By Stephen Neukam
Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo laid out a framework for how the university can respond to the financial challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic through budgetary belt-tightening, including the possibility of layoffs, in an interview with The Rider News on Sept. 9.
In the interview, held just weeks after the school unveiled projections of a $17 million budget deficit next year, Dell’Omo detailed the difficulties ahead and signaled a willingness for deeper and more sustained cost-cutting in the near future.
Dell’Omo, who said last year at a town hall that the deficits the university had been running were unsustainable, faces a tight financial situation with not many immediate remedies, saying, “you can’t solve this problem overnight.”
While revenues plunged, losing over $6 million in the spring semester alone, the university took steps to cut costs, including staff furloughs and administrative salary reductions. Dell’Omo admitted that “we have to continue to tighten our belt.”
This includes layoffs, the possibility of which is being evaluated, according to Dell’Omo. He did not specify if this move was on the table for staff or faculty.
Faculty union president Arthur Taylor, on information systems and supply chain management professor, criticized Dell’Omo’s suggestion that layoffs may be needed, saying the president’s “leadership is a concern.”
Taylor pointed out that the union warned against the underlying budgetary issues in a 2016 no-confidence vote, which took exception to Dell’Omo’s financial decisions, including the unsuccessful attempt to sell Westminster Choir College and the 2015 move to hand down faculty layoffs, which were averted only when faculty voted to give back all raises.
While trimming the budget may help offset some of the immediate impacts of the coronavirus, the real challenge is to grow revenues in the long term for sustainable budgeting, a difficulty across higher education given shifting demographics and increased competition.
Rider has taken steps to invest in career success services to raise the value of the university’s education. The school also recently unveiled a new pricing model that will cut the sticker price of tuition by over $10,000 for new students next year, but maintain the net price in an attempt to be more attractive to families.
Even with these efforts, it will be a large task to boost tuition revenue. After 2024, projected enrollment declines sharply due to demographic shifts, dampening the prospects for increased revenue.
In-house spending decisions may be an important part of Rider’s response, but universities everywhere have been left largely helpless by a lagging and incomplete federal government response to the pandemic.
Since the federal coronavirus aid bill in March, which provided Rider with $3.6 million in support, universities have not been granted any more direct relief. Dell’Omo said that higher education is in need of help from the federal government but lamented that the need for a policy response has taken a backseat to the general election in November.
“With the challenges taking place between the Democrats and the Republicans and it being an election year, it seems like that’s gotten hijacked in the politics of the time,” said Dell’Omo. “That is another area that we need a lot of help and support from.”
Where the university could see a large influx of cash is in the possible sale of the Princeton property that housed Westminster Choir College before the consolidation of both campuses to Lawrenceville. A controversial move, Dell’Omo said the plan is to sell the land but admitted that it would probably not happen until two lawsuits against the school regarding the consolidation are resolved.
While Dell’Omo did not disclose specific potential buyers, he said interest in the property “grows every day,” including from corporate entities seeking “prime real estate” in Princeton.
He maintained that the school’s preference is to keep five to six acres in Princeton to use for the Westminster Conservatory and university events.