Survival Finances and the University Budget: Life in the Balance

By Thomas B. Curran, S.J.

“Life in the balance” is the mantra used by NCAA Division II schools, of which we at Rockhurst are a member. The NCAA claims that this is more than a mantra; it is their “way of proceeding.” This approach for our student athletes also resonates with how our institution attempts to proceed in the Jesuit enterprise of higher education.

Our way of proceeding is a matter of balancing two particular core values: cura personalis and cura apostolica. Cura personalis describes care for the whole person, which is accurate, but it is more than that. All of the Jesuit works are rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The goal of these Exercises is union with God, the end for which we are created. Cura personalis, in its origins, is the mutual concern expressed and manifested between the spiritual director and the one making the exercises. Simply put, they are companions on this journey in the experience of God.

Cura apostolica is the care for the apostolate, the work, or the enterprise. Rockhurst is one of the smaller Jesuit universities. Additionally, it is deemed by the Carnegie classifications in the category of Master’s Colleges & Universities: Larger Programs, based on the number of degrees we offer on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In our Jesuit status as well as in our academic classification, we need to demonstrate cura apostolica. Caring for the apostolate means attending to our current budgetary concerns, as well as ensuring our sustainability in every sense of the word. It means living in the tension between the already and the not yet.

Father Curran celebrating mass at Rockhurst University.

Father Curran celebrating mass at Rockhurst University.

Here are two examples of how we practice living in that tension. The first is found in the creation of our annual operating budget. This begins with identifying priorities. Salary increases, market adjustments, and striving toward living wages are among our top priorities. These are the first items placed into our budget, and they are the last that come out when there need to be reductions or cuts in expenses. As a smaller, tuition-driven institution, equipped with a very modest endowment, we have no other major sources of revenue. We achieve a yearly balanced budget by making sure several key financial indicators perform positively. We have little, if any, margin for errors or poor performance in the key indicators.

In some instances, we had to reduce the percentage of increase, substitute it with a bonus, or outright delay it. The reason was always the same: balancing this desire of cura personalis against the pressures and requirements placed upon the institution in its practice of cura apostolica. Attention to ratios given by our accrediting agencies, credit ratings expected by our lending institutions, or ratings from the Department of Education alert us to external criteria as part of our overall care for the institution, but they are not sufficient in themselves. An unbalanced budget and negative rating in any of these measures could result in serious harm to the university’s reputation and its ability to recruit students. This places even greater pressure upon the university. An inability to keep the university viable makes the practice of cura personalis a moot point.

The second example is when an institution has reached a point where a restructuring is necessary. Without a major overhaul, including the need for a reduction in force, that is, layoffs, the continuation of the apostolate itself would be in jeopardy. In this scenario, the tension of attending to both cura personalis and cura apostolica could not be more urgent. Thoughtful and intentional action in both values is consistent with our identity as a Jesuit university. Attention must be given to both. Those who will no longer be part of the enterprise should expect the following: generous severance packages; counseling; and an engagement with agencies for retooling and professional career development.

If we hire for mission, the corollary is to follow our mission when we say goodbye to our companions in our Jesuit enterprise. It is not a pleasant time for anyone. However, the university must address the acute need to live within its means. Doing so will position the apostolate to survive the crisis and then grow it into a stronger university that returns to demonstrating cura personalis with salary increases and professional development.

So living in the balance is a challenge across our university. In order to have credibility everywhere in our work, Rockhurst needs to show how it balances the demonstration of cura personalis with cura apostolica. It is our way of proceeding and moving toward the end for which we were founded. This is our Jesuit way of giving greater glory to God.

Fr. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., is the president of Rockhurst University.