Buyouts fall short, layoffs more likely

Ninety-seven professors faced  a Friday deadline to accept or decline the early retirement offers MSUM mailed to them last month.

University officials were willing to grant about 35 buyouts to help solve next year’s projected budget deficit of $4.9 million – and potentially another $3 million the following year – through voluntary departures. In a Saturday email, Provost Anne Blackhurst indicated 19 professors accepted buyouts, as did two staff members.

“Given the small size of some of the departments, I cannot name the departments where (buyouts) were accepted because it would, de facto, identify some of the individuals who accepted the offers,” Blackhurst wrote.

“We would have come very close,” to eliminating the deficit without further reductions, “if every department had accepted a (buyout),” the provost said in a Wednesday interview. Now, deans and administrators will evaluate each department to determine where to, as Blackhurst put it, “invest, sustain or reduce.”

Faculty members will learn buyout details, including how big of a “hole there still is in the budget” at their monthly meeting with administration Thursday, said Faculty Association President Ted Gracyk, a philosophy professor.

Over the past month, a 10-member Deficit Reduction Advisory Group (DRAG), made up primarily of professors, met to develop the criteria administrators will use to prioritize departments. The quantitative factors – enrollment, cost and productivity – will be balanced with four other factors that Blackhurst listed on her blog Nov. 1. They are: How departments fit into “the university’s new strategic plan, potential curricular efficiencies, mission centrality and program quality.”

DRAG’s work is finished, Blackhurst said.

“They were happy to advise on the process …,” she said. “But when we get to the point where we make decisions about where to reduce or eliminate, that’s not their role as faculty, that’s our role as administrators.”

According to the posted schedule, deans will meet with each department through next Tuesday to discuss programs in detail. The next day, Nov. 20, administrators will release a list “with clear identification of those programs/departments where reductions are likely.” Departments have until Nov. 26 to respond to that document. At the faculty union’s next meeting with administrators on Dec. 5, officials will reveal, “specific plans for personnel reductions.” The faculty union has until Dec. 20 to offer any objections to the plan.

Last week, MSUM officials released a fact sheet comparing each department by enrollment, cost per full-year student, number of student credit hours per full-time faculty and revenue generated during summer session.

While the physical sciences have experienced steady to explosive enrollment, some social sciences have had dramatic declines. Overall, the 11.5 percent enrollment decline since 2010 is blamed for the bulk of the deficit. Without additional context, the raw data falls short of fully telling each department’s story – its value to the university.

But President Edna Szymanski said it’s clear “our resources aren’t necessarily in the places that most make sense in terms of our enrollment patterns.

“The bottom line is – it’s all about students. We’re accountable to you.”

Blackhurst emphasized decisions won’t be all about the numbers. For instance, mass communications enrollment is down 23 percent over the past four years, but it received a $1 million gift in September to start a new Center for Innovative Journalism.

“If mass communications can take advantage of strategic opportunities, that’s a factor in our decision making,” Blackhurst said.

Besides the buyouts, MSUM might solve a large chunk of the remaining deficit by not renewing some fixed-term (there are 54 non-athletic related professors) or adjunct faculty (368) contracts. That’s not considered a layoff.

“There is absolutely no basis (for the union) to challenge that decision,” Gracyk said.

In fact, the faculty union’s position, he said, is to eliminate all adjunct and fixed-terms before cutting any probationary or tenured faculty.

“Of course, we’re a union, and we project full-time jobs,” he said. “You can’t run a university with adjuncts. Adjuncts have their role.”

Spending on adjunct faculty each year in the School of Teaching and Learning, the music department and the mass communications department totals $800,000; more than the rest of the programs combined.

Blackhurst said, “cutting across the board hurts everyone.

“It is not in the best interest of the university to cut all adjunct and fixed term faculty in order to avoid laying off permanent faculty.”

In mass communications, adjuncts teach 30 out 50 courses offered during the fall semester, said CT Hanson, DRAG member and department chair.

“Most of our adjuncts have been with us for 12 to 20 years,” Hanson said. “It’s a real asset because we get better continuity that way.”

The administration isn’t obligated to cut equally throughout the university; it just has to prove its case.

“We can’t stop them from laying anybody off, they just have to show us clear reasons why that program has to be downsized when they are not downsizing elsewhere,” Gracyk said.

Most professors The Advocate approached for comment either didn’t feel comfortable being quoted or said they thought it was premature to offer an opinion. In informal conversations, one theme recurred: professors said they hoped the cuts don’t affect their own department.

History department chairman Paul Harris, a faculty union board member, wrote in an email that he believes the quality of his department will overshadow its enrollment decline – 32 percent over four years.

“We weren’t in a panic about the prospect of retrenchment, but I feel certain at this point we are out of the woods,” he wrote. “We are involved in some new initiatives … that align well with MSUM’s new strategic plan.”

Music department chairman Thomas Strait said the consensus among his faculty is to not come up with a specific budget plan.

“We are afraid that if we said we can do without this if we have to, that it sends an unintended message of ‘we really don’t need this,’” said Strait, whose department’s enrollment is down 7.5 percent over four years. “And we really do need what we have, and we’re doing with less now.”

No one besides student senators came to a student budget forum Thursday afternoon in the CMU that was scheduled, in part, to respond to an ad hoc student group’s request for more information.

“Interest will increase when actual reductions are announced,” Blackhurst predicted to the assembled student leaders, who chatted about the budget situation.

Student Senator Sarah Danielson said the deficit “sucks, but what else can we do? I don’t see a better option. The biggest thing for me is we don’t lose the faculty-to-student ratio.”

At previous meetings, Blackhurst has said that even after reducing the faculty workforce, MSUM would still have the lowest ratio of any comparable Minnesota university.

On Thursday, she said other universities in MnSCU are now starting their own deficit reduction processes, while MSUM got a several month head start.

“It doesn’t make it any easier, but it lessens the impression that it’s only happening here and not elsewhere,” Blackhurst said.

Szymanski, who retires June 30, said enrollment declines and the associated cuts are not just a statewide trend but also a national one.

“The further ahead you start, the more degrees of freedom you have,” she said.

She took a proactive approach, she said, to take care of as much of the problem under her watch as possible.

“It’s not fair for a new president to make hard decisions,” Szymanski said. “It also makes the presidency less attractive.”

BY MEREDITH WATHNE & BRYCE HAUGEN
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