University of Minnesota Duluth juniors Delaney Anderson and Griffin Bryan could join thousands of other students since early this decade who've finished undergraduate degrees there without knowing a time that didn’t include budget deficits.
“You always have to hope that it’s the last time,” said Bryan, a finance major and chief financial officer of the UMD Student Association, the students’ governing voice. “We need more funding to keep up with what we’re trying to do here.”
But the 2020-21 school year will bring the worst cleave yet — $5.2 million more in cuts, meaning as many as 50 or 60 faculty and staff jobs at risk and the corresponding program and course cuts that would come with some of those losses.
The cuts loom as a reckoning intended to once and for all resolve a "structural imbalance" that has dogged the campus since 2012 — when a university that had been leaning into its tuition sails lost wind as student populations settled post-recession.
Strongly worded letters to University of Minnesota system leadership within the last week from state Sen. Erik Simonson and another one cosigned by the UMD Faculty Senate and University Education Association-Duluth are unlikely to curb the momentum on a budget set long before the new U of M system president, Joan Gabel, took over in July.
Sources interviewed by the News Tribune were optimistic about Gabel. They agreed that she seemed more attentive than previous leaders to the health of institutions outside the metro campus. But the reality is that UMD's four vice chancellors face deadlines on having their proposed cuts to Chancellor Lendley Black this month. Meetings to hash out the details will follow.
Black was out of town this week, so Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations Steve Keto spoke with the News Tribune on Wednesday. Before availing himself of concerns raised by faculty and students, he clarified that $1.2 million of the overall cuts were required system-wide and that $4 million was directly tied to tuition declines that add up quickly when it’s $12,000 missed at a time.
"We’ve not had as many reductions as we’ve had (declining) students,” Keto said. “What we’re trying to do this fall for next year is balance the recurring revenues and expenditures of UMD. And it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time.”
UMD proponents say at this point, after years of trimming, they’ve reached the flesh of the mission. History professor Scott Laderman is the head of the 550-member faculty bargaining unit. In addition to fearing the loss of 5-10% of faculty, he laments a shift toward becoming a tech school.
"A comprehensive university is one that isn't just focused on churning out people who are going to become automatons in corporate society," Laderman said, softening that critique by explaining it's the goal of a university to expand students' horizons and develop minds and what he termed "civic identities."
Departmentally, proposed cuts he's privy to are aimed at fine arts most heavily (9%), he said, followed by liberal arts, education and business colleges (5%). The popular Swenson College of Science and Engineering is being asked to negotiate 1.5% budget reductions that Laderman agreed will be hard for it, too.
The cuts to “recurring spending” were announced by Black in October, after UMD’s fall 2019 enrollment was tallied at 10,858 — down from historic highs in the 12,000s that pushed the growth now being pruned back. Cuts are expected to come from across the university's four areas, including the chancellor's office, which includes athletics, radio, Glensheen and more, along with finance and operations, student life and academic affairs, which will be hardest hit with $3.8 million it's expected to absorb, Laderman said.
When Black announced the cuts internally in an email, he called it “difficult and painful,” yet necessary to build a stronger financial future. The university is keen to shore it up now, sources said, in the face of an enrollment cliff forecast to hit Midwestern institutions around 2025.
As bad as it is, “I can’t say I was surprised,” said Anderson, vice president of the UMD Student Association. “Since the beginning of my freshman year we’ve known about the budget deficit. At $5.2 million, it was larger than I thought it would be.”
The newest elected regents were on campus last week in Duluth, but were not made available for questions. They’ve joined a body that is absorbing blame from UMD proponents. Simonson’s letter to the regents dated Oct. 31 charged them with ignoring UMD and having historically not provided adequate funding to the university.
“We’re solving this on the back of UMD, which is going to have an effect on the quality of UMD,” Simonson told the News Tribune. “Within their internal allocation process, there is something wrong.”
Simonson, while not a member of the higher education committee, described increasing frustrations among himself and other lawmakers, who appropriate funding to a university system given the freedom to spend as it sees fit.
Letter campaigns are too late for this cycle, Bryan said. A member of the university’s strategic planning and budgeting committee, he is privy to the high-level decisions being made. He described only one path: the cuts and what comes after.
“There’s nothing that can be done at this point,” he said. “I can tell that other students are scared that the smaller departments are going to get cut first.”
Bryan said he blames Black only because the chancellor doesn't address the funding shortfalls more aggressively.
"We’re leaving a lot up to assumption and the students always assume that this is UMD’s problem and we’re spending frivolously," he said. "It's tough to see that, because I know that's not true."
Bryan also offered that the cuts are being made more delicately than what is being perceived in general on campus.
“They’re not automatically going to the lowest number of students in a program and saying this is going to be cut,” he said. “They’re looking at what it provides to the university, what it provides to the student and how that will excel that student outside of college and if that’s still a valuable thing for the university to have.”
As a biology major, one of the school’s largest fields of study, Anderson had assumed her courses would remain beyond the scythe.
“We have not been treated as a priority for years.”
“After hearing about it more in depth, I realize that not all of my upper divisions are safe,” she said. “When I get to my senior year, there are classes I already have planned out right now that maybe aren’t going to be available anymore.”
In their Nov. 4 letter to President Gabel, Laderman and Faculty Senate Chair Jamie Ratliff, wrote, "We need serious investments.”
It was a bold passage amid a chilling crest of job loss. But it's supported by a popularly used and convincing narrative: UMD is the second-largest system institution and second-largest research university in the state.
“The University of Minnesota system needs to start thinking about its Duluth campus as a priority,” Laderman said. “We have not been treated as a priority for years.”
Their letter described being “grossly underpaid” compared to their faculty peers at other institutions. Similarly, UMD gets half-per-student state dollars compared to what is afforded the metro campus, they said.
Staff and faculty have proven throughout years of cuts to be ever capable and willing to do more with less, Laderman said. But it's an ultimately untenable position that leaves its upholders to gird suffering morale behind warm faces.
“I want to emphasize that we as faculty at UMD are deeply committed to our students and we are going to minimize the impact on students and provide an excellent education and experience to the students at UMD,” Laderman told the News Tribune. He admitted to being concerned about how the budget cuts, and being vocal about them, will play among prospective students who are considering UMD.
Regarding under-funding, Vice Chancellor Keto said every institution in the country will claim the same thing.
“There isn’t a university in this country that will tell you they’re well-funded,” he said. “We’re no different than anybody else. My job is to balance the budget of this university, and advise the chancellor and vice chancellors on how to do it.”
Bryan, of Amery, Wis., worries about what years of budget cuts have done to the school’s reputation — even including preventing UMD from fully marketing itself alongside a city that increasingly enjoys a reputation as a jewel.
“One of my biggest concerns is that marketing for the U is going to get cut or sure as heck not increase,” he said. “UMD is not looked at as the top prospect it should be relative to schools its size like the Mankatos, the Eau Claires and the La Crosses. I think that’s a problem.”
Anderson, of Melrose, Minn., and Bryan both brought up a need for the university to continue to attract new students at current or greater enrollments. They cited a planned $59 million, 350-bed residence hall that will upgrade a cramped dining experience and get residents out of retrofitted study lounges, and freshman in particular, back onto campus altogether and out of apartments.
It’s the kind of project that will come from a different pot of money and is necessary in order to modernize and keep a campus relevant.
“We’re going to have to fill those spots,” Bryan said. “Otherwise, it’s a wasted opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Laderman considered a different fate — the one facing the School of Fine Arts, a victim of repeated cuts. It represents what a comprehensive university does beyond train people for a workforce, he said. It enriches the community and showcases UMD to the world around it.
“Fine arts are, in many ways, the public face of the university to the broader Twin Ports,” he said, citing theater and music programs, public lectures, the Tweed Museum of Art and more.
“When you talk about movement toward becoming a tech school, this is in part why,” he said. “What we’re seeing are heavy cuts to arts and humanities. And that’s devastating.”
Regarding cuts to fine arts, Keto pointed to it being the result of students’ changing motivations.
“Kids of today are looking at it like they don’t want $36,000 debt without being able to pay for it afterward,” Keto said. “That’s why we’re seeing growth in engineering and sciences and business. And we’re seeing it around the country.”