Colleges cut programs, staff to cope with budget woes

Minnesota State University Mankato
Student cross the Minnesota State University campus in Mankato, Minn. on Feb. 4, 2009. The college is one of many that are cutting programs to cope with budget issues.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The budget ax is starting to fall on academic programs at Minnesota colleges, as administrators try to cut spending in anticipation of big state funding cuts.

At Minnesota State University at Mankato, officials have decided to cut 28 programs. Almost twice as many more will see reductions in size.

That will result in the loss of 80 full-time faculty positions, about 13 percent of the full-time faculty.

"It's a very sad day because we're losing a lot outstanding faculty, and that's very hard for the institution," said Scott Olson, provost and vice president of academic affairs at MSU in Mankato.

Olson said school leaders are making the cuts in anticipation of a $6 million to $10 million cut to their budget next year.

"We thought it was better to look at what we thought was a realistic, worst-case scenario and plan toward that scenario," he said. "Hopefully it won't be as bad as that, but we'll have at least planned for what the worst thing might be."

Colleges are constantly evaluating their programs. In better days, Olson said, officials at the Mankato campus might have invested more money to prop up a program with lagging enrollment. Now they're more likely to cut those programs.

"This is the worst situation I think we've seen since the 1970s," he said.

Job and program cuts are happening at colleges nationwide.

That's not only because of declining state funding during a recession, but also because colleges are preparing for tough budget years ahead, said Dan Hurley, a policy analyst for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"Most economic data out there suggests there is not going to be any quick turn around in state appropriations for higher education any time in the next two or three years," he said.

Smart college administrators are planning now for the budget challenges to come in the next 12 to 24 months, Hurley said.

After several months of evaluating their academic offerings, officials at St. Cloud State University decided to eliminate 26 programs.

The programs span the class catalog. A major in geology is on its way out. A master's program in physical education will no longer be offered. A minor in Soviet and Eurasian studies will be phased out.

"These are very tough choices," said Devinder Malhotra, provost and vice president of academic affairs at St. Cloud State. "They are tough choices at all levels."

At St. Cloud State, programs slated for closure will no longer admit new students, Malhotra said. Students already in the programs will be allowed to get their degrees. By the time they graduate though, the programs will be phased out.

Malhotra said the university evaluated each program on its enrollment, cost of delivery, and how viable it is to the state's future workforce. The cuts are an effort to save $6 million.

"The university could no longer afford to do all that it was doing and yet be responsive to the changing environment and context of the society around us," he said.

So far St. Cloud State has evaluated half of its programs. The other half will be investigated soon, with more cuts likely to follow. There will be layoffs, but at this point college officials say they don't know how many.

Plenty of students don't want their programs cut, student government president Michael Jamnick said.

Jamnick said even if students are able to get their degrees, they will worry about the value of their degree if it comes from a program that no longer exists.

"'Well, I've got this degree from this institution that decided my program didn't make the cut,'" he said. "That's one of the concerns the students have."

Some students at St. Cloud State worry the cuts will reflect negatively on the university as a whole.

The cuts on college campuses come as school officials worry about another tight state budget next year, when lawmakers are expected to face another deficit, nearly $6 billion. That has all colleges in the state taking a hard look at their programs.

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