Alumni and the BoT: the Update
Elieff Center, AUBG’s academic home in Sofia and headquarters to the university’s graduate EMBA program, provided the venue for the extraordinary first private meeting between AUBG alumni and members of the Board of Trustees(BoT) in recent years. Hosted by Acting President Dr. Steven Sullivan and joined by Provost Emilia Zankina, the official forum on Thursday, March 30, quickly turned into an open polemic and a personal accounting in defense of the decision-making motivation of the present leadership team and the Directors’ representatives. The meeting came two weeks after the AUBG Community Update on March 15 and marked an unprecedented communal backlash from both students and alumni attendees on the president and trustees’ legitimacy and standards of rulings.
Without prior notice to the alumni guests, the discussion remained unattended by Trustee Elvin Guri and Vice President for Finance and Administration Alexander Alexandrov. Nonetheless, the latter found time to respond to comments under the live stream video of the event which was broadcasted in the AUBG alumni Facebook group.
The alumni update was attended by Acting President Dr. Sullivan, Provost Zankina, Deputy Chair of the BoT Elena Poptodorova, BoT members Thomas Higgins, Iliya Lingorski, Reggie Chandra, and Vladimir Rusev, a BoT member and the president of the AUBG Alumni Association.
The thorough 3-hour dialogue between the 60 AUBG graduates and the seven chief executives addressed key institutional challenges, such as the continued annual shortcomings with the Enrollment Office’s low number of applicants and the recent success, but overall “chaotic” processes, of fundraising. The executive overview also included a dismissal of the rumors for the institution’s financial crisis, the election timeframe for nominating a new AUBG president, Sullivan’s personal stimuli to become an acting president, his stance on the new organizational structure set by former president Kulinski and the latest developments with AUBG’s restructuring process.
According to Boris Marinov, AUBG graduate from the class of 2015, the Board displayed low engagement in the communication.
“Their presence resulted more in a general discussion of the status of the university, rather than providing details and a clear course of action for the next steps,” said Marinov. “The present Board members did not seem completely dedicated to resolving the current issues with the university.”
Talks for the rationale of AUBG’s top governance body also included demands for immediate response to the trust crisis and “hostile” remarks towards transparency issues and the alleged managerial unaccountability. Alumni attendees further requested action from the Board of Trustees in response to the alumni letter and petition from March 29, asking for institutional changes and the prompt resignation of the Chair Ivan Manev, the Vice Chair Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, the Chair of Trustees Committee from the Board and the Vice President of Finance and Administration at AUBG Alexander Alexandrov.
The call for the alumni update meeting came in the month after the dismissal of former AUBG President Stratsimir Kulinski and the continued dissatisfaction with the BoT Chair Manev’s official response letters, as per alumni feedback. The tirade of the rhetoric added considerable gravity to three recurring questions:
- Why was former President Kulinski dismissed?
- What actions would the Board make to address the alumni letter from March 29?
- Who evaluates the job of the BoT?
While the questions remained either largely unaddressed or lost in the discussion overtalk, legal liability and the protection of the reputation of Kulinksi were two of the confessed reasons for the continuous information shutdown.
“The university is not in a financial crisis. We weren’t last year and we won’t be in the next year,” commented Sullivan. “We have been running balance operational budgets every year for the last 12 years. This year’s balance will be positive. We are more solvent now than we have been in our entire history.”
Sullivan further affirmed that the university is registering a surplus that is slightly higher than what was initially foreseen. He reinstated that the goal of AUBG is not to make profit because the university remains an educational non-profit organization. According to him, the endowment balance is closing on an estimated $25 million.
A number of alumni shared their disbelief of the financial data, justified with the absence of the CFO Alexandrov. Despite his top management role in the leadership team, Alexandrov opted to miss a second community meeting in the 2016-2017 academic year, after a personal excuse prevented his attendance at a Student Government meeting in the Fall 2016 semester. He has further remained a marginal participant in Kulinski’s last Town Hall meetings on Feb. 8 and Acting President Sullivan’s community update meeting on March 15.
“I told him[Alexander Alexandrov] not to come,” disclosed Sullivan. “This meeting was about us telling you what is happening at AUBG and how we are moving forward. If it is to throw bricks at Mr. Alexandrov, I didn’t want him drawn into that. I’m not interested in talking about a petition against Alexandrov[in reply to a faculty petition from 2015 asking for the resignation of the vice president] or what Facebook is saying about Mr. Alexandrov. I don’t really care[… ]I’m interested in his job performance and as far as I’m concerned his performance is just fine.”
An alumnus shared further a concern that the Ernst & Young consultancy services provided to AUBG over the years have allegedly shown too much concentration of power in the Vice President for Finance and Administration position.
Despite Alexandrov’s absence, Sullivan assured that the there will be no increase in tuition expenses and activities for students. The promise comes in hindsight of the February proposal to reduce fees that was later dismissed by Guri and the BoT.
“I think I can manage to reduce costs to the same degree,” commented Sullivan, comparing to the target for cost reduction set for the former president Kulinski. “$630,000 of annual cost is our goal. I have identified 80% of it.”
One of the two quantifiable challenges to the liberal arts institution continues to be the admissions on prospective students. The university has seen a gradual decrease of its student body size for the last five years, a drop from 1060 undergraduate students in 2011-2012 to a bare 917 for 2016-2017. The students income is now set to remain on the recruitment downslide as confirmed by Acting President Sullivan, whose talks with the Enrollment Office personnel have convinced him that the expected number of students for the 2017-2018 academic year would be between 180-200. Dr. Sullivan has regarded these prospects as a recruiting underachievement.
According to an earlier interview with Vice President Alexandrov, the university has been ready for the prospects of accommodating between 1400 and 1600 students in 2012, a strategic plan that would have allocated $3.6 million for a new wing of Skaptopara III.
Former president Kulinski’s inspection of the admissions projections over the 2015-2016 academic year has confirmed another downslide of forecasts for incoming students. Initially announced as 273 prospective students in the fall of 2015, the enrollment projections have leveled down to as little as 160 in the spring of 2016. Both Kulinski and BoT Delegate Elvin Guri have thus put personal goodwill over the professional job routine by calling prospective nearly 50 prospective students in an attempt to help resolve their financial restrains with an improved offer.
“A common theme that Admissions [Office] have heard of prospective students is that they have been lured by Denmark, Germany or the United Kingdom and student loans and that they don’t think of Bulgaria highly as a prospective educational ground,” commented Sullivan. “They think their future lies in leaving Bulgaria.”
The acting president added that the income of international students has been financially more burdening, ever since the Open Society Foundation, one of the biggest AUBG donors, have “winded down” their annual funding of $1 million for scholarships. At present, the university cannot afford to tempt students from countries like Georgia and Uzbekistan with the benefit of a milder financial offer.
Provost Zankina also reminded the alumni of the strong points in the cultural diversity of the student body. She referred to the average of 55 Erasmus and students which come for their semestral exchange studies, the 15 ISEP students who have come to AUBG in the last months and the ratio of 2:1 for incoming to outgoing students each year. Zankina further emphasized on the high rate of international students, an estimated 40% of the entire student community.
Attracting business enterprises to streamline considerable funding for student scholarships and invest in the construction of buildings and other academic facilities is another organizational sector where AUBG is at present challenged.
“We have been phenomenally successful in the past,” said Sullivan, indicative of the financial partnerships with Open Society Institute, the US government through USAID and the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
While he later admitted that the search for fundraising investments has lately become “somewhat chaotic”, he assessed that AUBG has lately harbored more funding than what was accounted as needed investments.
“We’ve been running on a net loss for the last couple of years but that doesn’t mean we are in a financial crisis,” commented Sullivan. He testified this secured fiscal state with AUBG’s use of pre-allocated capital from donors and grants.
According to him, AUBG has received a $300,000 pledge from a former BoT member and a written agreement signed on Wednesday, March 29, for additional $300,000 from American Schools and Hospitals Abroad.
“The sky is not falling. We are not in any danger of going out of business,” reinstated Sullivan.
Over the last few years the role of the AUBG president has extensively included the attracting of sponsors. Under Kulinski’s presidential term, AUBG renewed the donation stream from America for Bulgaria Foundation, a $2 million that have been allotted for student scholarships. In his mere two weeks in office, Acting President Sullivan has already opened talks with the “Russian equivalent of ABF” – the Russian American Foundation for supplying scholarships for Russian students.
Decision to Step-In as Acting President
Sullivan confirmed that he was called by BoT Chair Manev to consider stepping in the role of a temporary president, a communication made before the announcement for the dismissal of Kulinski. While he expressed uncertainty for the longevity of his presidential term, Acting President Sullivan justified his appointment with his 19-year academic experience and his prior serving as the Dean of Faculty and as a AUBG Provost. He agreed that the Board may have made “a well-intended mistake” in calling him earlier than Kulinski’s last day in office.
In accord to the Board’s agreement he stated that “when the next president is elected, the job be done carefully and that all constituencies have the opportunity to provide their input and feedback.”
The Election Process
Ideally, the soonest appointment of AUBG’s next permanent-serving president will be announced in May, 2017 at one of the three annual Board meetings. An undisclosed international firm will be involved in the appointing of the nominees to the executive position. The prolonged election proceedings would effectively make Dr. Sullivan an acting president of AUBG for at least another year.
The Organizational Structure
After Kulinski’s amendments to the AUBG’s organizational chart, Acting President Sullivan said that he is “probably not comfortable” with the established institutional structure. His understanding is that currently the chart creates “a mess” as offices and employees don’t know explicitly their supervisors.
In conflict with the academic functions Provost Zankina confessed that former President Kulinski’s managerial style has not followed suit with the organizational stricter per se.
“I am protesting that my boss did not include me in the process of restructuring, the academic structures which I see as a problem of transparency, accountability and respect,” shared Zankina.
Sullivan proceeded with distinguishing between the working functions of the provost and the Vice President of Finance and Administration.
“Everything that is directly related to the academic enterprise[…] delivering education to the students, reports to the provost,” said Sullivan. “The provost is in charge of everything academic – from the class rooms, to the technology[i.e. Office of Computing and Communication], to the Registrar’s Office, to the library – everything that is directly related to the student learning.”
He noted that the duties of the vice president include overseeing “the nuts and bolts of running the campus” but also “everything non-academic” in reference to the dining services, the accounting offices, and even the cleaning ladies.
The only assurance given by Sullivan was that the process is set to continue in the summer of 2017. No specific measures had been disclosed for the direction and ways of handling the renovation of the university. Delegate Guri will be leading the initiative on campus, supported by the members of the Board.
“Things are going to change,” said Sullivan. “An academic year institution has a cycle. This is April, commencement is in one month. Four more weeks of classes. Restructuring at this point of the year would be like trying to swap the inside of a plane while it is in the air.. Implementing changes over the summer would make more sense. I’m not in a rush to do anything today, or this week or next week. But things will be done over the summer.”
Key Moments from the Meeting
Emilia Zankina, AUBG Provost:
“My vision is that we need changes to the General Education categories and requirement that would include 21st century skills and multidisciplinarity. My vision is that we can create new programs only when we have evidence that these programs would bring additional students. My vision is that we need to create programs even when we are losing money, such as the Languages[i.e. Arts, Languages, and Literature Department], because we are committed to the liberal arts.”
Thomas Higgins, member of the Board of Trustees:
“We, as a Board, made a hiring mistake. And we might do it again. We will take responsibility for it…What are we going to do about the petition? We will do what is best for the university. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we will follow the petition[i.e. Alumni letter drafted on 29.03 and sent to the Board of Trustees], but it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t follow it…I was very disappointed about the changes. I still am. I am disappointed at myself as a Board member.”
“We haven’t communicatеd and we haven’t listened as much as we need to listen. But it’s not from a lack of willingness.”
Elena Poptodorova, Deputy Chair of the Board of Trustees:
“It was good that the petition was written because it means engagement and some source of energy. Let’s talk, let’s not pre-judge and please let’s not be hostile.”
“You did nothing when Aspegren had to step down. This is what worried us. He didn’t feel part of the Board. He was just a different set of mind, a different person. We’re not talking about good or bad people here. We’re talking about good fits. A good fit for a university which is not a Harvard.”
AUBG has entered a time of a pressing need for an improved Board accountability. While the month following Kulinski’s dismissal has passed in executive efforts to face all stakeholders’ demands for change, community turmoil, casted doubts on the Board’s legitimacy, and the sudden change of heart to the presidential position has now exposed the curtained top management that leaves AUBG meddling with rumors and speculations more than ever.