Abbott Defends Budget, Job Cuts USD President: Move Was Needed To Protect University By Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Media, Inc. VERMILLION — The current $852,000 in budget cuts — including pink slips for 16 positions and not filling an additional 19 vacancies — is necessary to protect the University of South Dakota, according to USD President Jim Abbott. "We decided to act as early as we can to protect as much as we can," he said at Thursday's budget forum on the USD campus. The cuts included three faculty members and 13 staff, Abbott said. Of those three faculty, two came from the medical school and one from the business school. Some of the 13 staff were part-time, resulting in the equivalent of cutting about 11 full-time positions, he said. The 19 vacancies will remain open for the time being, Abbott said. "In my opinion, freezing 19 positions was the right thing to do," he said. "If a position doesn't need to be filled, it's better to leave it open than let go someone who is already here. There is no pleasant way to let anybody go." More cuts could come in the future if the economy doesn't turn around, he told the audience of around 60 persons, including some of those laid off. "When you have to make cuts to save the university, how can we do that with the least pain possible?" he asked. USD's financial woes are directly tied to South Dakota's economic problems, Abbott said. "Our state is not in a crisis, but it faces difficult times," he said, adding that the situation may not recover quickly. The Legislature has seen a budget shortfall, which led to proposed cutbacks at first, he said. Some cuts were restored when the federal stimulus package was passed and money flowed into the state, he said. "But there is no guarantee we will get federal stimulus dollars a second time," he said. Does he anticipate future layoffs? "It all depends on the state budget. In tough economic times, it's very difficult to predict where we will be next year," he said. "We could see decreasing revenues during the next one to two years, and the Board of Regents doesn't want to increase tuition by more than 5 or 6 percent." Fundraising and obtaining grants have also become more difficult in the current economy, he said. USD's goal is to double its federal funding to $60 million. Abbott said the current federal grant funding is a major improvement from the $4 million in funded research when he became USD president in 1997. However, he noted South Dakota still ranks at the bottom nationally for federal funding of its universities. As one way of increasing revenues, the revised USD budget has added money for student recruitment, Abbott said. He has set a goal of reaching 11,000-12,000 students, up from the current 9,200. To reach that goal, USD has targeted both recruitment and retention of students, Abbott said. USD would like to reach 1,200 first-time, full-time students, up from the current 1,025. Once those students who enroll, Abbott said he would like to keep 78 percent of each class. USD has already raised its retention from the former 68 percent to the current 75 percent. "I would like to reach 11,000 students. Then you would have a 17-1 ratio (of students to teachers) instead of 14-1," he said. "I think we will be efficient at that level, space-wise, dorm-wise and teacher-wise." One audience member questioned making the budget cuts amidst USD's move to NCAA Division I for athletics. The audience member noted the previous day's announcement that USD would be joining the Summit League. "If our focus is on academics, and we cut them, but we put dollars into athletics, doesn't that defeat our primary purpose?" the person asked. Abbott said the athletic department has responded to the challenge of raising more money for scholarships. As a result, USD has gained nearly 200 additional student-athletes, both male and female, "and that's not the worst thing," he said. Despite the continuing objections by many people, USD was left with little choice about the D-I move once the North Central Conference folded and few NCAA Division II options remained, Abbott said. And the D-I move is also about perception, he said. After South Dakota State University went Division I in 2004, the Brookings school received daily media coverage about the move, Abbott said. In turn, Abbott worried that USD's decision to remain in D-II at the time may have led the public to think it was not as strong a university as its Brookings counterpart. The D-I move has already resulted in more USD applications from high school boys, Abbott said. USD has also enjoyed a shot of national prestige, he said. "You are known by the company you keep and who you associate with," he said. "I believe (D-I) was the right move. I just can't prove it." In response to audience questions, Abbott said he accepted the recommendations of the executive committee and the university budget committee. He instructed that the news of each personnel cut be delivered personally to the affected employee. When asked if USD remains top heavy with administration, Abbott said two positions of dean were combined to save $75,000, and other cuts were made, including a staffing reduction in his office. In response to another question, USD marketing director Teddi Joyce said the new dean of students will begin June 1 at a salary of about $87,000. She did not name the person chosen for the position. An audience member asked why the vacancy was being filled. Joyce noted the position has been filled by a staff member in an acting role and has not remained vacant. "Why fill it? It's a critical position on campus in terms of the needs of students, from crisis communication to (working) with students to make good decisions," she said. "It's part of a total reorganization of that area." Abbott said he was pleased with the candidate chosen for the position. "It was a very thorough search, and it was important we fill it," he said. While some positions were cut or frozen, other positions were added or upgraded to result in a stronger overall university, Abbott said. For example, two faculty members were added for both biomedical and chemistry programs and one for physics because of enrollment demand and work with the underground laboratory at the former Homestake Mine in Lead. Money is also going toward faculty development, a part-time alumni association position and an assistant controller, he said. Funding will also help with campus infrastructure needs and the health services program. Major changes lie ahead for some program areas. The Sanford School of Medicine saw $435,000 in cuts of some areas and $119,000 in additional funding in other areas for a net decrease of $316,000. In addition, the Disaster Mental Health Institute and Business Research Bureau are not being eliminated, but they are being asked to seek outside funds. Thursday's forum also focused on federal stimulus funds for campus energy savings, the timing of the layoffs and its effect on individual employees, and USD's commitment to remaining a liberal arts university with professional programs. While USD and other state universities have made cuts, the Legislature could sharpen the knife and take out even more, Abbott warned. "The Legislature tends to look at open positions. If it remains open, they cut it," he said. "The next few years, I think the open positions will be looked at by the Legislature."
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