The irony of Northeast State


By Scott Robertson

Whether or not we pay attention to it, or even realize it, people lose their jobs through no fault of their own every day. Market conditions change. Contracts are lost. The world does not stand still.

Because of those facts, there come times when a businessperson, acting in good faith, seeing that costs are rising, or revenues are down, or both – needs to lay off employees in order to protect the company. If the company fails, then nobody has a job.

Northeast State Community College’s new president finds himself in this situation today. The college announced this week it is taking action to pull out of a spiral of declining enrollment, rising costs and nearly depleted cash reserves. That action includes the cutting of 28 full-time non-faculty positions and 19 full- and part-time temporary positions, as well as the decision to leave unfilled six staff positions that were already vacant. Those job cuts will trim roughly $2.2 million from a budget that needed $5 million in cuts. The rest will come from student services, academic support, scholarships, student services and maintenance.

There is no blame game here. Responsibility has been assigned and taken. The previous president, who oversaw the overspending, retired recently after having been asked by the Board of Regents to resign, and the board itself is instituting changes in its auditing policies and procedures.

The previous administration earned kudos for trying to move Northeast State from being perceived as “Kingsport’s college” to being a regional player in workforce development. Unfortunately, the steps the college took to realize that ambition cost more than the college could afford to pay. Now, some of that work will likely be undone.

The new president told me in an interview for the upcoming issue of The Business Journal he would consider closing one or more of Northeast State’s six campuses within a year to help the remaining campuses function at the level they must.

Northeast State operates two satellite campuses in Washington County, one in Johnson City, the other in Gray. The Gray site would, on the surface, be the more likely candidate for the chopping block. Operational since 1991, it is only eight miles from the main campus and does not do a booming business, making it hardly worth the price of keeping it as a satellite even in good times.

The Johnson City campus, I hope can be spared. Almost 20 miles and a county line away from the main campus, and with a larger nearby population, it makes far more sense as a satellite campus. It would be a shame for the college to invest so much in that downtown building only to abandon it as it starts to get a foothold in the market.

Had the college been operating properly for the last five years, the new president told me, some of the jobs being cut now would have been eliminated gradually, without headlines. The declines in enrollment and rising costs could have been accounted for over that time, but weren’t. So now the cuts come all at once.

Had the cuts come gradually, the college could have been putting together a long-range plan to strategically handle the situation, including the raising of new funds, without raising alarm. Now, however, the college finds itself trying to ensure students don’t flee the school just as it needs them most. That’s a painful irony. More ironic still, especially to the 47 individuals who are out of work, is the fact that the previous administration was trying, in a misguided way, to make its students ready for one thing: jobs.


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