Facing budget deficit, Div School dean postpones plans

Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling has pursued transparency while addressing the school’s $800,000 budget deficit.
Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling has pursued transparency while addressing the school’s $800,000 budget deficit. Photo by Daniel Sisgoreo.

The Divinity School’s $800,000 budget deficit has forced Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling to put some of his plans for the school on hold.

Sterling, who came to the Divinity School in August 2012 after serving as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Graduate School, has been restructuring the school’s administration in an effort to make it operate in a more cost-effective way and has postponed some of his initial plans to focus on the deficit. The school’s budget deficit has hovered around $800,000 for the past three years after growing significantly following the onset of the recession in 2008. Though Sterling said he has discussed the budget deficit with top University administrators including President-elect Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak, the Divinity School will have to remedy its financial situation primarily on its own because it is a self-supporting institution that does not depend on the University for funding.

“When I initially made plans for the school, I hadn’t yet realized the gravity of the budget deficit, but now we simply have to ask ourselves what is desirable and what is necessary,” Sterling said. “Once we reach a balanced budget, we can begin to make significant strides in other initiatives.”

The deficit was exacerbated by an effort by the Divinity School to support students on financial aid with funds from the school’s general operating budget, he said. Despite the deficit, Sterling said his plan to bolster the school’s financial aid program significantly remains in place, adding that he still intends to make it possible for students with significant financial need to attend the Divinity School for free by 2025. Sterling told the News last fall that the school needs to raise $35 million in order to fulfill his plans for the program. The school is also currently fundraising for scholarships geared toward applicants from Africa, Sterling said.

Sterling said he is currently overseeing several strategies to make the administration more compact and efficient — centralizing work that has been scattered across different administrative units, encouraging teamwork, reducing the size of the school’s staff and eliminating redundant administrative processes.

University President Richard Levin said all of Yale’s self-sufficient schools have had to adjust to rising deficits in the face of the economic downturn.

“A lot of professional schools were hoping the recession wouldn’t affect them as much as it did the central institution … but the Divinity School consumed a lot of its reserves and now they have to make some adjustments in size and scope,” Levin said. “Dean Sterling is very responsible and has a real grip on the school’s finances — the budget deficit will delay some of his innovative plans, but once he improves the budget I am confident he will be able to implement them.”

Faculty and administrators said they are impressed with Sterling’s transparent approach to addressing the budget deficit, and most said they think he has been able to improve the school despite financial difficulties.

Divinity School Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dale Peterson said Sterling has clearly articulated his intention to close the budget deficit to staff, faculty and administrators during individual and small group meetings and has not treated the budget deficit as a “secret or private matter.” As a result, the Divinity School community is aware that it needs to consider different ways to cut back on spending, Peterson said, including reducing the amount of money spent on the school’s commencement ceremony and maximizing the work of each administrative unit.

“We have a hint that through the month of April, if there are decisions that will impact any of us individually, we will know it,” Peterson said.

Divinity School professor Jennifer Herdt said she thinks transparency is crucial when a school is dealing with a financial difficulty.

Divinity School community members interviewed said Sterling has still pioneered useful initiatives such as his effort to bolster inclusivity within the school in spite of the budget deficit. Last fall, the school hired the Michigan-based organization Allies for Change to lead workshops aimed to help students, faculty and administrators foster a more inclusive and diversity-friendly community. Administrators also bought copies of the book “The New Jim Crow” by civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, who visited the school in February, for Divinity School community members to read in an effort to bolster open discussion about issues of race within the school.

Sterling was officially appointed dean of the Divinity School at a ceremony in Marquand Chapel on Oct. 23, 2012.

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