U of M shuts down campus over holidays to trim costs

Folwell Hall
Folwell Hall on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

For ages, colleges and universities have virtually shut down over the winter holiday break with most students, faculty and staff leaving campus.

Still, the University of Minnesota campuses remained up and running during the holiday break, although at a slower pace.

That'll change this year as the university shuts down its campuses across the state over the winter break. Finding ways to save money during the sleepy holiday schedule is part of the school's effort to trim its more than $3 billion annual budget.

Only hospitals, some labs and a few residence halls will remain open, U of M spokesman Dan Wolter said.

Professors who want to catch up on grading will have to do it from home. Students won't have access to most services.

"I think it's important for students in particular to plan ahead," Wolter said. "Some of our One Stop student services and things like that will be closed down."

Wolter said the shutdown will put libraries, classrooms and office buildings in "weekend mode."

"It's comparable to what you do at your house when you turn the heat down," he said. "It obviously requires less energy to heat a building when the thermostat is at 55 as opposed to 68. So that will be a portion where a lot of savings will be incurred."

The university expects to save $160,000 on its power bill from Christmas to New Year's on the Minneapolis campus alone because of the shutdown.

Much bigger savings will come from a mandatory, three-day unpaid furlough that will affect 8,200 hourly university workers.

University officials don't know how much the furlough will save. But combined with a roughly 1 percent pay cut for salaried faculty and staff, they expect to trim about $18 million in payroll from this year's budget.

The unpaid holiday time off isn't something lowest-paid workers are looking forward to.

Phyllis Walker, president of the union representing clerical workers at the U of M, said the three-day furlough represents $300 or $400 less in the last pay envelope of the year for many workers.

"That's going to have a huge impact, if you have children and you want to celebrate the holidays in any way," Walker said. "That's going to have a huge impact on the dinner you're going to prepare, and on toys you're going to be able to buy."

The U of M isn't alone in handing out unpaid furloughs during the holiday season. Most workers in the 26-campus University of Wisconsin system were forced to take an unpaid vacation the day after Thanksgiving. They'll take another one Dec. 30. It's one of many furlough days imposed on all Wisconsin state workers this fiscal year.

Furthermore, the University of Minnesota isn't the only Minnesota college that plans to save money during the holiday break.

This is the second year the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph will shut down completely.

There's no furlough for workers at St. Ben's. Instead, they're being offered a few extra days of paid vacation so the college can turn the heat, lights and water off.

Last year the college saved $10,000 in electricity alone. This year facilities director Jim Schumann hopes they will save even more.

"We're going to drop our temperature down to 50 degrees -- we were at 55 last year," he said. "We also won't be running campus buses because we won't have any students on campus."

About 20 students will be on campus during the break. But they will be allowed to stay in their dorm rooms because they each have their own thermostat.

Schumann said the college will save money on fuel because maintenance vehicles won't be zipping around campus. He also expects some savings on the college's water bill.

For their part, the 32 schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System also have plans to reduce energy use when students aren't around this holiday season.

But one MnSCU college is going against the shutdown trend over the holidays.

Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington will remain open and offer four for-credit classes: physical education, speech, music and history.

"We use it as a time to gain students -- not only our own students, but students from different colleges that are looking to pick up a few credits," said Amber Luinenburg, a spokewoman for the college. "They might be home visiting for the holidays. It's a good opportunity for us to get students on campus that normally wouldn't be on campus."

The seven-day courses are also beamed to video classrooms at Minnesota West satellite campuses throughout western Minnesota.

About 200 students are expected to sign up for the classes -- students who normally wouldn't be spending tuition dollars on holiday break, Luinenburg said.

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