These are frustrating times for public universities. We've all seen the headlines of the fiscal problems confronting California and several other states. The Pew Center for the States recently released a report listing ten states that are in crisis. Joining California on this list are Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Oregon, Rhode Island, and New Jersey--mostly states devastated by the real estate crisis and the decline of industries critical to their state or region.
But the truth is that every state is facing large budget deficits--many public universities have already taken large percentage cuts in state funding, resulting in higher tuition, furloughs, layoffs, and reduced access to higher education for many students. And, it is not likely to get better soon.
At the recent American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), presidents of public universities shared their situations. Several spoke openly about their fear that their states face huge deficits in 2012, when stimulus dollars disappear. Most states used stimulus dollars to shore up shortfalls in medical care, public education, and higher education. But, those monies end in 2012 and, unless state revenues pick up, huge cuts loom on the horizon.
At AASCU, the President of U.T. San Antonio, Ricardo Romo, underscored the problem for Texas, where the combined effects of declining tax revenue and the budget shortfall offset by stimulus dollars nears $16 billion. But, as he advised, "we have to plan now to address the shortfalls."
At the AASCU Conference, former university presidents, John Moore and David McFarland, spoke of "Leading in Turbulent Times," which they described as the "New Reality." They urged presidents to remain calm and to temper the cuts with long-term planning. Turbulent times, according to Moore, require leaders to "think and act strategically."
McFarland cautioned presidents to avoid across-the-board reductions, but rather to "align" budgets with strategic priorities and to make cuts which improve efficiencies, while growing areas that expand and diversify resources: enrollment management (recruitment and retention of students), fundraising, and sponsored research.
At this week's TIAA-CREF Institute's Higher Leadership Conference, David Gergen (former White House advisor and CNN senior political analyst) calls this situation, "the New Normal," as states are being squeezed to support essential public services with diminishing revenues. He advises higher education leaders to "get used to it" and to "rapidly adjust."
Like many institutions the University of Houston System has held off on pay raises, began to make selective budget cuts, and is considering tuition and fee increases. At UHD, we are being proactive. The planning process is providing focus for our institution. We are still planning a mid-year salary increase, assuming we continue our enrollment growth this next semester, and we are working hard to find efficiencies.
UHD is working on long-term goals and plans for the institution, for example, strengthening strategic partnerships with P-12, community colleges, charter schools, and community-based organizations; increasing our research with joint projects with the UH system and by increasing funded research; developing stronger ties with the business community, including creating new degrees that are tied to the needs of Houston and its economy; and building stronger relationships with our alumni, supporters, and friends--which will help our fundraising.
Critical to our plans is the need to improve student retention and graduation rates. Anything we do must always keep that prime mission in mind. In the budgeting process for this year we have decided to focus on recruiting new students and retaining and graduating the students that we already have.
A committee in Academic Affairs is reviewing the success of several intervention and support programs. Most of these are currently funded by foundation grants, some have been reduced when the grants ended. Based on funding available, we will try to fund several of these programs with base dollars, because they are critical to student success.
Departments and colleges are developing five-year plans for new degree programs and goals for their departments. We will also hire more faculty and staff in critical areas of need to support student success. To meet expanding student demand and to expand access we will work closely with community colleges to increase transfers; we will improve and accelerate the review of transcripts and articulation plans; and we will expand to other areas through distance education with hybrid and online courses, as well as being more effective in developing learning centers (such as the University Center at 249 where we will begin to offer courses this summer).
These are difficult times for higher education, but we must respond. America requires new college graduates in every industry. It needs more teachers, more scientists, more social workers, and future leaders of business and government. And, it needs a highly trained, diverse work force. At UHD we are building our plans and our university to respond to those needs. And, I am confident that we will grow stronger in the process.