Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Steering Through the Storm?

From the Daily:

The University of Minnesota faces a budget shortfall of $132.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year and bleak projections for the foreseeable future. Left unchecked, the University’s annual deficit will exceed $1 billion by 2025.

But with just 15 months remaining in Bruininks’ presidency, his administration has limited time to send the University toward a sustainable future.

In October, Bruininks established the Advancing Excellence Steering Committee, charged with guiding the decisions that will soon be made about the University’s future. In an e-mail obtained by the Daily, Bruininks told the committee, “We have just 12 months to 14 months to be prepared to publicly articulate our priorities and needs.”

Determining those priorities and needs is a task unlike any he has faced in his tenure at the University, Bruininks said in a recent interview.

Computer science professor Joe Konstan was a part of the Institute of Technology’s blue ribbon committee. As he went through the process of trying to find fat that could be trimmed out of the college’s 2010-11 budget, Konstan ended up frustrated.

“We looked at the data and said, ‘We’re pretty lean, and we’re doing really well,’ ” he said.

Liberal Arts’ “CLA 2015” was the only blue ribbon committee to publicly release its recommendations. It laid out $5.58 million of cuts, but no specific departments or programs were targeted.

The CLA 2015 report released Feb. 1 directed its largest cuts to instruction, suggesting a $2 million reduction — about one-third — of vacant faculty positions and $1.53 million — 5 percent — of the budget for teaching and peer assistants.

The committee reported to CLA Dean Jim Parente that the college could not sustain another round of cuts of the same magnitude and still continue to effectively operate all of its units.

And the CLA committee was not alone.

“I came away feeling a big chunk of the solution isn’t going to be deciding we can do things a bit more efficiently here or there, but deciding there are substantial chunks [of the University] that, as much as we can do them well, we just can’t afford to do,” Konstan said of his involvement on the IT blue ribbon committee.

How the future of the academic landscape at the University will take shape is still unknown. When confronting questions as large as cutting or gutting entire programs or departments, some believe the process must be democratic. Others say the administration should make the difficult choices, but they still have doubts about whether the administration will be informed by adequate consultation.

Provost Tom Sullivan said the Steering Committee is not a decision-making body, nor will it recommend individual programs or departments for reduction or discontinuation. Potential program changes filter through Sullivan regardless, with final authority designated to the Board of Regents.

Sullivan said decisions will emanate from a groundswell, bottom-up process, but there are faculty members who wonder if their ideas will be given full weight.

“The real question is … will they be able to receive all of the information in all of its detail and subtlety at the top?” asked William Beeman, an anthropology professor and faculty senate member. He said many in the senate classify the decision-making at the University as top-down, just the opposite of what Sullivan describes.

“There’s some suspicion among faculty members … that many of the decisions will be made in a top-down manner and that the consultation is largely cosmetic.”

And yet, few at the University seem to have an idea of what, specifically, Bruininks and other leaders are thinking about the future.

On March 25, the faculty senate gathered to discuss and vote on a 1.15 percent temporary pay cut for faculty and a mandatory three-day furlough for hourly employees. Konstan stood at a microphone, a single sheet of paper in hand, and calmly launched into a diatribe against the leadership of the University.

“I’ve heard some half-completed plans for the coming year — plans that seem to keep changing,” Konstan said. “And I’ve heard that 2012 will be worse.

“I wish I had that trust in our leaders. I wish the last few years have convinced me that we had a vision and a strategy. But they didn’t and I don’t.”

Konstan’s speech on March 25 accurately reflected the sentiment of many faculty members, said Chris Cramer, a chemistry professor and Faculty Consultative Committee member.

“The decisions are really difficult, but at some point you’ve got to make some specific proposals, not just say, ‘We’re going to use this to improve our excellence,’ ” Cramer said. “Only so many committees can meet before someone has to say something other than, ‘Let’s form another committee to study this.’ ”

The call for transparency has reverberated from the faculty to the students to the staff. For Chris Uggen, co-chairman of the CLA 2015 committee, transparency is the ability to examine the cost of the spectrum of programs and services the University provides.

“If things cost a lot to do, that doesn’t mean we have to stop doing it,” he said. “We just have to be aware and make a conscious decision.”

For others, transparency means periodic updates on specific ideas the leadership is considering. Cramer said the administration is forthcoming when asked for information, but they’re not always aggressive enough about disseminating potential proposals.

A number of other schools have already proposed or implemented significant program cuts. Michigan State University is currently evaluating the discontinuation of 49 academic programs. Deans, department chairs and faculty at the University of Iowa are weighing-in on 14 graduate programs identified by a provost-appointed committee, and Florida State University has already axed 13 programs.

Konstan said he appreciates that Bruininks or Sullivan can’t announce the closing of a college or program tomorrow, but he hasn’t seen substantial progress toward balancing the budget in 2011, 2012 and beyond.

“Nobody’s saying anything except for the fact that we have serious problems and they’re getting worse. My concern is with what we’re going to do about that.”

In addition, the University must compete for state money with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ web of four-year, community and technical colleges that sprawl across the state.

Before MnSCU reached all corners of Minnesota, the University was, by default, all things to all people. In the 1960s, when she was considering which college to attend, the University was basically the only public choice in the metro area, said Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Committee.

That’s no longer the case. Students have options, and lots of them. State money for higher education is limited and dwindling, so the University and MnSCU will each have to decide where their institutions are strongest, Pappas said.

The joke for years, Konstan said, has been that the University can ask for anything, and then it will get whatever MnSCU gets. That’s an unproductive way to approach it, he said, and the state as a whole needs someone to talk about where there’s overlap and duplication. Kostnan admitted there may not be the political will for state officials to force campus or program closures.

“Although I do still think there’s a special place for undergraduate education, [the University is] not the only option,” Pappas said. “I think the U is going to have to focus a little more on the graduate and postgraduate fields.”

When tuition increases offset decreases in state appropriation, the money isn’t always plowed back to the students. In a February memo to Bruininks, the faculty senate committee on finance and planning said: “It also appears the added [tuition] money will be controlled by central administration rather than the schools and colleges. The increases will have to be used to offset state budget cuts and therefore will not be available for instructional purposes.”

Bruininks said he doesn’t want to kick the University’s fiscal woes down the road. Much can be done in 15 months, he said, and he wants to use all of his remaining time.

“I’m going to do everything I can, working with the academic community, to put this University in a stronger position to deal with the challenges and issues we have before us,” Bruininks said of his remaining time as president. “We won’t get everything done, but I think we can get a lot done.”

Sad, and the inevitable consequences of what has gone on here at the University, for years. Please see:

Can BigU become GreatBigU? (2007)


We have no money, therefore we must think

Meanwhile on another planet, our provost and heir apparent - the one in the striped shirt above - writes in a blanket email today:

"As I have said before, our mission is clear, our goal unchanged, and despite the budgetary challenges we face, our progress continues."

Tom, please read the article above. Our goals must change. Could we please start being honest around here?

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