Stratsimir Kulinski: A Presidential Flop or a Community Hero?
Not a distinguished scholar in academics, yet the first AUBG graduate to become an AUBG president. Serving as a Board of Trustees member for two years en route to becoming a president, Stratsimir Kulinski was soon welcomed back to his Alma Mater in December, 2015 as the university’s headmaster. On Friday, Mar. 10, a mere 16 months later, Kulinski was unanimously dismissed by the Executive Committee to the Board of Trustees(BoT) from his office over the BoT’s questionable judgment and reasoning that remains unconfirmed.
In an unpopular style, AUBG’s governing roundtable has taken the final decision during Kulinski’ and students’ semestral vacation in a series of closed-door meetings. In addition, the news message has also been untraditionally communicated at a time before the farewell statement of former President Kulinski.
A man of vocal celebrations to AUBG’s successes and those of his presidential tenure, the former president was also adamant that administrative missteps are a common occurrence in AUBG. His monthly Town Hall meetings have opened talks over a multiplicity of issues including enrollment numbers, the classroom learning climate, improving revenue streams, alumni engagement, student tuition raises, the construction of new facilities, and the overall campus environment.
“I look forward to invest emotionally and professionally in a long-term relationship with everyone,” said Kulinski in a few months’ time at the helm of the university.
In the week following his departure, we rewind you back to all of the notable endeavors, initiatives and managerial ideas brought by the former president.
A full-scale re-establishment of the institution’s organizational culture was undertaken with the plan for a better facilitated efficiency in the administrative offices’ work. Such was the case with the Office of Communications and Computing and their still unrealized venture towards a less physical data storage by the utilization of more up-to-date methods, better technical and algorithmic solutions preventing another breakdown of the website, a less costly set of software installations, a better network provision, and the installment of a modern server blade to compile the entire university’s data.
Kulinski’s strategic methodology also emphasized on the improvement of administrative work culture. In that regard he often occasioned the Admissions Office through a series of half-spoken critiques towards recruitment coordinators, questioning their expertise in applying yield management in recruiting a greater share of prospective students. The crude statistics have revealed a downslope of enrolled students over the last nine years. Kulinski’s observations and Enrollment Head Svetlana Salovska’s words have confirmed the gradual dropping of Admissions Office projections from 273 prospective students in the fall of 2015 to as little as 160 in the spring of 2016. According to the former president, trustee Elvin Guri and Kulinski have thus initiated the practice, in the summer of 2016, of personally calling individual prospective students in an attempt to find a solution with an improved student-to-student financial offer. The calls have been made after prospective students have received their first admissions letter. While Elvin Guri declined to comment on these purported calls, questions remain of how many current students were recruited with bettered financial offer based on the goodwill of the two AUBG head representatives. A more pressing question would be what is the reaction of current first-year students, knowing that some fellow students might have been privileged to receive a call after deciding to wait or initially decline their AUBG admissions letter.
Another cornerstone of his presidential term has been the self-sustainability of the university. A project towards internal cost control and improved revenue streams, the plan would see the university stop relying on external donors, such as the America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Open Society Foundation in support to the university’s administrative and communal costs.
In academia, the restructuring strategy has experienced mixed success. The communication to faculty about the specific attempts to reinvigorate the academic leadership, the steps in solving faculty compensation issues, and the prospective introduction of improvements to the General Education courses has been contrasting to the passing of confidentiality declarations to protect against breaches of personalized information. Such have been the leaks of academic personnel’s salaries in January on an anonymous forum.
Kulinski’s thoroughness in advocating for these and other restructuring reforms was clearly received as a rather incomprehensive agenda by the AUBG faculty, whose consent to his decision-making has been bleak and non-resounding to AUBG students. This ambiguity of mood in respect to Kulinski has also seemed to be picked up by the Board of Trustees. Over the course of the last 16 months of Kulinski’s presidency, the Board has allegedly held at least two votes of confidence over Kulinski’s direction of restructuring and leadership approach. The former president has nonetheless alleged that he has kept his strategic plan for restructuring mostly unaltered over this period of work and has repeatedly found it amusing that the Board has changed their unanimous response to his plan.
Kulinski’s unwavering Vision 2030 for AUBG, mottoed “To be the definitive center of excellence for studying, teaching, and working together in Southeast Europe” has taken blows due to its manner of implementation. Common practice throughout educational institutions with a similar need for restructuring has been to ask for the assistance and expertise of a professional consulting firm that needs to better holistically evaluate the administrative and organization’s accomplishments and pitfalls for the process follow-through at AUBG.
Bringing up Transparency Issues
“You cannot complain, if you don’t propose a solution,” said the former president at his first Town Hall meeting back in February, 2016.
Effectively, AUBG’s then-president laid the groundwork for a diversified array of channels for face-to-face communiques with the AUBG constituencies. The introduction of the practices of bimonthly Town Hall meetings and the open door day policy, in addition to his invitations for forthcoming individual talks with students at the ABF Café and the Aspire Center have received warm reception. The cooperating efforts for empowering the Student Government as the active mediator between the student body and the leadership team, as well as his invites to informal luncheons with students and faculty and the interviews and radio show hosting for student media have also made Kulinski a well-identified figure on campus.
Outside AUBG’s physical grounds, Kulinski has also reached out to a great volume of the university’s graduates, by means of his travels for alumni meetings to Sofia, and as far as Los Angeles and Dubai. He made tangible steps in actively luring them back to AUBG, a raise from 3.5 percent to 6 percent engagement for a total of 4000 AUBG alumni in a 12-month period. The increase has resulted in a more identifiable help from alumni to increase student enrollment numbers through student referrals and financially support the institution with donations and pro bono consultancy and admissions work, as was the case with AUBG alumna and now former Enrollment Director Svetlana Salovska.
Quantity of communication channels and Kulinski’s publicity has nonetheless paradoxically failed to disperse the clouds of dis-transparency and lack of participatory inclusiveness in AUBG. His attempts for greater clarity in executive decision-making have been seen, heard and taken by the students, faculty and staff, but brought back with a greater-than-ever number of appeals for further transparency. In the aftermath of dual discommunication, all three constituencies have taken part in the compilation of the infamous list of 50 questions, demanding detailed verbatim and written answers from the then-president.
“We’ve proven that we suck in communication,” said Sabina Wien, a Professor in Arts, Languages, and Literature at the Town Hall meeting on Feb. 8. “We’ve just talked about things that happened, or have happened. The way to improve communication and diversity is to talk about things that will happen, or should happen, or could happen. When are we going to start to talk about the future?”
Investing in the construction of a new sport facility adjacent to the ABF building was one of the most pinpointing examples of Kulinski’ renovations on campus. A sprouted sport area that incorporates a tennis court, a basketball ground, a volleyball ground and a soccer field, the sports facility project was completed in September and officially opened in October, 2016, serving as one of the most illustrating examples to the physical scope of the reconstruction process. Despite the celebrations over the realization оf the project, the existence of the ABF Sports Hall that has traditionally utilized all major sports events on campus, has cast doubts over the actual need for the newly developed fields.
N.B. The construction of the sport facilities was an already voted decision before Kulinski’s term. The former president has nonetheless supported the project throughout its construction process.
The Aspire Center’s introduction added to the campus’s range of offices and conference areas. However it cost the university more than just the $10,000 that were allegedly spend on its creation. The venture for establishing an innovation hub promoting the entrepreneurial spirit on campus further forced the relocation of AUBG’s bookstore to the basement floor of Skaptopara II. Kulinski has shared the profitability of the endeavor as a result of the change by revealing the breakdown of the bookstore’s new revenue( a drop from $116,490 to $86,522), expenses(a drop from $121,728 to $88,987) and bottom line improvement during the July-Dec 2016 period of $2,773, compared to last year first half total.
While the Aspire Center has so far been successfully deployed and consistently populated by guest lecturers from the business world, problematic nevertheless remain the posed security issues of external customers entering Skaptopara II to purchase AUBG merchandise.
In the span of all of the Town Hall meetings former President Kulinski has promulgated an uniform message – no tuition increases for students should be expected. Rather, opportunities to grow financially will be pursued. According to Kulinski, satisfaction with sponsors over the last couple of fiscal years have meant an assurance that current and prospective students alike will see no additional expenses on their student bills. The promise was nonetheless not met as current students received a slight increase to their student activities fees, while prospective students who entered their first year of studies in Fall 2016 were made to pay $300 dollars for their meal plan, compared to the $100 taken from the accounts of the rest of the students. At present, students continue to be held in suspense of when a new tuition freeze or decrease proposal will be passed for approval from the BoT. A similar tuition proposal to reduce student cost was dismissed by Guri and the Board in January 2016.
Coordinated by Kulinski to a certain extent, AUBG’s Dining Services have implemented new daily menus, redistribution of the food sectors, chalkboards with meals and prices, pizza service, fitness menu, and background music – ideas for improvements that were mostly pioneered by students. Another increase in product prices and the ever-present continuum of unsettling remarks about the quality of the food persist.
A list of other overly discussed themes from Kulinski’s leadership include the lack of consensus over the communist posters exhibition in ABF, the vote process for a new AUBG logo, AUBG’S NIASC maximum 10-year accreditation, and the update of the organizational chart.
Оn numerous occasions Kulinski confirmed to be distrustful to certain employees’ productive work culture. His way of personal supervision, applying a top-down micromanagement was an approach atypical to AUBG and indicative of the inefficiency in delegating administrative assignments to the administrative personnel. With lay-offs on the horizon in the late fall of 2016, based on the consultancy work of an external audit firm, Kulinski decided to put off the staff cuts until the beginning of 2017.
“The consultants said we have twice as many employees as we need,” noted Kulinski. Instead of going on a firing spree, he referred to his initial strategy with the curt “avoid firing by not hiring.” Kulinski further explained that 22 positions, or roughly seven percent, will not exist under the new organization. In contrast to his words in November 2016, he was later quick to hire a new Human Resources Director and a new Enrollment Director.
Back in the late spring of 1995, the time when Stratsimir Kulinski received his AUBG diploma, distinguishing him as a proud graduate from the first AUBG class of 208 students, personal success had been in the air. Today, 26 years later, after a turbulent 16-month tenure as an AUBG president, it will be the AUBG community peers and not his diploma who will determine whether he was a presidential flop or a community hero.