Monday, July 19, 2010

'Less with less': Area institutes of higher education plan for deep budget cuts

Jared Janes | The Monitor
July 19, 2010

EDINBURG — Plans to adjust the University of Texas-Pan American’s curriculum may run into a roadblock as the state slashes budgets to compensate for a $18 billion shortfall.

Hoping to produce more graduates that the area’s workforce needed, UTPA President Robert Nelsen requested a study to take stock of needs for the region’s higher education system.

The final report completed in April, just four months after Nelsen took office, showed that the supply of school teachers, nurses and civil engineers from UTPA and the University of Texas-Brownsville failed to meet the Valley’s annual job openings.

With limited academic programs in the fast-growing medical industry or in the emerging green jobs field, Nelsen also wanted to expand in those areas to mold UTPA’s graduates for the jobs of tomorrow.

But any curriculum adjustments are likely to be put on hold as higher educational institutions in the state face budget cuts.

Gov. Rick Perry asked state agencies to cut 5 percent from their budgets for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years — university administrators were able to meet that without layoffs, furloughs or slashing of academic or support programs.

Now the state has asked agencies to trim another 10 percent for the 2012-2013 biennium.

The total reduction in state funding is estimated at $21.8 million at UTPA, which will collect $111.6 million in general fund revenue over the next two years

During the first round of cuts, Nelsen told university employees that layoffs wouldn’t be necessary but now says he can no longer make that promise for 2012-13. Some new initiatives originally identified in UTPA’s initial budget could be scrapped as the university seeks ways to cut costs.

And the study’s recommendations for future academic programs — such as in the growing field of electronic medical records — could also be put on hold indefinitely.

In UTPA’s budget reduction guidelines, Nelsen asked department heads to identify core functions and then choose activities that can be cut.

"You can’t make budget cuts from the top down," said Nelsen, who must submit UTPA’s plan for meeting the proposed 10 percent cut by August. "You’ve got to go down to the individuals and say what is core for you."

Department functions are prioritized with instruction first, research second and public service third.
Nelsen said he wants to avoid cuts to classroom instruction to protect students from the state’s budgetary woes.
But some changes are inevitable at a university that prides itself for already running a lean operation.

Tuition and fees will rise 4.9 percent but still rank among the lowest of the state’s universities. Class sizes will be pushed to near the maximum, and some course offerings will be delivered online or not at all.

The university’s wide range of public outreach programs will feel the pinch first.

Library employees who work in a depository program for federal and state documents are likely to be shifted elsewhere as the service is cut. The university’s enrollment office may limit the trips its financial aid and admissions officers make to meet with area high school students.

The most visible outcome of UTPA’s budget reductions may be a dwindling number of employees who work at the university, the third largest employer in Edinburg, Nelsen said.

But the simple economics of reductions in general fund revenues is that the burden of paying for higher education shifts more toward students, said Shirley Reed, the president of South Texas College, which reduced its budget by a total of $3 million for the next two years.  

The college’s budget used to be derived in equal thirds from the state’s general revenue fund allocations, local property taxes and student tuition and fees.

But with state contributions now at closer to 28 percent, the greatest cost is borne by South Texas College’s students. In the economically depressed Valley, that could limit access to higher education for first generation college students from low-income families.

"Of those three, the ones who are most vulnerable and least compared to cope with it are our students," said Reed, who believes the reductions will be amended once the state is on stronger financial footing.


At UTPA, some cuts may be more visible than others.

James Langabeer, the vice president for business affairs, has 14 vacant positions that he does not intend to fill in a division that includes the maintenance and grounds crew. With each employee now tasked with maintaining about 50 acres, the university’s freshly manicured lawns may be replaced with slightly higher grass.

To find other savings, the university reduced the number of dumpsters on campus to cut its garbage bill from the city; tasked its thousands of computers on campus to automatically power down when not in use; and scaled back on capital improvement plans for new classroom and office space, which will cause the university’s space deficit to grow if enrollment trends continued.

Those minor adjustments added up to a significant cost savings but may only be a prelude to future cuts, said Nelsen, who has frequently cautioned his employees to make every penny count as UTPA looks at a scenario where it will have to do "less with less."

"My biggest concern is in doing less, we have to make certain that we always keep the student at the forefront in every decision we make," Nelsen said. "It’s easy to not do that."

Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.

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