Empty Pockets

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BY ALEX BERTSCH alexander.bertsch@go.mnstate.edu

In April 2019, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party presented their state budget to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Their plan would increase funding for higher education by $305 million. This funding would be a substantial increase, covering most of the requested increase from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and providing the University of Minnesota with more than it had asked for.

The plan, according to House Speaker Melissa Hortman, was to encourage universities to implement a two-year tuition freeze for in-state students by allowing them to cover rising expenses with state funds, rather than passing the costs onto students. At the time, Matt Kramer, University of Minnesota’s vice president of university relations, told MinnPost, “If they were to hold to that, the president would be highly inclined to recommend a freeze.”

This budget never passed, and the one that would end up passing only increased state funding by $150 million, $81 million of which went to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. The budget also did not freeze tuition, capping tuition increases at 3%.

Budgeting for Loss

The reality of lower state funding and declining enrollment has posed a problem for MSUM in recent years.

“For our revenue, it’s about a 50/50 split between state appropriations and tuition revenue,” Vice President for finance and administration Jean Hollaar said.

The budget for the 2019 fiscal year was set 18 months prior, in spring 2018. At the time, MSUM was projecting that enrollment for the fall semester 2019 would remain stable. The projection, along with a 3% increase in undergraduate tuition, and a 4% increase in graduate tuition, were the basis for the final budget.

However, enrollment did not remain stable, with MSUM seeing a slight decrease in the number of students enrolled for the fall semester.

“We had planned for enrollment to be stable, but what actually happened is that it dropped a little over 1%,” Hollaar said. “Every 1% in tuition revenue is about $390,000.”

According to Hollaar, any potential budget shortfall was remedied by an unexpected increase in graduate enrollment.

“When you look at our enrollment, our graduate enrollment is up almost 9%,” Hollaar explained. “So with that and the increase in tuition rates, I am tentatively predicting that we will be able to meet our tuition revenue projection.”

Hollaar noted that this did not mean the university hadn’t had to make cuts to its main expenses.

“The university sets what we call budget targets for each division of the university,” Hollaar explained. “Those targets might be less than what that division had in the previous year. So, in an effort to help Academic Affairs meet their target for this year, fiscal year 2020, we offered Board Early Separation incentives to members of our faculty.”

The Board Early Separation Incentive (BESI) program allows for schools to offer employees incentives for early termination of their contracts. This helps to reduce salary costs for the university.

“The premise of the offer was that if the faculty member accepted the offer, then they would not be replaced,” Hollaar said.

Faculty who accepted BESI were aware that their positions would not be filled. The Department of Academic Affairs consulted with Finance and Administration, as well as the deans of the colleges to decide what faculty they were willing to offer BESI.

“We were strategic in how those incentives were offered,” Hollaar said. “Academic Affairs’ budget target between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020 was reduced by $2.7 million, and so those Board Early Separation Incentives were a tool we were using to help Academic Affairs meet their target.”

In spring 2019, MSUM offered BESI to almost 60 faculty, of which 14 accepted the offer.

Affecting Academics

According to Hollaar, 75-80% of MSUM’s budget is allocated toward salaries, a large portion of which is used to pay faculty in the school’s various colleges and departments.

“When we look at budget reductions, or solving a budget gap, what we’re really focusing on is staffing,” Hollaar explained. “We really try to be proactive in our hiring and position approval, because that is the majority of our spending.”

Funding is not given directly to colleges and departments, but rather is given to Academic Affairs, who then allocates the funds to the various colleges and departments. In order to make these funding decisions, Academic Affairs considers a variety of criteria.

“$40 million is allocated to Academic Affairs,” Hollaar said. “Then within Academic Affairs, the vice president and his leadership team are the ones determining how much of that $40 million is going to each college.”

Students and faculty have raised concerns about cuts being made to certain programs. The spring 2019 semester was the last semester for American multicultural studies (AMCS) professor Dr. Phyllis May-Machunda and women’s and gender studies (WGS) professor Dr. Kandace Creel Falcón.

“They like to say that nothing is happening now,” Ponny White told The Advocate at the time these two professors were leaving. White is president of Black Student Union, Organization and a double major in multimedia journalism and political science. 

“Emphasis on the ‘now,’ which is just a smart way to handle us,” White said. “They have slowly been cutting back on the program and their excuse for that is there’s not enough students taking it.”

Vice president for academic affairs Arrick Jackson defended the cuts to AMCS. 

“Looking at the data coming in the door, the AMCS enrollment has been declining,” Jackson said. “Right now, from the last data set that I had, there is no student enrolled in the program as a degree. It just wouldn’t be logical to offer courses when students aren’t enrolled in it.”

The degree that Jackson reffered to is the BS in Social Studies, which offers AMCS as a secondary area of emphasis for students who already have one or more areas of emphasis. The degree requirments for the AMCS emphasis are no longer listed on the MSUM website. 

Jackson explained that the university is attempting to have these conversations in other departments so students still have that experience.

“AMCS 233 is still being offered, but it’s offered to a lot of students who are enrolled in our teacher prep program,” Jackson said. “It is required by the state for them to have some level of diversity or multicultural course within their curriculum.”

Jackson is correct that MSUM is still offering AMCS 233: “Education and Multicultural America.” It is one of three courses being offered for the spring 2020 semester in AMCS. WGS fairs slightly better, with six courses being offered.

When asked whether the university only looks at enrollment when determining the importance of programs, Jackson said, “Many factors are considered. Is a program value-adding, does it add value to the curriculum, does it add value to the community, does it add value to the university and its partnerships? We may have several programs that don’t necessarily boast a huge amount of enrollment, but it serves courses to support other programs throughout the university.”

Enrollment is not the only factor in making academic program cuts.

“When you start prioritizing academic programs, courses, things of that nature, there’s at least 150 different questions we have to go through to say whether it’s viable for the university,” Jackson said.

To some members of the MSUM community, these explanations represent a greater problem in how courses are valued at the university.

In an article detailing her reasons for leaving academia, Falcón described her role as a “feminist ethnic studies token.” She continued, “Log onto academic Twitter to see what the dream looks like today. A place where students are to be treated as customers, where learning can supposedly be quantified in tidy, yet lengthy, assessment reports your Dean doesn’t read. A structure that cows to the whims of administrative ‘leaders’ who believe our state is one of permanent scarcity and thus requires faculty to act accordingly.”

Ty Wacha, a senior majoring in women’s and gender studies, expressed their frustrations with the cutbacks in the program.

“Within academic course magazines, there are courses that haven’t been available in years, but are still advertised as eye-catchers to future women’s and gender studies hopefuls,” Wacha said. “MSUM shouldn’t advertise that it cares for their diverse student population since they only do as a brochure talking point and tokenistic photography shot.”

Between the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters, only nine WGS courses are being offered of the 32 listed in the undergraduate bulletin. Wacha commented on this lack of courses.

 “I feel it’s very disappointing and morally corrupt for a variety of reasons,” they said. “To offer desirable courses that don’t actually exist that will way a diverse population of future students and to cut programs that cater to these populations, like the multicultural studies program, is institutional racism and sexism in play.”

Wacha also responded to Jackson’s comments that AMCS and WGS don’t have high enough enrollment. 

“These programs are important because they are necessary in learning how to make the world a more equitable, fair and harmonious world,” they said. “These programs help us acknowledge the systems that we exist in that have done egregious harm to many people, while also teaching us how to change these systems from the inside.”

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