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Budget cuts Planning for the worst, hoping for the best

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Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 12:20 am | Updated: 12:38 am, Fri Mar 29, 2013.

The bottom line of the bottom line is this: There will likely be less money to go around at the University of Montana next fall.

Across campus, University of Montana departments are planning for cuts to the UM general budget that could be as large as 8 percent.

Although the exact amount of cuts is not yet known, UM President Royce Engstrom places that figure at 6 percent for the university sectors: Administration and Finance, Research and Creative Scholarships, Integrated Communications, President’s Office, Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Information Technology.

The Academic Affairs office is planning for 8 percent, College of Arts and Sciences dean Christopher Comer said — a significant drop for many departments operating on already-tight budgets.

For administration, the difference between this year’s budget and next is about the numbers — deficits that might be met with increased enrollment, philanthropy, legislative funding and entrepreneurship.

“As the flagship university and the largest institution in the Montana University System, we will continue to shine locally, across the state, and beyond,” Engstrom said in a letter to faculty last week. Perry Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the number could improve, and will be revised in the coming months.

But faculty and staff are hearing a different message, and at that level those changes mean planning for the reality of less money. In a meeting of department chairs within the College of Arts and Sciences on Thursday afternoon, the general understanding was that the cuts are coming and they will likely affect department operations if they happen to the degree that has been projected — approximately $3.5 million across Academic Affairs.

Provost Brown descries the cuts as “across the board,” meaning that everyone from athletics to dining services will make adjustments. The seven university sectors could see a total cut of $7.7 million. Across the University, total cuts could equal $14 to $17 million dollars, Brown said.

“In my deepest soul, I hope he’s right,” Comer said, addressing Brown’s optimism regarding any possible improvement. But Comer emphasized the need for each department within the CAS to identify and explore their budget options if the cuts were finalized. Part of those adjustments will be to identify which classes in each department can be cancelled without affecting the core curriculum, Comer said.

At that meeting, each chair received a packet of more detailed information about how the reductions might play out within the CAS.

That packet included information regarding how to fire or lay off employees, Comer said. Department chairs have been asked to identify who can and will be released if the cuts go through.

“It’s not going away,” Comer said. “It’s actually going to happen.”

The department is working to establish more clear and accurate communication regarding the fall budget, Comer said, but he said the administration is unavailable to meet until next week.

By then, Comer said, students will have already decided which classes they intend to take and begun the registration process. To then cancel significant numbers of those courses would be, in Comer’s words, a “calamity,” as students try to register for classes that no longer exist.

However large, the projected cuts are based on a series of factors including enrollment and state funding, the two primary sources of money for higher education in Montana. Enrollment projections are complex, and include factors such as high school demographics, economic factors and increased competitiveness from other schools.

Administrators have identified factors that may have contributed to this year’s — and possibly next year’s — enrollment decline.

Engstrom said the first of these is declining numbers of high school graduates in Montana. The second, he said, reflects the increasing competitiveness of higher education —other schools have increased their recruiting efforts, drawing potential students away from UM.

Third, the state and national economy is such that college seems less affordable to all students. Part of that economic equation includes availability of federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, Peggy Kuhr, UM vice president of integrated communications, said. A larger-than-average graduating class will impact next fall’s enrollment as well.

Engstrom also identified the highly publicized events of the past year as one contributing factor. Two UM students stood trial for rape this year, and both the University and city have been under investigation for their handling of reported sexual assaults. Both local and national media have covered those events.

“Certainly the publicity, the issues that we’ve had over the year, has brought attention that hasn’t helped,” Engstrom said.

Brown said the same thing. “We certainly had an effect from the events and publicity of last spring,” he said. “National stories came out at a critical time when people are deciding where to go.”

Those lower enrollment rates affect not only tuition money coming in but state appropriations as well. The amount of state money allocated to the university is based on a three-year average of full time student enrollment, Engstrom said. Lower enrollment can therefore translate into lower amounts of funding from the state.

The amount of money allocated to higher education in Montana won’t be known until the end of the legislative session in April, but it generally comprises around a third of college funding. The remaining two thirds comes from students. That proportion is the reverse of what it was two to three decades ago, administrators say.

State representative and UM professor Douglas Coffin, a Democrat, said part of the root problem is changing social values when it comes to college.

Coffin, former president of the University Faculty Association, said

that the value of higher education is seen as less valuable, both in financial and social terms. That trend is occurring over the long term, he said, and is manifest in a competition for tax dollars between education and social services. Coffin did not object to the University as a business model, but to the lack of voice for higher education at the legislative level.

“It’s an attitude change,” Coffin said. “It’s a values question.”

Provost Brown, too, said the general point of view today is that students benefit from education, primarily by getting better jobs.

Tenured French professor Michel Valentin thinks part of the problem in higher education today stems from the 2008 financial crisis. During this period of vulnerability, he said, universities adopted a more corporate model that favored skilled trades over liberal arts.

“You can not run education like a business,” Valentin said. “We don’t produce students like we produce cars.”

But legislative funding alone won’t fix the budget problem at UM. Administrators seem to agree that increasing enrollment is the only sure solution.

Jed Liston, the assistant vice president for enrollment services, said his department and all of campus are making extra efforts to increase next semester’s incoming class. Admissions representatives and faculty have been making more contact with potential students, he said —even to the extent of phoning every student who has been awarded a scholarship next year.

Additional aid has been made available as well. Altogether, expanded recruiting efforts and financial awards have received a boost of approximately $1 million, Engstrom said, a cost that he said was a worthwhile investment in reaching longer-term enrollment goals.

Engstrom said it will also be important to increase money coming into the University by other means than tuition dollars. Grants, philanthropy, off-campus teaching opportunities and entrepreneurial ventures could all work as potential ways to bring in that money, and much of that fundraising might happen at the faculty level.

“Creative research and scholarship is part of what they are all about,” Engstrom said.

Without a guaranteed solution in place, academic departments are planning for the worst and hoping – and striving — for the best.

“We need solutions,” Comer said. “We need them fast.”

Additional reporting provided by Billie Loewen.

heather.jurva@umontana.edu

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