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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

College Chiefs Say Economy-Inspired Cuts are Complicated

Downsizing » Administrators say tenure obligations and accreditation demands make thinning budgets nearly impossible.

January 22, 2009

By Brian Maffly

College and university presidents say the speed and severity of Utah's fiscal crisis is making it all but impossible for them to trim costs in a way that makes sense for students and the schools.

Unlike other state agencies, institutions of higher learning can't get rid of certain employees and programs because of tenure and contractual obligations and the expectations of accrediting bodies, officials have told lawmakers at a recent string of budget hearings.

Administrators are resisting lawmakers' suggestions that deep savings can be made across-the-board through such measures as furloughs, pay cuts and dumping programs.

"We couldn't cut all budget lines equally and continue to promote quality," Scott Wyatt, president of Snow College, told the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. "Had we simply done across-the-board cuts, we … would have rewarded pieces of the school that didn't deserve that."

The subcommittee voted Wednesday to recommend this year's budgets be trimmed by another 7.5 percent (on top of a 4 percent cut lawmakers authorized in a special session), but reserved judgment on steeper reductions proposed for fiscal year 2010. Other possibilities are to issue bonds to cover the shortfalls or to stagger budget cuts over a time so presidents can better plan downsizing.

To lawmakers' chagrin, many budget solutions are blocked because of the obligations of tenure and program continuity. Using more adjunct faculty would reduce labor costs, which comprise more than 80 percent of schools' budgets. But adjuncts will be among the first to lose their jobs: Tenured and tenure-track faculty enjoy job security while administrators can simply not renew adjuncts' contracts.

Utah State University, for example, is bracing for a $30 million hit between cuts this fiscal year and next, costing 600 jobs. But unless USU formally declares a crisis, a reduction of that size could mean sacrificing up to 40 percent of its staff, according to President Stan Albrecht. The school phased out its College of Family Life in 2001 and merged two departments, and is now looking at eliminating its acclaimed university press.

"We don't have the ability to eliminate another academic college. We can't be a good university without a good English department, without a good chemistry department," Albrecht told lawmakers. "We can't look at parts of the university and say this isn't central to the whole."

At lawmakers' request, higher education officials quantified savings from some across-the-board measures, such as one-day-a-week furloughs, dumping summer school and shaving retirement contributions. Most have downsides, while the upsides are dubious.

Cutting retirement contributions from 14.2 to 12 percent saves $12.5 million, but would undermine schools' ability to recruit, particularly when pay is already 90 percent of that at peer institutions, according to William Sederburg, commissioner of higher education.

Each day of furlough saves $1.15 million, or $56 million a year systemwide, but those savings would affect staff, not faculty, who are paid on contract whether they work or not. Staff furloughs at a time when enrollment is increasing would hardly be prudent, Sederberg said.

Summer sessions are a money maker for most schools and are indispensable to student-athletes, teacher certification and keeping students on track to graduate. A tuition increase is all but certain because tuition goes up on average 6 percent, even in flush years, but officials are adamant about affordability.

"I can't imagine more than one-third of the budget cuts being picked up by tuition increases. We're not going to put the cuts on the backs of the students," Sederburg said.


What's at issue?

Utah lawmakers recommended Wednesday that colleges and universities trim current year budgets by another 7.5 percent, on top of a 4 percent cut ordered during a special session in September. That means higher education could sustain a total budget hit of 11.5 percent in the current fiscal year. In the upcoming session, lawmakers could order further cuts ranging up to 15 percent for next fiscal year, resulting in extensive layoffs, elimination of programs and higher tuition, school presidents say.