The New York State United Teachers union has begun examining how serious financial problems at Dowling College in Suffolk could affect faculty members at the liberal arts school.

Former Dowling president Jeremy Brown referred to financial exigency in a letter last spring to then-faculty union president Michael Shapiro during labor negotiations.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said last week that the union is looking into what financial exigency "would mean for our members at the college." The union's chapter at Dowling has about 100 members.

"At this point, there are more questions than answers both in terms of the financial condition of the college and also the repercussions of financial exigency on the faculty at Dowling," he said.

Cynthia Estlund, a New York University law professor, would not comment on Dowling but said, in general, an assertion of financial exigency by an employer indicates "a certain kind of claim of inability to pay the salaries. They usually try very hard not to say they can't afford the wages."

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Estlund said claiming financial exigency can make it mandatory for employers to open their books to union members. She said some employers see financial exigency as a way of persuading employees to reach a labor agreement.

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Dowling spokesman Michael Conte said Brown's letter is "months old and it's meaningless."

"The college made no public declaration of financial exigency; during collective bargaining negotiations, it sent a legally required letter to the faculty and used this term, because that is the exact language that is in the contract," Conte said.

Conte would not say whether Dowling is currently in a state of financial exigency. He said a new faculty collective bargaining agreement lowered personnel expenditures and ensured no layoffs. "This new agreement is integral to the solidification of Dowling's financial future," Conte said.

Brown, Dowling's fourth president in six years, abruptly left his post in September when the board of trustees announced it was negotiating his release from a three-year contract, which ran through June 2014. Shapiro retired after the spring semester.

Fiscal and enrollment records provided to the Dowling union clearly established "the existence of a state of financial exigency which requires the college to implement staff reductions," Brown wrote in his April 22 letter, obtained by Newsday.

While no faculty members were laid off, the union agreed to 5 percent pay cuts, wage deferrals and an end to Dowling's pension contributions.

In a September report to Dowling's board of trustees, faculty liaison Nathalia Rogers described the college as an institution in financial jeopardy and struggling to survive.

Korn said NYSUT's decision to examine the consequences of possible financial exigency is a union responsibility. "This is how we operate to represent the interest of our members," he said.

Fall 2011 state statistics show Dowling had a total of 4,416 students -- 782 fewer than in 2010. The last time it recorded lower enrollment was in 1989, according to state figures. Despite the state figures, Dowling's website states enrollment is more than 6,300 students. When questioned about what's on the website, Dowling added small type saying the 6,300 figure is from 2008.

Dowling's financial problems have existed for years, long before Brown, formerly president of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, arrived in 2011. Dowling ran a budget deficit of $977,000 in 2011 and is almost $60 million in debt, school officials have said.

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Moody's Investors Service said earlier this month it is reviewing Dowling's credit rating -- listed as speculative -- for a possible further downgrade. Of the almost 600 colleges rated by Moody's, Dowling is among 14 ranked below investment grade.

New York State Regent Roger Tilles said the state Education Department is limited in how it can help private colleges such as Dowling.

Still, Tilles said, he has asked state education officials to explore any help or advice that might be available.

"I'm concerned about the students and faculty and what might happen," Tilles said.