Separate Myths From Facts

Tom Schellhardt writes that college budgets aren't as flexible as some would like.

April 7, 2011

Like classic mythology, the guest opinion, "Myths on Program Elimination" by Howard Bunsis and Gwendolyn Bradley, in the March 31 edition of Inside Higher Ed, contains just enough facts to fool many readers into believing this tall tale.

Let's start with the truth. And on these points the authors and I agree. Yes, furloughs can diminish the quality of education provided at a university. And yes, furloughs should be used as a last resort, instead of layoffs -- as they were used at the University of Northern Iowa. And I would agree that if, and I stress if, public universities were for-profit companies, our balance sheet could look much different. And yes, UNI, like many public universities, continues to face very difficult financial times.

The financial information the authors provided is inaccurate. And like those figures, their arguments aren't just inaccurate, they're not based in reality.

Bunsis and Bradley imply that all revenue received by a public university is unrestricted and available for any use. This couldn't be further from the truth. Public universities aren't private for-profit companies. And public university presidents aren't corporate CEOs who may have the latitude to spend funds any way they wish. By law, public institutions of higher education must spend state funds as directed by their state legislature. The authors should understand this, but persist in telling fables.

For instance, they imply that room and board paid by students can be siphoned off to fill gaps made by a severe drop in state appropriations. Those funds can't be touched by the university. Bunsis and Bradley go on to imply that state and federal funds directed for capital projects and grant projects can be used to erase deficits in the university's general-education fund. Again, state and federal funds are restricted, and must be used for the intended purpose. Our hands are tied.

Under a system such as the authors portray, an unscrupulous university president could redirect room and board revenue to fund faculty salaries, or even athletic coaches' salaries. The trust between the president and the students and their families would be forever lost. UNI's financial statements, including our statement of cash flows, are online. We invite interested readers to review them to better understand this issue.

Yes, public universities face some very tough and very real financial challenges. Now is the time we must put aside petty bickering, separate the myths from the facts and work to find solutions.


Tom Schellhardt is vice president for administration and financial services at the University of Northern Iowa.


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