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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

UNL Budget Cuts Make Students, Professors Wary

by David Ledbetter

April 06, 2009

Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire
Jay Jackson has been removing lights from UNL buildings for months to cut energy costs. (Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire)

Anyone strolling campus hallways these days has noticed some visible evidence of the nation's economic woes arriving at UNL: saloon lighting.

Jay Jackson, of building maintenance, is busy removing half the remaining bulbs from hallway fixtures across campus - more than 4,000 so far - as part of UNL's effort to reduce energy costs.

Ordinarily, that might seem a silly gesture.

But with the university's request for state funding colliding with legislative proposals that leave NU $45 million short, no one is laughing.

Will Norton Jr., dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, tried to remain optimistic but was visibly concerned. "We've tightened our budget and increased our horizons so much," he said. "How do you cut into bone?"

"Everyone is concerned about it," agreed Kathy Prochaska-Cue, the faculty Senate president. "I try not to think about it."

The view from above

But many university administrators and department heads have been thinking about little else for months.

NU President J.B. Milliken announced in late February that there would be budget cuts and that the cuts would be vertical - targeted to specific programs - rather than levied across the entire university.

Some broad cost-cutting, however, is likely to precede those vertical cuts. Already, vacant faculty and staff positions, though not officially "frozen," require what amounts to re-approval before hiring.

And UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman has requested that college deans and department heads determine how they can slash 5 percent from department budgets. For now, university administrators are keeping tight-lipped about specific cuts.

But a few cuts are considered likely. For example, some departments have proposed eliminating adjunct professors and lecturer positions as they struggle to retain core faculty. Consequently, those professors who remain will find themselves teaching more classes and students with less staff support.

"I would anticipate fewer sections of courses offered, and larger sections - particularly at the 100 and 200 level," Prochaska-Cue said.

Impact on students

Jaci Benson, a senior advertising major, said increasing class sizes in lower level courses seems like a mistake. She understands that money is tight, but said that making students feel like they are an important part of the program is essential for the introductory courses. With larger courses, Benson said, "Your teacher doesn't know who you are so it doesn't matter if you go."

Some departments also are considering requiring students to have their own laptops, rather than maintaining student computer labs.

Alex Damm, another senior advertising major, summed up his reaction in two words: "It sucks!"

Both Damm and Benson, working on a laptop in the Union, agreed it's not necessarily the cost of a computer, but the cost for specialized software that concerns them. The design software they use in the labs, Adobe CS4, costs upwards of $500.

Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire
Clark Sintek and Amy Alderman, left, work on landscaping on UNL's city campus. Although budget cuts may affect support staff, they say they're not worried about losing their jobs. (Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire)

Meanwhile, university administrators say they won't raise tuition rates to compensate for the budget shortfall, even though tuition accounts for only about 11 percent of university revenue. Still, UNL tuition rates have increased nearly 23 percent in the past four years and 336 percent since 1990. "Whenever you have budget reductions, there's no way you cannot affect what's available to students," said Giacomo Oliva, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts.

Impact on faculty

Students, however, won't be bearing the budget cuts alone. Already, faculty and staff are increasingly anxious about how the cuts will play out.

"It's so bad for morale," said art professor Shelly Fuller, as she waited for the academic planning committee to begin its March meeting. "We already have such a low operating budget; there's no fat to cut."

Jim Hines, head of Building Systems Maintenance, expressed a similar sentiment.

"We're getting pretty much down to the things that are essential," he said.

Hines said that aesthetic maintenance now accounts for only about 2 percent of his department's workload. Deeper cuts will begin to affect building operation and prompt Hines to ask the question: "Which toilets don't you want us to unclog?"

UNL support staff is feeling particularly vulnerable, said Mary Guest, a Student Affairs staffer and president of the University of Nebraska Office Professionals Association.

"As support staff, we don't really feel like we have much of a say about what goes on," she said. "We just take the aftermath."

University officials faced a similar budget shortfall between 2002 and 2004. The $30 million reductions then included eliminating the department of health and human performance, where 250 students were enrolled, the museum studies program and many other cuts across colleges and departments. Several university extension services around the state also were axed.

"People are more concerned now, just because of the economy in general," Guest said.

Wes Anderson, an agricultural economics professor, called the looming vertical cuts "a lousy way to do the strategic planning for the university."

The state created a cash reserve fund, commonly known as the "rainy day" fund, during the last state budget crisis. So Anderson wonders why that $570 million fund isn't being discussed more. "The state benefits enormously from having an educated population," he said.

"What I would like to see is perhaps a little belt tightening for a couple years until the economy improves," Anderson said.

But Norton said the likely shortfall in state funding for the next two years is just a part of the overall funding picture. Flat state budgets over the years have amounted to a cut already. "We've essentially been teaching more students with the same money - that's a budget cut."

Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire
Jay Jackson performs coast-cutting tasks for UNL. "The good news is we've been saving energy for years...and continue to do so," said Jim Hines, director of Building Systems Maintenance. "The bad news is we've been saving energy for years...There's no more big savings." (Photo by: Justin Wheeler, Redwire)

Norton also said that private donations, which make up a significant proportion of university funding, have declined recently. "The other part of the budget cut is that people aren't giving like they used to."

History professor John Wunder couldn't see how UNL would escape the budget shortfall without a combination of both budget cuts and tuition increases. "There will probably be a tuition increase, horizontal cuts of an immediate nature and vertical cuts of a long-term nature," he said.

But Athletic Director Tom Osborne said nothing is certain and the budget crisis is a complicated issue. "So much of what happens to the university is dependent upon revenues that come into the state," he said.

Although not asked to propose cuts for the athletic department, Osborne said he is studying ways to save money. "We're doing some things that we feel can scale back our expenses fairly significantly, even though we have not been told we have to do this."

Osborne is aware of the anxiety surrounding the budget cuts, particularly the 5 percent cut proposals requested by Perlman, but said, "It's not something that's been enacted yet. Hopefully it won't come to that."