Budgeting for Ursinus’ Future

Marie Sykes masykes@ursinus.edu

President Hannigan, who reminds students to call her Robyn, met with the Ursinus Student Senate on November 2 to discuss Ursinus’ financial status and plans to move the college forward into its next era. The main takeaway? She plans to diversify our income stream through the management of our current properties as well as changing overall policies to improve the quality of life on campus, particularly for students.

Despite the rumors that float around saying Ursinus is in financial trouble, Ursinus is faring better than most similar colleges, Robyn says. Ursinus just about breaks even in the end financially, even with the deficit the college has operated in since 2016 of somewhere between $2-5 million each year, which is recuperated annually through withdrawals from the endowment and donations. The college has withdrawn 5.7% (instead of the recommended 3-5%). Ursinus’ only debt comes from the IDC bond, a $10 million debt which the college has already allocated the money to pay off in 2026. Despite all of this, the college has not borrowed against its credit or borrowed anything in order to keep the college functioning. Moving past Covid, the college is comparatively financially well-off compared to similarly-sized liberal arts colleges, according to Robyn, who was hired to “bring us back on-board.”

Ursinus operates with a budget of roughly $65 million, the funds for which are primarily collected through student tuition and room/board payments, and Robyn states it is “to the credit of the faculty and the staff that we are able to accomplish what we can” with this budget. With slim margins, there are some costs that do get shoved to the side, such as our depreciation budget. Each year the budget allocates money so that when facilities and equipment need repairs or replace- ments, there is the money to pay for them. However, the college currently budgets $1 million each year when it should budget $5 million a year, and has done this for a few years. Robyn did clarify in the senate meeting that student club funding will not change from years prior.

So what is new with the budget? To begin, Robyn is moving the annual budget meeting to the summer so the budget is approved prior to the school year beginning. Second, students learned that Ursinus owns the majority of Main Street. She discussed the possibility of the area between Second and Fifth avenues being rezoned from half residential-commercial and half-residential to entirely residential-commercial to promote more businesses moving into the area. She also posed the idea of selling a few of the properties in order to reinvest the money into other properties and projects such as installing air conditioning in Main Street houses. There is currently a public comment period on the rezoning of Main Street, at which current residents will discuss these changes. Robyn did clarify “we don’t want to be Phoenixville or Skippack. We want something that is college town but very reflective of Collegeville.” She also mentioned wanting there to be more high-end housing options in Collegeville, and for there to be more of a community for students to want to continue to live in after they graduate.

Another way Robyn suggested Ursinus could expand its income is through growing the student body, which was met with concern for what it meant to stay a residential liberal arts college. She said that she wished to ensure Ursinus stayed a liberal arts college and that she wants to increase the structures for student support so everyone can feel supported coming to campus, whether they are a commuter or on a sports team or any sort of combination. Over the meetings, she repeatedly recognized that student athletes carry advantages in regards to support systems that other students don’t have, which leads to a higher average GPA. Immediately upon entering the college, they have a group of peers and staff that check in on them and make sure they’re on top of their coursework. She says she wants “EVERY student” to have this support system on a more comprehensive level, regardless of their “affinities.”

One limit to student expansion is housing. Currently 91% of the student body is residential, but Robyn seemed open to lifting the on-campus housing requirement for juniors and seniors, dependent on community input. She posed the idea of building an apartment building for student housing, but that partnering with a firm to do so would be most possible if they could see the student body was growing.

Much-needed changes to the meal plan were discussed, to the delight of the student audience. Robyn called our current meal plan “bizarre” and wishes to change that as soon as possible. She wants to implement meal plans at different prices and work with Sodexo to change the available options as well as Lower Wismer. One exciting specific possibility is that she wishes to get Sodexo partner businesses to accept dining dollars and to encompass Marzella’s within that. The meal plan prices will not likely change for at least another year, but the other changes are already in their early stages and will “really begin moving” in this next semester and summer with Dean of Students Missy Bryant’s guidance.

Other notable budget items included athletics. Robyn plans to returf Patterson Field sometime this year and to turf Wilkes Field next year. Patterson is at the end of its life cycle, and the Wilkes returfing is to help expand the rugby program and give them a place to play on campus. The tennis court renovations will be finished this year as well, and the track will be renovated alongside Patterson Field. That will in turn free up more land off-campus to lease to a company for development. She clarified that this will not affect the organic farm or the cross country team’s use of Hunsberger Woods, especially since Ursinus doesn’t “own Hunsberger Woods so [Robyn] can’t sell that. [She] would love to, that’s a lot of money,” she joked in the senate meeting. She had a vision of building a sort of apartment building or retirement home where the current rugby field is now, which would provide student housing, work experience, or another stream of revenue for the college.

The question of how the new president viewed the liberal arts was posed, and Robyn followed up after the meeting by stating, “the liberal arts are more relevant than ever. But Ursinus is, for me, not just about the liberal arts, but rather how we challenge ourselves to think beyond liberal arts.” Her definition and the community’s definition will dictate how Ursinus moves forward in the future, especially since she did repeatedly refer to Ursinus as a “business.”

She ended the follow-up by saying “higher education is a promise [which] enriches the individual, their family, community, and society towards prosperity and justice for all.” She clarified that she holds a “contemporary view” of the liberal arts, “one that maintains and grows the experiences that manifest new knowledge in service of a better future for all.”