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'Difficult decisions' ahead for UND; Job, program cuts possible, Schafer says

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Interim University of North Dakota President Ed Schafer compared three Hershey's kisses in red, pink and silver wrappers to the ongoing discussion about budget cuts at the school.

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Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer talks Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Fargo about his interim appointment as president of the University of North Dakota. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Interim University of North Dakota President Ed Schafer compared three Hershey's kisses in red, pink and silver wrappers to the ongoing discussion about budget cuts at the school.

 

At a well-attended, campuswide meeting Wednesday, he said a person may want all three chocolates because they're equally delicious, but tough decisions are on the horizon.

 

"My experience tells me the answer, while certainly not easy, is simple to understand," Schafer said. "We must prioritize programs and policies and put precious revenue to work to fully fund those priorities."

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UND must trim $9.5 million from its 2015-17 budget while its School of Medicine and Health Sciences must reduce its own by $3.1 million after North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered state agencies to slash budgets in response to a forecasted state revenue shortfall.

 

Schafer said this means low-priority positions and programs could be eliminated, and the university's administration will not be immune to cuts either.

 

Departments have been asked to submit budgets detailing both 5 and 10 percent cuts, which deans will then work with and hand up the ladder for Schafer to make final decisions in mid-April.

 

Schafer said decisions will be made based on three overarching university priorities, which are providing the best possible student learning experience, serving the state of North Dakota and providing long-lasting, affordable and permanent career opportunities for employees.

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"This isn't about the administrators saying 'these are your priorities,'" Schafer said. "This is about the ability of each unit to prioritize what we do."

 

But some in the audience were concerned. History professor Jim Mochoruk received applause when he said he worried staff wouldn't see the same considerations in the process as tenured faculty, and Director of Music Therapy Meganne Masko said she has been told the plan so far for the School of Arts and Sciences involves cutting her program.

 

Schafer said the best way a person can advocate for something they deem important would be to articulate and champion how each service, position or program serves the three priorities.

 

"Each one of those difficult decisions is going to be weighed against what's best for students here on campus, and obviously the biggest part of a student's experience here on campus is faculty, staff and programs," he said.

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Priorities

Schafer said he is looking for a long-term solution, pointing to the more than $20 million needed to repair UND's steam plant, which provides heat throughout campus buildings. He said simply moving funds from one pool to another would only create problems in the future, adding he wants the university to be stable when the future president takes over this summer.

 

"My mission here is to build on that foundation, to create a stronger, better university that is financially stable while providing value to all of those who are involved," Schafer said.

 

Schafer said Altru Health Systems uses the steam plant, and so he hopes to see if they might take on some of the financial burden.

 

But despite knowing the state's economic downturn is cyclical due to the nature of the oil industry, Schafer said legislative appropriations to universities in the state will most likely decrease during the upcoming 2017 legislative session.

 

"We will live within our means, and that requires addressing our diminishing budgets," he said.

 

Along with aligning programs, positions and services with the three university priorities, Schafer said students shouldn't bear the brunt of the problem with a tuition increase. Maintaining competitive salaries, as well as ensuring students are able to complete programs and graduate as planned and maintaining facilities, also are priorities going ahead. Schafer said he hopes the way those goals will be accomplished come from the faculty and staff at UND.

 

"We will invent a new university that will be a strong beacon of knowledge and a pride for all to see, and that's going to be a tough job," he said.

 

Pointing to a recent letter published in the Grand Forks Herald, Schafer acknowledged some think there are too many administrators employed at UND and explained some growth over the years has been necessary due to federal mandates concerning diversity and compliance.

 

"Every line item, every job, every position, every program, every administrator, every office is going to be touched by this budget process, and administration is not exempt," he said.

 

Fixes so far

Ever since budget cuts became a reality this winter, UND Vice President for Finance and Operations Alice Brekke said "nothing is off the table," in regard to finding revenue or cutting expenditures.

 

A voluntary buyout program for staff was announced Wednesday, which offers up to one week of annual-base salary for each year of employment at UND, not to exceed half of that employee's annual-base salary. Applications will be accepted online through March 31 at bit.ly/1py8Whk.

 

A similar faculty buyout program for a year's salary was offered to qualifying faculty starting in early February. The programs are separate, but both only apply to those whose age added to the number of years employed by the North Dakota University System equal at least 70.

 

Schafer said the programs differ partially for legal reasons.

 

"We're trying to make it work as best we can, and the one thing I can assure you is we aren't going to be cavalier and we're going to be humane as we approach them," he said.

 

Schafer added if any positions are cut, counseling services will be offered, noting he knows the UND community feels like a family.

 

A temporary hiring freeze requiring approval to fill any open positions has been in place since early February, as well as several other cost-saving measures.This round of budget cuts is on top of a $5.3 million shortfall for fiscal year 2016 the university recently addressed using one-time funds.

 

"We built too much to do in our system, and we don't have enough money to pay for it," Schafer said.

 

The target date for academic deans to turn in proposals to their respective vice presidents is Tuesday, and those administrators will hand in final budgets to Schafer for his consideration April 1, with the master list of priorities slated to be published by the President's Office.

Schafer is slated to make final decisions around April 15 and encouraged those with ideas or concerns to set up appointments to visit with him, email or call him before that time.

 

Schafer said the budget will be blended with other university budgets at the North Dakota University System Office and "massaged" by Chancellor Mark Hagerott before going to the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget, which will combine it with all of the other state agency budgets before going to the Governor's Office.

 

Schafer said the university will have the opportunity to provide input as the budget moves through the system.

 

"It's fluid," he said. "It changes."

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