Town Hall Meeting: Fighting for the Soul of AUBG
A thunderstorm in its awakening, the Town Hall Meeting of Feb. 8 opened the discussion to one of the most unruly and radioactive meetings to host current Stratsimir Kulinski in his term as the current AUBG president. Joined by the AUBG Board of Trustees (BoT) member and Empower Capital Fund CEO Elvin Guri and facing a jammed 163-seats public in the BAC Auditorium, Kulinski addressed some of the attendees’ questions and received harsh feedback for the university’s ongoing restructuring agenda and of his role as its strongest advocate. The president further gave an account to his management and decision-making as AUBG’s chief rector.
This Town Hall Meeting was also the first to gather a bigger part of the executive, administrative and academic figureheads in AUBG, including Provost Emilia Zankina, Dean of Faculty Robert White, Dean of Students Lydia Krise, the CFO and Vice President Alexander Alexandrov, the new Enrollment Director Sveltana Salovska, Residence Life Hall Directors, a few department heads, a sizable portion of the Admissions Office personnel and employees from the Office of Communications and Computing – an imposing shortlist of names that foresighted the gravity of the dialogue.
Minutes after the start of Kulinski’s monthly report to the AUBG community, the president received an audible booing by some members of the faculty and students as a backlash against the unpopularity of the undertaken restructuring reforms. The public also voiced their criticism over the alleged lack of trust, transparency and his ineffective consulting with the university staff.
Kulinski refuted these statements and highlighted the Town Hall Meetings as one of the sole examples of the established channels of communication and open discussion.
During his monologue, the president also outlined the AUBG’s fiscal success in 2016. According to him this year will mark the the first time in five years when the university is forecasted to end a 12-month period with a total operating budget surplus.
“AUBG needs the restructuring and we have it for several reasons,” said Kulinski. “It’s not only because of cost. It’s the ability of the organization to be efficient, to be more streamlined and for all of you to take broader responsibilities and premiere opportunities.”
Keeping composure and continuous receptiveness to the audience’s remarks, Kulinski commended the external support of the alumni, donors and the shareholders for their full backing of the restructuring campaign. Drawing a margin in comparison to the negative internal reaction, he shared his concern for the failure to bring everybody behind these efforts. He nonetheless assured the attendees that AUBG’s ultimate goal is to pay its own bills, a prospective achievement that is dependent on an increase in enrollment of 270 new students in Fall 2017 and 290 new students in Fall 2018 as well as the additional lowering of the costs.
Decrease in Enrollment
Despite his good-minded aims and the hiring of Salovska as the new Director of Admissions, Kulinski’s prospects could still see a halt as enrollment statistics showcase a gradual decrease in the student body size in the last five years. The 2011-2012 academic year saw a total of 1060 undergraduates students, while the enrollment count for 2016-2017 academic year is a mere 917, a near 600 less than what Kulinski affirmed Scaptopara dormitories would be able to accommodate in a few years time. This year also marks the smallest AUBG student body for the last nine years, or more.
Another concerning statistic shows a 0.46 prospective students admissions to enrollment ratio for the 2015-2016 academic year, i.e. 224 students enrolled for a total of 483 who have applied to AUBG. The statistics pose the question of why are more than half of the admitted students reluctant to enroll in one of the most accredited universities in Bulgaria.
Referring to the claims for his veiled administrating of AUBG and operating behind people’s backs, the president reminded that such outcry needs to go through the proper channels – either through the line management, the Human Resources office or to him.
His statement was followed by a wide discord in which Alexandrov readily dismissed Kulinski’s words.
“Some did come through the line management. So do not say that,” reacted Alexandrov.
“We don’t trust you,” added another one of the attendees.
Made to address the transparency issue that has resurfaced again after the last Town Hall Meeting in October, the president confessed that it is a moment of personal difficulty to hear such feedback, but that he acknowledges it and looks forward to more open talks that could help resolve uncertainties.
A List of 50 questions
Both Professor John Gallelty and Assistant Professor Dannie Chalk asked Kulinski to go over the list of questions (see attached) that some of the faculty have sent to him in advance. While the president deemed only some of the questions relevant, and answered only a few, he drew attention back towards his presentation on the restructuring, and the rationale behind his decisions that eventually didn’t remain thoroughly narrated.
He reinstated his plea that the AUBG community must send more recommendations and feedback and further appealed for a better functioning team and a more trustful environment in the organization.
Here are some of the questions that remained partially or fully unanswered which AUBG Daily considers of considerable merit:
1. Is the new organizational chart reflective of the collective intellectual potential of the university, i.e. has there been consultations with the representatives of the three major constituencies at AUBG – faculty, students, and staff – and if not, what is the guarantee that the new structure will work better than the old one? Who are the individuals taking responsibility for the implementation of the changes and their effect? Shall we expect further changes in the new chart and if yes, who will be designing them? Is there a detailed plan to prepare the institution for each possible scenario, including the one where AUBG faces difficulties to operate under the new structure?
2. Please describe the procedures that led to the selecting of KPMG as the payroll services provider. Please provide financials with precise numbers as to the cost of the old payroll processing model vs. the new one. Please provide information what the price of KPMG services is and how it compares to the market price of such similar services. What necessitated the outsourcing of the payroll?
3. When was the Enrollment Director position advertised and how many people applied to it? Who were the members of the selection committee?
4. What is the financial result of the bookstore after moving it underground and how does that compare to this time last year?
5. Do you think it is appropriate to have JMC students buy Adobe license? Does that put them at disadvantage compared to other majors?
6. How much did the AUBG app cost and what was the decision making process that led to setting its priority over that of e.g. fixing the audio system in the Red room or buying projectors to ensure the high quality of teaching?
7. Why is there a shuttle service to Sofia for highly paid executives but recruiters have to travel with all their materials and equipment using public transportation?
8. AUBG core network infrastructure were renewed in 2013-2014. AUBG Wi-Fi system is based on 2007 technology. Do we plan improvements in this area and implementing of recent standards?
While Kulinski confirmed that he has skimmed through the list of questions in the hours prior to the meeting, he admitted to be unfamiliar with а few of the topics that were put forward. Upon checking, some of them referred to certain questions that actually appeared on that list, such as the issue with the Adobe license stalemate.
The president later agreed to answer all 50 questions in writing and forward them to the three big constituencies in AUBG – faculty, students, and staff.
As of today no such correspondence has been received by the student community.
Elvin Guri’s Mission
Deemed an independent observer to the structural turmoil, Guri’s presence on campus was justified with the consciousness of facts from the BoT that there is a substantial discord in regard to the scope of the restructuring and its necessity. While Guri has also adopted a teacher role for the Social Entrepreneurship class, his main focus will be split in three key areas:
- To review all the steps taken so far for the course and methods of restructuring.
- To recommend changes to the management and the Board for these proposals through consulting with as many AUBG-related people as possible.
- To reinstall the belief that AUBG must be reformed and share the BoT’s united stance behind this statement.
After disclosing that a proposal to freeze tuition for current students and lower tuition for new students was submitted by Alexandrov and Salovska, Guri announced that he has taken the decision to dismiss it.
“Without a holistic approach and without a reforming of the whole recruitment and financial aid policy, such proposal is premature and it could be counter-productive,” stated Guri.
Another proposal is set to be advanced to Guri and subsequently to the BoT in the following weeks.
Meanwhile, he promised to reach out and familiarize himself with all the calculations, sources and analysis that have been carried out by the management so far. The proposal would also need to consider better the policies of financial aid and admissions to be evaluated comprehensively by the Board.
It remains to be seen whether similar proposal would be approved by Guri and whether it would become divisive between new students who would pay less than current students for the same academic program.
“We suck at all these things” – Elvin Guri
Quite conflicting with Kulinski’s belief in the existent fair and open communication, inclusiveness and transparency of operations, Guri struck with a bold observation.
“For an institution that claims to want to be democratic and values free speech and transparency and for an institution that teaches management and claims to teach entrepreneurship – we suck at all of these things,” said Guri.
Nevertheless he urged the people of AUBG to take action.
“We have never seen a proposal or an action by the faculty that takes the view on anything other than what pertains to faculty,” added Guri. “The same goes for students, the same goes for staff.”
“I was threatened” – Diego Lucci, Professor of Philosophy and History
In response to Guri’ allegations, Professor Diego Lucci shared a personal account as rebuttal to the remark on the lack of faculty’s actions.
“Whenever I stepped out of my field I was either threatened, openly, even publicly, or I was asked to carry on with my business,” confessed Lucci.
According to him this issue has been recurring with multiple administrations ever since 2011.
“We tried,” he added.
America for Bulgaria Foundation Money Inflow
Associate Professor Jeffrey Nielsen brought forward the question of what are the conditions to keeping the ABF future funding. The president expressed gratitude to the foundation and the efforts put into attracting ABF, a success that has resulted in two million dollars’ worth of scholarships in support of the process of restructuring.
“Traditionally, we have taken that message[ceased funding from ABF] as a bluff or haven’t taken it seriously,” commented President Kulinski.
The terms that ABF has put to the table are for AUBG to become independent on its own and reach certain incentives and results that remain to be disclosed to the AUBG administration.
Sources of inefficiency
Associate Professor in Economics Didar Erdinc took the floor and proceeded to urge Kulinski and the AUBG management unit to focus first on the university spendings before speaking of any organizational staff changes.
“How we are spending our money is a much bigger chunk of money than the salaries of the staff,” commented Erdinc, referring to the prognosis of cutbacks to the AUBG administrative and academic personnel.
“We cannot sustain ourselves without our root staff,” added Erdinc, expressing gratefulness to those who have made AUBG a thriving university environment for learning.
AUBG Shuttle Service
Asked by a student on the usability of the shuttle service, Kulinski commended the transportation offering and set it out as a tool to give the AUBG community a much more dynamic link between the Sofia offices and the Blagoevgrad campus. While encouraging the Blagoevgrad community to make extensive use of it, the president affirmed that the service be mostly used for business purposes.
Despite the stated availability of the shuttle service, one regulation on the AUBG website informs passengers that the shuttle may not go in the case of a conferences and a Board Meeting.
AUBG Mobile Application
Pushing emergency updates, communicating about events to the community and putting real information at users’ fingertips were pointed out as the major motivation points for the creation of the university’s mobile application.
In a statement that undermined other information channels, including the improved AUBG calendar, the weekly community update AUBG Compass, the Student Services newsfeed of events, guest lecturers and conferences, the Career Center and Student Government email notifications, Kulinski shared that AUBG had so far no effective mechanism for communicating about events and pushing for updates.
He further invited the attendees to share their recommendations about the mobile application’s functionality and contact Despina Koleva-Hristova with tips for improvement.
New AUBG logo
Before giving his rationale behind the advance in proposals for a new university logo, Kulinski laid the historical background to the issue by tracking the logo’s existence. The old university insignia was commissioned back in the Spring semester of 1992 and soon unraveled a problem. It turned out that the new logo of AUBG was very similar to the logo of the American University in Washington D.C. a similarity that has resulted in complains and legal letters send to AUBG.
The president also reminded the audience that a similar attempt to pass a vote for a new logo was executed three years ago and concluded with a stalemate with no majority decision.
“With aesthetics, art and artistic expression there will always be different opinions,” said Kulinski.
Undertaking a different strategy in 2016, Kulinski initiated a crowdsource for the new logo and received approximately 250 submissions. Nonetheless, all 250 layouts for logo tagline and the overall visual brand identity fell out of favor with both the president and the confidential design committee in reciprocal liking for yet another logo outlining the AUBG brand layout, taglined “Come here. Go anywhere.” The latter, created by a third-party whose name has not been shared, was forwarded to student emails as a proposal.
“There is no decision until the Board makes a decision,” reaffirmed Guri.
Communication as a Problem
Another plea, this time from Sabina Wien, Professor in Arts, Languages, and Literature, finished with wide applause. She called for reasonable consideration of what is ahead of the AUBG rather than a discussion of what has happened so far and what went wrong.
“We’ve proven that we suck in communication. 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?,” questioned Wien.
She also addressed Kulinski, Guri and the attendees with a request to stop complaining about the misfortunes of judgments as they would not solve the status quo.
“Solving problems, firing people, saving a little bit of money – this is good. But communicating this is really the problem…I don’t mean gossip, urban legends, forums, informal talks, but real communication,” concluded Wien.
Hiring New Professors
Talking about the academic curriculum, the president gave his word to work with the Provost and the Dean of Faculty in recruiting instructors in response to another remark to provide professors before the university provides more Major courses.
“Hiring a professor, you need a little bit of a lead time,” reasoned Kulinski. “We are looking into improving our advertising practices. To attract quality professors, sometimes it’s better to not have a class instead of having a professor for it who is not up to standards.”
The president didn’t make a promise to the public whether a new lecturer in Financial Accounting will be hired in the following months.
Fighting for the ‘Soul’ of AUBG
Chalk was among the many to speak of the disrupted communication and the need for duality in communication.
“We can’t have the kind of communication that you say you are advocating when people don’t feel safe asking their questions or when they don’t have any faith that their questions will be answered,” appealed Chalk to the president.
“We are fighting for the soul of the university,” responded Guri.
Changing for the Sake of Changing?
Pavel Topalov, Admissions Counselor and Recruitment Coordinator, was among the dozen Admissions Office personnel at the meeting.
“Changing something for the sake of change is something we are against,” said Topalov. “Personally, I don’t see a clear plan. We are all for the idea of restructuring, but we are human beings and we want to have our voices hear – from time to time.”
Guri picked up from Topalov’s talk and made it paramount that people shouldn’t be attacking each other on a personal level but must rather see each other as two opposing professional views.
Shifting the highlight again to his coming to AUBG, Guri hinted mistrust from the BoT in regard to Kulinski’s management.
“I haven’t come here with a magic wand to solve problems. I’m not even sure I’m part of the solution,” commented Guri.”All I have to do, all I must do in three weeks is to bring back some of the news of the constituencies of the university that claim they have not been heard during the formulation of the restructuring process. Because the Board do not feel confident that due process has been followed.”
Guri’s words came under tight scrutiny by Nikolay Stankov, a fourth-year student.
“You seem to be here to demonstrate the power of the Board rather than looking for some answers from the people that are here,” said Stankov. “Because this is a forum. This is a place where people ask for opinions, they ask for specific questions and their concerns and what they are getting is like a mic drop. ‘The Board thinks this.’ And that’s about it. If it’s not a full-duplex of communication, how are these people going to the classrooms and proceed with high quality?”
Unpaid Microsoft Subscription
Computing System Administrator at the Office of Communication and Computing, Tsvetelina Hristova asked for an explanation to the delayed payment of the university’s Microsoft services, a fee that has not been paid for the last two months.
“My job is to look at the validity and the necessity of every expense,” said Kulinski. “We looked at the price for the Microsoft licensing and it looked quite high relative to what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. We reviewed the cost and there were no alternative solutions.”
Contrary to Hristova’s allegation, the president assured that AUBG will pay the Microsoft license and continue to use that product.
Michaela Parker, a third-year student: “As for the restructuring, it absolutely needs to happen. It’s no secret that the university is overstaffed and the administration has been very open with our financial situation. There needs to be a substantial change in how we recruit students and how our offices work… I want my university to run better, and I agree that restructuring is the way to do it.”
Nikolay Stankov, a fourth-year student: “Unlike the popular opinion I tend to support Stratsi [Kulinski], as he is making a great step towards engaging the student body. The action of regular and open feedback is a great step on its own.”
Lydia Krise, Dean of Students: “The Town Hall Meeting was very well-intended. I think it showed the real feelings of the AUBG community at this point in time.”