Budget Cuts Cause WCU to Suspend Summer Commencement

Western Carolina University’s summer commencement ceremony scheduled for Aug. 7 has been suspended in preparation for projected cuts in state-appropriated funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The temporary discontinuation of the smallest of the university’s three annual commencement exercises is among cost-cutting measures designed to produce efficiencies and trim expenses while preserving mission-critical services and protecting faculty and staff positions during the ongoing economic downturn, WCU Chancellor John Bardo said.

About 350 candidates for degrees took part in last year’s August commencement event. The number of participants ballooned to about 700 in December and approximately 1,150 in May.

“We certainly understand that this step will affect a number of our students and their families,” Bardo said. “This decision in no way diminishes the hard work, the determination, and the hours of study that have enabled these students to complete their degree requirements. It simply is a sign of our turbulent economic times.”

The decision, recommended by the university’s commencement committee and endorsed by the Student Government Association, comes after serious discussions and with considerable input from all campus constituencies, he said. The move will not affect spring commencement ceremonies, set for May 8-9, or fall exercises, to be held Dec. 19. “Although we will be unable to hold a ceremony this August, those students who complete their degree requirements this summer certainly will be graduates of the university,” Bardo said. “They will receive their diplomas as they normally would, and we invite them to return to campus to participate in our December ceremony.”

Regardless of the number of participants in the ceremony – and the size of the audience on hand to watch – the expense of mounting such events remains fairly constant, said Fred Hinson, senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and chair of the commencement committee.

“There are costs incurred in staffing the event, setting up and taking down the stage, providing traffic and parking control, and printing the programs,” Hinson said.

In addition to considering the relatively small size of the summer ceremony, university administrators also took into account the fact that reductions in the work force and employee furloughs may affect the number of employees available to do the work necessary to stage the event. Furloughs, if approved by the General Assembly as a way to deal with the budget situation, would probably occur during the summer months, when fewer students are on campus, Bardo said.

Temporary suspension of the summer commencement ceremony is one of several steps Western Carolina is taking to deal with the budget crisis. All University of North Carolina campuses and all state agencies already have experienced significant appropriation reversions during the current fiscal year. Along with all other UNC system campuses, WCU is developing plans to address possible budget reductions of 3 percent, 5 percent and 7 percent in permanent state funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year. WCU administrators also are developing a budget reduction scenario of 8 percent, in case economic conditions continue to worsen.

Officials at Western Carolina are attempting to find ways to reduce costs while having a minimal impact on faculty, staff and services to students, Bardo said. “We are determined to maintain the long-established quality of a Western Carolina education,” he said.

In addition to the temporary suspension of summer commencement, other steps taken to trim expenses and improve efficiencies include a freeze on hiring for most campus positions, reorganization of some university offices, postponement of a Chancellor’s Speaker Series event, cancellation of an annual holiday gathering, restrictions on travel and purchases, and transformation of a printed faculty-staff newsletter into an online publication.