Budget Cutting Strategies Reviewed

The hardest hit public universities have eliminated staff and contingent faculty slots, but still have "strategic" thinking to do about the long term, an association survey finds.
November 12, 2009

Scrambling to address revenue shortfalls, the hardest hit public universities most often chose to delay deferred maintenance projects, cut staff and reduce contingent faculty positions, according to a survey released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. But those institutions still have plenty of "strategic" thinking to do about long term solutions, the survey found.

Of the responding universities where budgets have been cut by at least 10 percent, more than 90 percent have reduced permanent and part-time staff positions. In that same sample, about 88 percent are putting off maintenance projects and reducing adjunct faculty slots.

Raising tuition hasn’t proven the panacea for public universities, the survey notes. While more than 90 percent of all responding institutions raised tuition and fees, half of those surveyed said education revenues -- the sum of net tuition dollars and state appropriations -- still declined. Consequently, universities have reduced services that benefit students even as they’ve required them to pay more. Indeed, 55 percent said student support services were “harmed” by state cuts, and 54 percent said their ability to maintain academic programs and course offerings had been hampered by the reductions.

Even as public universities cram more students into classes -- nearly 58 percent report larger sections -- they appear to have no intention of slowing enrollment as a general rule, the survey suggests. Quite the contrary, 63 percent of responding universities see enrollment increases as part of a long-term revenue growth strategy, compared with just 10 percent that plan to decrease enrollment in specific areas to manage costs.

About 70 percent of universities said they were relying on federal stimulus dollars as a short-term strategy, but there's considerable anxiety about whether states will replace that money when it runs out.

Of the 188 institutions surveyed, 87 colleges, or 46 percent, responded. Of those that responded, which were primarily large research institutions, 85 percent reported some decrease in state appropriations, and nearly half saw cuts of 10 percent or more.

Many Plan Strategic Reviews

The survey asked universities to articulate both short-term and long-term strategies. In the long term, the most popular response -- by 78 percent -- was to invest in more energy efficient systems. Barring that, however, most institutions said they would conduct “strategic review(s)” of areas as diverse as administrative structures, distance education and tuition levels.

While the survey suggests that some hard choices have already been made by public universities, the long-term solutions indicate universities are still more apt to conduct further reviews than announce permanent changes at this point. Indeed, 67 percent of respondents said they plan a strategic review of administrative structures, compared with just 22 percent that said they plan to permanently change staffing levels for tenured and tenure-track faculty.

“We’ve taken cuts where we can, and now the campuses are really doing the very hard things and asking how can we change fundamentally,” said David Shulenburger, vice president of academic affairs for the APLU.

There are notable distinctions between the responses provided by the hardest hit universities and those that have suffered less significant cuts. Of those universities where appropriations have decreased by 10 percent or more, 21 percent have laid off tenured or tenure-track faculty, the survey says. In contrast, none of the institutions with appropriations decreases of less than 10 percent said they’d laid off tenured or tenure-track faculty.

Unsurprisingly, mandated furloughs were also less common at institutions with smaller budget reductions. About 15 percent of respondents with budget cuts of less than 10 percent said they’d mandated furloughs, compared to 36 percent of universities with more severe reductions.


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