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Shallower Pockets

Shallower Pockets
October 5, 2005

Professors at Case Western Reserve University might be staying at Motel 6 instead of the Marriott when they go to a conference this year, but for the most part, few major adjustments are expected as a result of the university’s budget shortfall.

Officials at the private research university in Cleveland realized last month that with revenues down, it would have to cut $17 million from its original $800 million operating budget for the 2006 fiscal year, which began October 1.

Because the budget shortfall is only 2 percent, the university is hoping it can cut costs creatively, and expects to do so without reaching into the endowment jar, or touching money for faculty salaries and student life. Paul Gerhart, a professor of labor relations and the chair of the Faculty Senate budget committee, said the head of his department still plans to pay expenses for a faculty member presenting at a professional conference, but “he has asked us to shop for alternative airfares and hotels.”

Case Western administrators are still trying to figure out all the pieces to the deficit puzzle, but, according to Hossein Sadid, Case Western’s chief financial officer, two pieces are clear: Research revenues and expendable gifts are down.

Case has felt the federal funding squeeze at the National Institutes of Health, which, after years of explosive growth as Congress doubled its budget through the early part of this decade, is now seeing much smaller increases. Some projects that researchers thought were ripe for refunding, such as the university Alzheimer’s Center, which had been supported by NIH since 1988, have not had their grants renewed.

“We all recognized what was happening in terms of federal funding” nationally, said Ronald Wright, a microbiology professor and chair of the Faculty Senate. “But some of us felt that, we’ve been a very successful research university, ‘We won’t get affected.’ ” 

Wright said that the decreased availability has taken a toll on morale among researchers used to getting funding year after year. “There’s an attitude among some of the long term researchers of, ‘Why should I knock myself out when I know it won’t be refunded in this atmosphere?’” Wright said, adding that revenues could decline further if too many researchers take that stance. 

Case Western has also seen donations decline from a peak of about $180 million in 2001 to about $69 million in 2004, with a bit of a rebound to $87 million last fiscal year. Ann Kaplan, director of the Council for Aid to Education’s Voluntary Support of Education survey, said that many universities saw donations dip with the stock market in 2001.

Both Sadid and Wright felt that at least part of the overall decline could be attributed to the fact that some people in the mood for philanthropy in recent years have been giving to “more immediate needs,” Wright said, such as Tsunami relief. “People are saying, ‘Where is the need?’ “ Wright said. “There are some direct needs right now.”

Based on a quick review of her statistics, Kaplan did not think that giving to aid organizations, like the Red Cross, has correlated with a decline in donations to colleges. “I don’t think big donors are constrained to giving to one thing,” she said.

Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that Case Western is not alone in its federal grant woes. “Success rates for grants at NIH and [the National Science Foundation] have been declining for a few years now,” Koizumi said. “Universities will have to adjust.” He added that it has been particularly difficult for medical research departments. “During the growth period [at NIH], there was a big expansion of medical research capacity, and now that it’s time to fill all those new research facilities, the funding situation has changed.”

Case Western asked the deans and vice presidents of all its colleges to propose plans to cut expenses that will be considered at a Board of Trustees meeting later this month. “We’re continuing to make investments,” Sadid said, referring to the five-year Vision investment plan that will expand pressing areas of research, like public health and environmentally sustainable business. “But we have to adjust to the reality of the revenue flow.” Peter Whitehouse, a professor of neurology, said the shortage “isn’t pleasant, but with an institution this size, and not having to tap into the endowment, it isn’t as earth shattering” as some media accounts have made it seem, adding that he is glad the university is investing aggressively.

So far, there are no blanket solutions. Hiring will continue, Sadid said, but the university will make sure that an essential need is being filled. Though Case Western had a record incoming class of 1,150 – it expected about 900 -- this year, faculty members have not yet been asked to teach more. 

Faculty members in some of the departments that don’t generate much of their own revenue hope they can continue to rely on money being passed to them. “We haven’t really hired in the last five years,” said Ron Wilson, chair of the theater and dance department. “We use a lot of visiting lecturers. For us, it’s pretty much business as usual.” 

Students are concerned, if only because nobody knows where cutbacks will be made. “When specific cuts some out, students might have something to say about it,” said Laura Castro, a senior and editor of The Observer. "All we know right now is that it’s 2 percent.” 

Because of the extensive damage Hurricane Katrina caused on the Gulf Coast this year, Wright, the Faculty Senate chair, doesn’t expect the overall financial picture to get a whole lot rosier anytime soon. “The federal funding climate isn’t helping anything,” he said. “That money for disaster has to come from somewhere, and it’s going to affect everybody.”

 

 

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