Kelvin Smith Library, to be more limited. Additionally due to staff shortages, there have been delays to the re-opening of Eldred Theater as a student center. Several departments across campus—which directly impact student life—have been chronically understaffed compared to the scale of their work, including University Health and Counseling Services and University Housing.

Beyond community assets, it seems that there is a disparity between how resources are allocated across CWRU’s academic departments. Some departments struggle to maintain their programs and attract new professors while other departments seem to always be launching new ventures and buying new equipment. All of this comes down to how our university budgets its money. 

It is important to note that the vast majority of CWRU’s finances is restricted to certain activities and parts of the university due to the way the endowment was funded. As such, even though we raised over $1 billion under President Snyder, those funds can only be used for certain projects, such as new building constructions or creating new greenways; these are ones that donors love to fund and it’s easy for their names to adorn them. Therefore, our university only has a little amount of unallocated money that they can use for discretionary purposes. This makes it difficult for the president or a provost to plug gaps or fix issues across the university as needed. Even though there is no clear solution to this—we need donors and our endowment to survive as an institution—the distribution and stipulations of these funds lead to a variety of issues.

Since CWRU itself does not fund all of their divisions using their central funds, the university employs a system known as Responsibility Center Management (RCM). To put it simply, RCM is a budgeting model where each division is forced to generate its own revenue and manage their expenditures by themselves. As CWRU puts it, their budget uses a “decentralized structure with the philosophy that each management center is responsible for the planning and implementation of academic programs, revenue development and expense management.” This means that the dean of each division—including the College of Arts and Sciences, the Case School of Engineering, etc.—is essentially responsible for procuring their own funds and must, therefore, prioritize programs that produce the most revenue.

The system was set up in the 1970s as a way of dealing with the financial problems right after the federation of CWRU in 1967, and was created as a way to link income together with the people in charge of spending decisions to prevent unmitigated expenses. At that point in time, it was relatively rare for deans to be responsible for raising revenue. Provosts typically provided spending budgets for the year, and the deans did not have to worry about where the money came from. After the 1970s, the deans were not only responsible for spending but also for raising revenue through tuition, grants, research funding, endowment incomes, etc. that would support those expenditures. That model has been in place ever since, albeit with modifications, even though we no longer have the same concerns about having a runaway budget that existed in the late 1960s.

This budgetary structure inherently leads to issues with fairness and priority. Different academic departments have various financial focuses—for example, the School of Medicine raises more research funding than the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, thus having more significant revenue to spend on themselves. However, CWRU evaluates them on the same basis, with both expected to return to the university with balanced budgets. This further incentivizes the university’s separate schools and their deans to prioritize programs that bring them weighty revenue.

Though biology and philosophy are both under the College of Arts and Sciences, biology will always bring in more revenue for the school than philosophy might, so the dean has every reason to create a more extensive biology department and ignore issues within the philosophy department. The treatment of each school as a revenue-generating unit rather than an academic center that exists to foster a diverse mix of fields leads to inequitable treatment. 

There’s a reason why humanities students feel like they are being shortchanged compared to STEM students. There’s a reason why they feel like their disciplines aren’t being considered equally. How does an institution subsidize some of its schools but not others, and where do they get those subsidies from? When deans treat their academic departments as ways to balance budgets, it will inevitably lead to equity issues. Just because one department doesn’t raise as much money as another doesn’t mean it isn’t as valuable—yet our university’s budget seems to say just that.

Our budgetary structure has departments jockeying for funds and coming up with ways to maximize their own profits, leading to worse outcomes for both the university and its students. CWRU students deserve to have a multi-faceted campus, with strengths across all disciplines. The point of merging Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University was to make a well-rounded institution that prioritizes STEM and humanities fields, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case today. Furthermore, our decentralized operations make it harder for our administrators to genuinely solve problems across the university due to their limited resources. 

All this amounts to a worse experience for CWRU’s staff, faculty and students, perpetuating a corporate atmosphere within the university. We are no longer living in the 1970s, and our budget should not reflect that era either, especially considering present financial resources. We need to think beyond and draw more attention to the current financial dynamics if we want CWRU to become better than what it is today. And we need our administration to feel the same way.