Saturday, June 11, 2011

Board of Regents chew on 
University of Minnesota budget plan

The first public look at a proposed budget for the University of Minnesota provoked some angst, some praise -- and strong skepticism from a new member of the U's governing board.
The state's flagship school is planning to raise tuition, cut employee benefits and reduce faculty under a $3.7 billion budget that deals with the "worst-case scenario" of a $70.9 million cut in state funding from this year to next.
New regent and former GOP legislator Steve Sviggum questioned why the U does not cut more employees.
"We've got to recognize reality, folks," said Sviggum, who said he opposes the budget's growth over the past decade. "I think I've seen from my own perceptions that we can make significant reductions in non-teaching and non-research positions."
The Friday meeting set the stage for a dramatic vote June 20.
The proposed budget raises undergraduate tuition 5 percent for Minnesota residents and 8.2 percent for nonresidents. Graduate and professional students could see tuition rise by 3.3 to 9.3 percent, depending on their fields. The 9.3 percent bump applies to first-year Law School students from Minnesota.
The budget assumes a $70.9 million cut in current state funding approved by the GOP-led Legislature but vetoed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. It uses tuition to solve a third of the "budget challenge" created by that cut, plus $58.9 million in increasing costs. The rest comes from a wage freeze, reductions to employee benefits, increased productivity and eliminating faculty and staff positions through layoffs and early retirements.
The budget will force departments to reduce their faculty ranks, said Provost Thomas Sullivan. Coupled with growing enrollment, that will mean fewer courses, fewer sections and larger class sizes.
In the U's biggest college, the College of Liberal Arts, 60 faculty spots will not be filled. The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences will lose 32 faculty positions. Carlson School of Management's faculty roster will fall from 111 to 90, he said.
The Duluth campus has already shrunk by 39 faculty members and, under this budget, plans to shave five more.
"There's not enough money to fulfill all the commitments we have," said Dr. Patricia Simmons, a regent. "And I'm very deeply sorry and sad to see such a potential loss of faculty numbers at a time when we're making progress on graduation rates, when we're improving the quality of our offering."
But the proposed budget, she said, is "the best we can do under the circumstances."
During the public forum, several deans agreed. Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design, called it "strategic, balanced and fair." Several clerical workers, however, said the budget hits the lowest-paid workers too hard.
Cherrene Horazuk, a U clerical worker and chief steward of the AFSCME unit, said the U budget provides for "exorbitant wages for senior administrators and poverty wages for front-line staff.
"Now the administration wants another round of wage cuts," she said, "and they want to shift $10 million out of the health insurance plan in order to balance the overall budget. This is unconscionable."
New regent Laura Brod, a former GOP legislator, was critical of another budget Friday. The board approved a $71.4 million capital improvement budget that included spending already-approved state money on repair and renovation projects, $7.3 million for a new sports field and $3.1 million to design a new dorm on University Avenue. Brod was the one regent to vote against the budget.
"I have a general concern over the aggressive nature of the capital budget," she said.
In meetings Thursday and Friday, Sviggum questioned administrators about growth in total employees. According to the U, total full-time-equivalent positions rose from 16,199 in 2001 to 17,931 in 2011, an increase of 10.7 percent. Sviggum said that other state agencies have dealt with increasing responsibilities and reduced budgets with fewer employees.
U officials responded that they have become more efficient and that much of the growth in budget and employees is a good thing. For example, the U is bringing in more sponsored research dollars and private gifts.
"It has not been the intent of the university to reduce its overall budget," said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's chief financial officer. "This institution has been trying to grow its budget in any way it can."

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