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Saturday June 15th

Bernstein’s LIONS plan creates confusion and worry, not reassurance, amidst TCNJ financial trouble

<p><em>The LIONS initiative, from the time it was announced in December through today, has little concrete substance behind it. (Graphic by Liam Simonelli)</em></p>

The LIONS initiative, from the time it was announced in December through today, has little concrete substance behind it. (Graphic by Liam Simonelli)

By Tristan Weisenbach
Managing Editor

At the end of last semester, Interim President Michael Bernstein outlined a comprehensive plan called LIONS, which stands for “Linking Innovation with Operational Nimbleness and Sustainability,” to the College’s Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and academic leaders groups before sharing a condensed version of the initiative in an email to the campus community on Dec. 6.

The purpose of the plan is to address the worsening financial crisis plaguing the College. In total, the College faces nearly $340 million in debt. 

Bernstein’s proposition is wide-ranging, consisting of ideas such as “academic reorganization,” “significant” reductions in the number of adjunct faculty, developing some three-year bachelor’s degree programs, partnering with community colleges to provide them with on-campus housing at the College and creating a new School of Continuing, Extended and Professional Studies, among other things.

During the in-person presentations, Bernstein’s plan was equipped with financial budget projections through FY2028 and listed individual expenses and revenue earnings for many aspects of the LIONS plan, such as the SCEP, increasing faculty vacancies and academic reorganization.

By having these somewhat formalized budget summary outlines, it seemed like Bernstein and the College administration had a concrete plan in their hands. The interim president also used many “we will” statements in his email, allowing students and faculty to come to an understanding that Bernstein’s plans were already set in stone.

The LIONS plan is not something minute either; it would likely reshape nearly every aspect of the College, from altering academic requirements to potentially eliminating large numbers of adjunct faculty. To present such a comprehensive plan so quickly is alarming, chaotic and, to some, perhaps even scary. 

However, based on an interview with the president and a subsequent follow-up email from Bernstein on Jan. 22, it is clear that there currently are little to no formalized plans; these initiatives are just ideas, based on his findings from a listening tour he conducted across campus throughout the fall 2023 semester. The LIONS initiative, from the time it was announced in December through today, has little concrete substance behind it. 

It would be unreasonable to expect Bernstein and his administration to create a fully comprehensive plan ready to be implemented in just one semester’s time. The issue with the LIONS initiative is that it is a set of ideas presented in a way that comes across as developed, solidified plans that will be implemented, when that isn’t necessarily the case.

One of Bernstein’s larger parts of his plan is the creation of a new School of Continuing, Extended and Professional Studies. In an interview with The Signal in December, Bernstein recognized that it would not be possible to implement this new school without first ending the hiring freeze instituted last summer, which currently has no specified termination date.

“You can't have a hiring freeze forever, especially if you're going to try to do new things…so of course we're going to have to hire personnel,” he said in the interview. Bernstein said he hopes to design the new school throughout the spring and summer to finalize and implement it at the start of the fall 2024 semester. But with no end in sight for the hiring freeze, the likelihood of this occurring in line with his timeline is slim. 

Bernstein also noted “academic reorganization” in his email, which is a broad plan that involves many components. One of the suggestions he made in this section of the email was examining higher teaching loads for academic faculty, which he stated would “require a renegotiation of local contractual agreements such as ‘MOA 62,’” an agreement between the faculty union and the College that dictates how many courses faculty can teach per year. 

When asked during the interview what specific aspects of MOA 62 he intended to renegotiate and what that process would look like, Bernstein did not have a set answer.

“I don't have some detailed blueprint that I'm handing over to the Union,” he said. “That's not my place.”

The Signal inquired about numerous other aspects of the plan that were listed in his email, such as reconfiguring writing and world language requirements, new on-campus housing developments, reducing adjunct faculty and developing some three-year bachelor’s degrees. However, Bernstein indicated that these initiatives are all suggestions and would need to be further analyzed before they could be developed and implemented.

In his Jan. 22 email to the campus community, Bernstein followed up on the LIONS plan that he introduced in December, stating that his goal for the spring is “the implementation of the key elements of the financial plan.” However, Bernstein also wrote in the same email that “working groups,” which are being created to develop aspects of the plan, will be meeting in the coming weeks to achieve the goals of the initiatives — implying once again that the ideas of the LIONS plan are not yet solidified, not guaranteed and may be subject to significant change depending on further examination. 

It is important to grasp just how dire the College’s financial situation truly is. Bernstein’s current LIONS initiative only temporarily alleviates budget deficits through FY2026 before they return in FY2027. While we commend Bernstein’s efforts towards completing a listening tour of campus and showing us that he is serious about wanting to conquer budget shortfalls, the way that administration has gone about presenting the plans to the campus community has only exacerbated the sense of uncertainty, rather than providing the strong sense of reassurance that we had all hoped for.


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