Faculty call for investigation into management at Union Institute
Faculty at Union Institute & University are calling for a forensic fiscal audit of the school's management and operational oversight to resolve its financial difficulties, a press release from the faculty council says.
The council says trust with university leadership has been fractured. Many employees at Union Institute have not been paid for over two months and recently, workers' health care benefits were abruptly terminated without any notice.
Without pay or coverage, faculty say they can't pay their mortgages, utility bills, insurance bills, or cover daily expenses.
The goal of the audit is to find out why Union Institute's finances declined so rapidly in recent years. Since President Karen Schuster Webb began running the school in 2018, Union Institute has lost money each year, according to tax filings.
Forms filed by the university's former president Roger H. Sublett for the fiscal year ending in 2017 show the university had a net income of more than $220,000. Sublett retired at the end of June 2018 when Webb took over the top position.
Tax forms filed by Webb during her first full year in control show the school's income drop to a nearly $1.7 million deficit. The following year, Union Institute's net income worsened and sank to a more-than $2.5 million deficit by 2020. The most recent filing shows a smaller deficit of just over half a million dollars.
When many employees first became aware of the severity of the university's financial issues this spring, Webb initially told them it was caused by the school allowing students to not pay their tuition and stay enrolled. Multiple students and faculty now tell WVXU they don't buy this answer from Webb as an explanation for the financial shortfall. They say they've never heard of unpaid tuition being a widespread issue among students.
In the faculty council's news release, the council said it's seeking to add two faculty and two staff voting members selected by employees to the university's board of trustees to help select an independent auditor to conduct the investigation.
Faculty state they want to re-establish effective leadership and fiscal management to better position the university to serve its students.
Union Institute leadership announced earlier this month it was canceling its first fall term due to a lack of money. Students tell WVXU they haven't received their federal financial aid refunds yet and the university canceled classes to extend its deadline to pay students and avoid serious penalties from the Department of Education.
While the deadline is extended, students say they're facing many of the same challenges as faculty. Students who were depending on their federal loan dollars claim they're facing eviction and have had to take out additional loans just to get by.
In emails shared with WVXU, Jennifer Raymond, Union Institute's dean in the interdisciplinary studies program and leader of the newly formed sustainability and revitalization team, told students they would soon be losing access to their email accounts because the university had failed to pay some of its web providers. Faculty and students responded by creating their own list of personal email accounts to stay in touch.
According to a student who spoke with WVXU, email service at Union Institute was halted last week and later restored over the weekend.
Faculty will now await a response about the audit and the new additions to the board. Despite a lack of answers from the school's leadership, employees are still seeking immediate compensation and access to benefits, as well as loan reimbursements for students.
President Webb and Board of Trustees Chair Edgar Smith have not resigned, even though an overwhelming amount of faculty voted for their resignations over a month ago.
In the face of the university's troubles, employees have expressed solidarity with students and say they're still seeking to build a positive educational environment that serves students across all degree programs.
The faculty council wants to begin the investigation before state and federal bodies intervene at the institution. Union Institute's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, is planning a focused visit and audit of the university for Oct. 23.