Mixed reaction to U of M's plans to close $152M deficit

U of M budget forum
About 20 University of Minnesota staff, faculty and students spoke Monday at a public forum on the U's next budget. The U plans to use a tuition hike, temporary pay cuts and lay offs to fix a $152 million dollar budget shortfall looming in the next fiscal year.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Faculty, staff and students at the University of Minnesota are offering a mixed reaction to the administrations plan to plug a $152 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

To balance the books, President Robert Bruininks has proposed a budget that raises tuition, gets rids of dozens of faculty positions and reduces class offerings. The plan also includes a temporary pay cut for most employees and a mandatory three-day furlough for all university workers.

Feelings on next year's budget at the university seem to fall on one side of the fence or the other. Nine of the 19 people who testified at a public forum on Monday said they think the university's administration is properly handling the looming budget shortfall.

One of them was Will Craig, a staff member at the university's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

"I've never seen a financial situation as bad as the current one. I think the university is taking the right steps to address this under the leadership of President Bruininks," Craig said.

But others, especially clerical workers at the university, don't like Bruininks' budget fix.

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Tammy Thompson is part of the support staff at the university's medical school. Thompson thinks the budget is being balanced on the backs of the school's lowest paid workers.

"We need this university to share the pain that we're experiencing. How does that happen? Reduce salaries of administrative staff, chop from the top," she said. "A 4 or 5 percent reduction on a six-figure salary can't be compared to the pain of a lay off for someone making $35,000 a year."

Some at Monday's public forum worried that cuts to next year's budget might hurt the quality of an education at the University of Minnesota, especially in the College of Liberal Arts.

University administrators say next year the CLA is likely to lose dozens of faculty positions. Some classes could disappear altogether, and others will be offered fewer times during the semester.

Jessie Simmons
Jessie Simmons, a student at the University of Minnesota, is afraid budget cuts at the U next year could hurt the quality of his education.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"This is how to achieve excellence?" asked Eva Von Dassow, a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies. "This is how to achieve an extraordinary undergraduate education?"

Only one undergraduate student spoke at Monday's meeting. Jessie Simmons said he is concerned that because of faculty reductions, fewer classes will be taught by qualified instructors.

"I have had classes that have been taught by instructors, but at the same time these classes are taught partially, or mostly in some cases, by teachers' assistants," Simmons said. "That's not an accredited, university education in my point of view."

Simmons also worried about the jump in tuition in next year's budget. Most students face a 7.5 percent increase, but federal stimulus money will help hold down the increase for in-state undergrads to around 4.5 percent, on par with recent tuition increases announced by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the state's private liberal arts colleges. The increase would put a a year of tuition at the university at just over $11,000.

For many of the university's lowest paid workers, it's the mandatory furloughs that seem to be the problem. Phyllis Walker, president of the union that represents the school's clerical workers, thinks furloughs should only be mandatory for the highest paid employees at the university.

"Those 85 people who are the senior administrators, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, associate vice presidents -- there are quite a few of them -- they make very, very high salaries and should take a lot more days off," Walker said.

Walker says employees should be asked if they can afford to take a voluntary furlough.

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Bruininks contends that offering voluntary furloughs wouldn't save enough money, but he's encouraging those who can afford it to take as many as 10 unpaid days before the end of the year. The money saved would go into the employee's own department budget.

"In my own case I'm taking the full 10 days, and that money will go to the president's office and maintain the employment of people who work there," he said.

Bruininks said the budget reductions are necessary not only because of rising costs, but because the university saw a nearly $200 million cut in funding from the state in the last two years. He says more painful changes are coming for the university as the 2012 and 2013 budget years could shape up to be even more challenging.

The university's Board of Regents will vote on whether to approve next year's budget on June 22.