Wednesday, February 10, 2016

University presidents still bristling at budget cuts

This from Ronnie Ellis in the Daily Independent:

University presidents weren’t prepared for Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed cuts to higher education, announced in his address to a joint session of the General Assembly two weeks ago — especially the 4.5 percent cuts he’s asking universities to enact in the current year.

Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell described the news as a “bombshell.” Morehead State University’s Wayne Andrews called it “shocking.”
Then Raymond Burse, president at Kentucky State University, said KSU could “financially collapse,” saying the historically black university in Frankfort “cannot withstand” the 4.5 percent cuts in the current year.

“We’re almost seven months into the fiscal year,” said Andrews. “And 75 percent of our budget is tied up in people and salaries, so this is a very serious problem.”

MSU will need to cut back by $1.9 million somehow before June 30 and by about $3.96 million next year. Because Bevin’s budget calls for adjusting funding to Western and Northern Kentucky University to equalize per student funding with other schools, Western’s cut will be slightly less.

But Ransdell said it still means cuts of $3.5 million this year and $6.7 million next year.

The presidents have to tread carefully. They don’t want to offend the new governor even as they are desperate to protect funding for higher education, funding which has already declined by $173.5 million over the past eight years.

They’re quick to say they’re happy to work with Bevin and his staff and Bevin’s budget director told the Herald-Leader Bevin may be willing to let the universities spread the cuts over the next two years.

A lot of lawmakers aren’t happy about the cuts either.

The cuts “are why I signed on as a co-sponsor of tax reform,” said Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, who said she’s heard from Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson about how hard it is to cut this year’s budget so late in the year.

But Bevin has said he won’t sign a budget which varies much from his proposal and neither Bevin nor Senate Republicans are likely to go along with anything which might be characterized as a tax increase in an election year.

House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, a Morehead graduate and supporter, called the cuts in the current year “devastating.”

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, is chair of the Senate Education Committee said he is “disappointed by the deepness of the cuts to higher education. It’s extremely tough to cut 4.5 percent out in the current year.”

Wilson said the final budget is always the product of a long process which begins in the House and then goes to the Senate before the two sides usually meet to work out a compromise between the two versions. He’s hopeful lawmakers can find a way to soften the cuts, especially those for the current year.

Adkins said there aren’t a lot of options for universities if the cuts hold: the cuts will have to come in the form of personnel or program cuts — or higher tuition costs for students and their parents.
Ransdell said there’s only so much tuition increase students and parents can bear after years of increases to offset state reductions.

In 2001, Andrews said, the state provided about 65 percent of the cost of instruction at MSU while tuition made up 35 percent; now state funding makes up only 37 percent while tuition pays 63 percent.

Bevin also wants to dramatically change the way universities are awarded state funding. By 2020, Bevin wants all university funding tied to performance measurements although he hasn’t said what those will be.

Andrews said about 20 states use some form of performance funding for higher education, but none uses it to determine all of their higher education appropriations.

Bevin also suggests higher priority should be given to degrees sought by employers or aligned with employment opportunities, saying taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize such liberal arts degrees as French literature. That’s not how the presidents view a college education.

Benson, the EKU president, penned an op-ed in which he argues that liberal arts education is increasingly important in the modern workplace, especially as the workplace becomes more automated.

Andrews said it’s misguided to see higher education as “super-vocational schools.”

“The purpose of a comprehensive education is to educate the whole person,” Andrews said. “To enliven the creative spirit, to inform about great ideas that for generations have been passed down through history and philosophy, art and music . . . to create a person who has a spiritual and emotional understanding of things.”

Besides, Adkins said, Kentucky has a way to respond to employer needs — the community and technical colleges. That was a primary purpose of the 1998 reform of higher education and doesn’t need to be re-invented.

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