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University Budget Cuts

March 27, 2009

Because of the current economic crises, universities like many companies and state agencies are facing significant budget cuts .  How these cuts are imposed on academic units (colleges, departments) and non-academic units (physical plant, student services) will have a major impact in both the short-term and long-term on the ability of the university to carry our its core missions of teaching and research.  How universities make their budget cuts is not only of great concern to their faculty and staff, but increasingly to students and their parents.

To deal effectively with budget cuts,  the central missions of the university, teaching and research, need to be preserved at all costs and even enhanced, if possible.  In descending order of importance, these two missions require:

a. Tenure-track and other faculty,

b. Undergraduate and graduate students,

c. Classrooms, laboratories and other facilities,

d. Academic colleges, departments and programs, and

e. Support staff and facilities.

University administrators when facing budget cuts typically will claim that these cuts will be made strategically, that is, in such a way that the core missions of the university are preserved.  However, internal and external politics often make this very difficult to do.  Nevertheless, many universities have developed guidelines or principles for dealing with them. The following guidelines or principles were gleaned from budget-reduction plans developed at a number of universities.

(1) Conserve core academic programs.

(2) Preserve the university’s ability to recruit and retain students.

(3) Ensure that students can graduate on time.

(4) Target budget cuts with a view to improving academic programs and units.

(5) Suspend filling administrative and support positions whose loss will not affect the short-term operation of academic programs or units.

(6) Eliminate administrative and support positions with minimal impact on academic programs.

(7) Lower administrative/operating costs of colleges and other units.

(8) Consolidate the duties of administrators and support staff.

(9) Adopt alternative methods for delivering courses.

(10) Use internal resources (teaching assistatns, postdocs, or lecturers) to fill open faculty lines until conditions improve rather than closing lines.

(11) Eliminate course duplication among departments and colleges.

(12) Consolidate small or similar departments into larger units to save on operational and administrative costs.

(13) Eliminate off-campus academic programs.

(14) Eliminate unneeded committees and task forces to free up faculty and staff time.

(15) Have qualified administrators teach.

(16) Eliminate or outsource support programs.

(17 ) Make better use of the summer session to generate revenues.

(18) Encourage staff and faculty to take unpaid leaves with a guarantee that they will have their positions and salaries back when they return.

(19)     Offer early retirement incentives.

(20) Defer building maintenance.

(21) Reduce building and grounds upkeep.

Unfortunately, many administrators are, in reality, not making strategic budget cuts.  Instead, across the board cuts in faculty and staff benefits are common, as is indiscriminately closing open faculty and staff lines.   Cuts in staff or faculty lines, however, are not suppose to result in cuts in services, including the number of courses being taught. Administrators  seem to believe that staff and faculty are not “fully employed” and that they can easily take more duties without adversely affecting the performance of their duties. As any faculty and staff member knows, this is not true.  University faculty typically work over 60+ hrs per week.

At a minimum, universites facing significant budget cuts need to do the following:

(1) Establish general principles/guidelines needed for prioritizing budget cuts and for setting budget targets for all major university units, both academic and non-academic. Collectively, these principles should provide a vision of what the university should look like after the budget cuts. They will determine what program cuts should be made based on the centrality, uniqueness, quality, and demand for programs by students or others.

(2) Encourage and facilitate discussions among administrators, faculty and staff about  all possible means to achieve  budget reductions.  A consultative process is essential to identify the most acceptable options for reaching the budget target for each unit. Each unit should decide what they will cut by using the principles/guidelines to establish budget-cutting priorities.

(3) Fine tuning cuts and making final decisions about the proposals made by each unit to reach their budget target to be sure that they are consistent with the university’s principles/guidelines.

Such a procedure is not guaranteed to produce a budget cutting  strategy that will minimize damage to the institution, but it is likely to allow budget cuts to be made with less anxiety and paranoia.

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