UM's faces tough choices with $16M budget gap

2013-04-28T12:15:00Z 2013-04-28T16:29:05Z UM's faces tough choices with $16M budget gapBy MARTIN KIDSTON Missoulian The Billings Gazette
April 28, 2013 12:15 pm  • 

MISSOULA — When students are fewer and money is tight, the choices become painful. Should courses in Spanish be reduced, despite the popularity of the language? Or should it be Italian, Latin or Greek?

The decision is one of many facing University of Montana administrators and deans as they shape next year’s budget. The university is facing a shortfall of $16 million, and it’s looking for ways to cut costs with minimal impacts on students and faculty.

“The fact is, there will be controversy about any kind of budget adjustment, no matter what you do,” UM President Royce Engstrom said last week in an interview at his Main Hall office. “In the end, some decisions have to be made.”

At issue is the university’s $157 million general fund. Two-thirds of the fund is based on tuition and fees, while one-third comes from state appropriations.

Both funding sources come with a high degree of uncertainty. Money from the Legislature is subject to change, as are enrollment figures. Competition to recruit incoming freshmen is fierce, and the school’s success in that realm has deep implications on the institution’s fiscal health.

“There’s always uncertainty about the tuition side,” said Engstrom. “You don’t know the enrollment until students show up in the fall. You always prepare a budget on your projection of enrollment, and it always includes some uncertainty.”

Based on last year’s 6 percent drop in enrollment, administrators are preparing to cover a potential $16 million budget gap, and they’ve asked department heads across campus to prepare plans to cut spending from 2 percent to 8 percent.

But the figures are based on last year’s enrollment figures and represent a worst-case scenario moving into next year. Engstrom said the budget and any possible cuts that come with it will be adjusted as projections change over the next month.

“As time goes on, we’re refining those projections based on what we see developing in admission patterns,” Engstrom said. “The situation continues to improve as we project looking forward. I think it’s safe to say it will not be as serious as it was when we first looked at things.”

Until the projections change for the better and admission trends climb, though, administrators will continue with tentative plans to make up $16 million, a figure some are reluctant to call a budget deficit, but rather, an increase in costs.

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Kevin McRae, a deputy commissioner with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the Legislature provided the Montana University System a $28 million increase over the next two years – money that’s intended to cover the inflationary costs of education, regardless of student enrollment.

While the money often goes where students are, helping meet the demands of enrollment, there is wiggle room in how the funds are dispersed. Money appropriated by the Legislature is ultimately distributed by the Board of Regents across the university system.

“The money still will primarily be allocated on an enrollment basis, but there’s some discretion there,” McRae said. “Enrollment goes up and down everywhere – it always has. In the big picture and over the long term, there’s no doubt in our mind that UM will be fine. There’s always numerical volatility, and it always takes time and adjustments to plan through it.”

As planning moves forward under current projections, many adjunct faculty members have been told their contracts may not be renewed next year. Some course offerings have been zeroed out in areas where student demand isn’t as high.

Christopher Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said most of the college’s curriculum will be offered in the fall, but not all of it, depending on the outcome of the budget cuts.

“We’ve gone through the level of impacts on their budget and ways we might address it,” said Comer. “The chairs have been very good at finding savings and doing it creatively. There are a lot of unknowns still, and that’s the frustrating part.”

The College of Arts and Sciences, one of the biggest on campus, includes 23 departments. Several courses already have been zeroed out, meaning students can see the offerings but they can’t sign up for them.

Comer said the department is using the method to weigh student demand and gauge areas that could be trimmed with minimal impact. Some classes that initially were zeroed out have been added back in because of demand, while others remain frozen, such as Italian.

“That’s OK on one level, when you have slightly fewer students, but there’s no easy way to tell an adjunct they won’t be employed next year,” Comer said. “If you have to make cuts, areas with fewer students are the logical places to do it. There are no good choices, but we’re working hard to consider the options and lessen the impact.”

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Hayden Ausland, a professor of classical languages, said faculty didn’t learn of the class cancellations until after spring break, when they were approached by students asking about next fall’s courses, and why they weren’t being offered.

Italian has suffered badly, Ausland said, and the future of Arabic is uncertain. His own department saw cuts to introductory Latin and Greek, placing the future of those courses in jeopardy, since attrition often reduces enrollment as classes become harder at higher levels.

“In my discipline, one Latin section was canceled in the fall, and that’s half our Latin sessions, which puts at great risk the prospect of second-year enrollment,” Ausland said. “There’s a lot of worry in my department about how fair all this is, and what basis people used to pick these courses, opposed to others.”

The College of Arts and Sciences includes as many as 150 adjunct faculty members who teach English, women and gender studies, military sciences, classics, history and mathematics, among others.

Comer said current scenarios could see roughly 20 full-time employees cut across the college. Where possible, he said, they’ll work to trim those spots by cutting hours, not employees.

“We’re trying to spread it around and reduce their FTE, but not cut their jobs,” Comer said. “We can’t guarantee that, but we’re hopeful we can come out with a version that softens the blow.”

While any cut is painful, the university is working to preserve the core educational experience of students. Engstrom named education in a global century, research and creative scholarship, and a strong learning environment as top priorities moving forward under any budget scenario.

“If we do decrease our expenditures, it can’t be done without some effect on those things,” Engstrom said. “But we need to preserve the educational experience as much as we can. Students take top priority.”

Engstrom said the release of adjunct faculty isn’t unique to the current budgeting cycle. Each year, and regardless of the budget, he said, a handful of contracts aren’t renewed.

Having adjunct faculty allows the university to expand and contract to meet enrollment shifts. Adjustments are made as enrollment grows, just as cuts are made when enrollment drops.

“From year to year, a lot of the adjunct folks aren’t the same as the year before,” Engstrom said. “It’s one of the reasons you have an adjunct pool – to breathe with the ups and downs of enrollment and other economic factors without affecting the core academic faculty.”

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Different petitions signed by different faculty members across campus have presented remedies to what some signees are calling the school’s “alarming financial crises.” In one letter last week, a list of 44 faculty members asked administrators to forgo salary increases and to return 5 percent of their earnings to the general fund.

They’re also asking Engstrom to eliminate “unnecessary” administrative positions, including the vice president of integrated communications. They’re calling for a freeze on filling vacant administrative positions, and to eliminate centers and institutes that aren’t self-supporting. Calls to several faculty members who joined the petition went unreturned.

Other faculty members believe that growth in other areas of the university is squeezing out academic instruction. And it’s academic instruction that faculty members regard as being the core of higher learning.

“A number of my colleagues are of the opinion that administrators aren’t doing their share in trying to address the shortfall,” said Ausland. “Administrators have developed a kind of class interest of their own. It can come into conflict with other groups of the university, especially in times of economic adversity.”

Engstrom said administrators remain open to suggestions and will take them into consideration moving forward. He said he’s met personally with colleagues across campus to gather input, and is talking with the faculty union. He also has extended an opportunity to talk with faculty members directly, though there is disagreement among some faculty members on whether to take him up on that offer.

Michael Reid, vice president of administration and finance, also will begin holding weekly meetings to update faculty and the public on the budget, and how it changes from week to week based on future projections.

“The goal is to make sure the budgeting process is transparent and open, for people to understand how things are flowing and how things impact this institution’s finances,” Reid said. “We’ll be looking first and foremost at the FY 2014 budget, and how we can keep the most current and up-to-date information open to the campus community.

“We’ll also look at the funding methodology for the FY 2015 budget and open the discussion on how to move forward on putting that process in place,” he added.

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