In response to coronavirus crisis, Boise State will phase out staff contracts

Boise State University will eliminate annual contracts for staff members — a move that could allow the university to cut positions and lay off employees during a lengthy economic downturn.

The state’s largest university will require its professional staff to sign appointment letters with no set ending date. The move creates “an at-will employment relationship that provides additional flexibility,” Boise State President Marlene Tromp said in an email to staff Monday afternoon.

The move covers only professional staff — in essence, staffers who are on salary. It doesn’t affect faculty or hourly classified staff.

Like other colleges and universities across the state and country, Boise State is facing a short- and long-term financial crisis stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. Boise State has incurred nearly $10 million in losses, between refunding student fees and canceling spring and summer campus events.

But Monday’s move comes in the face of an increasingly grim fiscal future:

  • The 2020 college football season remains in limbo. A canceled or shortened season could cost Boise State tens of millions of dollars in lost revenues from TV, ticket sales and concessions.
  • All state agencies could face additional budget cuts or holdbacks. All agencies are being told to write budgets factoring for a 5 percent revenue cut — which could equate to a $5 million cut at Boise State.
  • An ongoing pandemic could force colleges and universities to adopt new health guidelines for classrooms and campuses, which could “shape the student experience in new and previously unimagined ways,” Tromp said.
  • Fall enrollment remains a huge unanswered question, for Boise State and other universities. Tromp cited a recent national study that suggests that 22 percent of students are considering not returning to college in the fall. For out-of-state students, who account for nearly a third of Boise State’s enrollment, that number could be even higher.

“Unfortunately, we have little choice in how to prepare for these contingencies — and little time to respond to the new data that is emerging every day,” Tromp wrote.

The shift to at-will employment gives the university added staffing flexibility, but Tromp said she couldn’t rule out other budget-cutting measures. If enrollment drops, the university might need to cut positions or staff hours or impose furloughs.

Just one week ago, Boise State announced unpaid furloughs for much of its staff, an attempt to cover short-term cashflow problems.

The furloughs cover employees making more than $40,000 a year — including university staff and faculty members on 12-month contracts. Furloughs will range from four to 10 unpaid days, with higher-paid employees taking more furlough days. This furlough period runs through July 31.

“We hope that furloughing will, in the end, help us protect jobs and keep all of our units intact and up and running,” Tromp said in an April 20 email to staff.

Tromp’s email

Here, in full, is Tromp’s Monday email to university employees:

I know you are hearing from me an extraordinary amount these days — but these days, indeed, are extraordinary.

I want to sincerely thank you for the way you have faced the financial hardships that come with any furlough plan. Given the millions of dollars in losses this global pandemic has already inflicted on Boise State, this step was vital.

And I want to, once again, express my gratitude and my genuine awe at how devoted, creative and effective you all have been in a crucial time for our campus and our communities — in your approaches to teaching, student support, research, service, health and safety, and so much more.

In the wake of the immediate crisis through which we’re navigating, we must now turn our attention to the future and together face the serious challenge of the most unpredictable and uncertain fall term many of us will have ever encountered.

Put bluntly, we face uncertainty across our organization — and our decisions will be greatly influenced by several things we simply cannot control.

If the NCAA or our conference cancel or shorten the football season, that could cost the university tens of million of dollars in lost television, ticket and concession revenues. Economic impacts in Idaho could force additional state holdbacks and budget cuts. A continued disruption of housing and dining services will have serious impacts on our budget. Evolving public health guidelines about the relative safety of classrooms and public spaces will shape the student experience in new and previously unimagined ways.

We simply cannot predict how our students and prospective students will approach their college decisions in light of the ongoing disruption caused by COVID-19. Stark new data has emerged in recent days on student attitudes towards returning to university in the fall. A national study suggests that 22 percent of students are considering not returning to school in the fall. This number could be much higher for out-of-state students, which account for about one third of our student population. These projections, if borne out, could result in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Unfortunately, we have little choice in how to prepare for these contingencies — and little time to respond to the new data that is emerging every day. Our trustees on the State Board have advised, and I concur, that at the end of the current contract year, universities should consider moving away from annual contracts for professional staff and instead issue appointment letters with no specified end date, creating an at-will employment relationship that provides additional flexibility. Such flexibility could be critical in staving off other, more drastic measures in the event of a significant enrollment decline.

To that end, later today, professional staff will receive a notice that their current annual contract is being replaced with an offer of at-will employment beginning after the end of the current contract year. This change applies to professional staff only — faculty and classified staff will see no change in their employment agreements at this time. Human Resources has created a FAQ page with information about this transition, and will host multiple town-hall meetings in the coming weeks to answer questions about this transition and other employment issues related to COVID-19. Please do not hesitate to call on them, your supervisor or your divisional leadership with questions or concerns.

I want to acknowledge the foresight and thoughtfulness of the Boise State Professional Staff Association leadership, who, in the wake of a serious conversation about the challenges ahead of us, voted last week to endorse this plan to replace our traditional 12-month contract system for professional staff with an appointment letter.

This change to our employment process does not eliminate the possibility that a steep decline in student enrollment may require additional short furloughs, furloughs of a longer duration, permanent salary or hour reductions, or the elimination of positions filled by valued colleagues. The move away from annual contracts will give the university the maximum flexibility necessary to address financial challenges in a way that may actually protect jobs and each division’s ability to continue to do its important work. Depending on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, our trustees on the State Board could take the grave step of declaring a financial exigency, which indicates a state so dire that it threatens the survival of the institution as a whole. This would create similar, temporary rules for faculty and classified staff, but could also have a significant negative impact on our institution’s national profile.

It is possible that Boise State will not experience the full extent of these losses. Our new students have expressed real excitement about becoming Broncos! (Many hundreds of students attended the amazing Virtual Bronco Day created by our staff, students and faculty!) It is also possible that more Treasure Valley students who considered leaving to attend school out of state will opt to stay home for college instead. In addition, economic downturns tend to drive returning adults back to college for retraining and new credentials. And, our football team is fired up to get on the field. These things give us reasons to be hopeful, but we must be prepared for an uncertain future as well.

We have been in active dialogue with, and are making our case to our congressional delegation, who no doubt will be crafting and debating federal relief packages over the next several months; our state leaders, who had the foresight to save millions of dollars in state rainy-day funds; and our generous donors, alumni and corporate partners, who will play an ever-greater role in funding the kind of innovative, path-breaking public higher education Boise State offers. They recognize that the university must be able to adapt, survive and thrive after we count all fall students in our annual assessment of enrollment in early September.

Our best hope in avoiding any serious consequences is to spend the next several months, using all the means that are available to us, confirming to students and families in Idaho and far beyond that Boise State University is the right choice, the right home, the best decision they can make in a troubled time. We know the life-changing positive impacts we can make as a university, and sharing that now is more important than ever.

We must all support our student recruitment and retention specialists, who will be working hard to show our prospective students how wonderful it is to be a Bronco, and to support our current students, so they have what they need to return to campus.

To be responsible, we must prepare for the worst, but as Broncos, we will devote every ounce of effort and ingenuity that we can to ensure the best outcomes.

We have an extraordinary mission: to change people’s lives, so they can change the world. I remain committed to seeing us emerge from these challenges as a stronger, healthier, and more innovative university. I know you are a critical part of that. We are a strong institution. Together, we can address any challenge we face.

With gratitude,
Dr. Marlene Tromp


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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