Mesabi college hit hard by Gov’s proposed budget

BY Jon Collins
Published: Jan. 31, 2009
Source: Mesabi Daily News

In order to cope with proposed state budget cuts of 145 million dollars, the 32 school Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system could close two of their biggest Universities or ten of their small colleges. Or they could lay off about 1000 employees — fifteen percent of their full-time workforce.

Although MnSCU isn’t likely to take such drastic steps, said MnSCU public relations director Melinda Voss, those examples demonstrate the enormity of cutbacks facing higher education under the Governor’s proposed budget.

The cuts are part of the Governor’s plan to balance the estimated five billion dollar state budget deficit, which was unveiled Tuesday and which legislators will likely be revising until at least May.

Cutting to the bone

In 2003, MnSCU faced similar cuts under Pawlenty, which they reacted to with a combination of layoffs, program cuts, and double-digit tuition increases.

This time, the option of a tuition increase has largely been taken off the table by the Governor, who highlighted his support for a tuition cap for public higher education during this year’s State of the State address.

Even if the tuition cap were withdrawn, MnSCU administrators would be hesitant to raise tuition by the 22 percent necessary to deal with the proposed cuts, Voss said, out of fear they’ll price students out of higher education.

The MnSCU system contains short-term technical programs and community colleges, as well as two bachelor and graduate degree programs.

She worries that cutting back on educational opportunities will hamper the state’s ability to recover from the current recession.

“We’re the place that laid off work will turn to learn new skills for new jobs and retrain,” she said. “It’s important for the state to have the capacity to educate and retrain Minnesota’s workforce, especially during this severe economic downturn.”

Already “lean and mean”

Decisions about where MnSCU colleges can cut will be made mostly at the local level.

Dr. Tina Royer, Provost of the Mesabi Range Technical College in Virginia, said she was recently warned to prepare for 15 percent budget cuts by staff in the MnSCU Chancellor’s office.

“We’re going to try our best to look at how we can run at this level,” she said. “I think in many instances we will suffer, partly given the fact that we are running pretty lean and mean right now.”

Royer and her colleagues are working with students and staff to figure out cost-saving measures, she said.

“I’m not going to take the fatalist viewpoint,” Royer said. “I’m going to say, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s get creative,’ we’ll work together and we’ll get through this.”

It’s likely the college could save some money by combining some student support services, she said. Administrators have also advised staff to refrain from travel unless absolutely necessary.

“We’re looking at operating kind of barebones with our positions and supplies,” she said.

Despite the lack of money, Royer said it was important to preserve the mission of the institution, which is to provide an education to students that might not otherwise enroll in college.

“We are looking at every program and every discipline that we offer, to…make sure we have our core programs curriculum in place and that they remain strong,” she said. “We are willing to do what it takes to serve our students.”

One of the things that makes MnSCU colleges different from larger institutions like the University of Minnesota is the personal attention shown to students by faculty and staff who know their names, Royers said.

“Our students are here not only because they know they’ll get a great education, but they’re here because they want to remain in their communities,” she said. “Or they’re here because they come from other communities and they see what we have to offer that is unique, what they can’t find elsewhere.”

But it’s unlikely the college could resolve the cuts just by increasing efficiencies, or even by closing unpopular programs.

“A 15% cut really starts to get into personnel,” Royer said.

While the school has tried to leave vacated positions unfilled to reduce potential layoffs, it would likely be insufficient to avoid layoffs under the proposed budget.

“It’s going to be very tough, very tough; I love my job and that’s the one piece that I dread,” she said. “I don’t want to go there if at all possible because every single one of our employees is here for an important purpose, they play an important role in making this organization tick.”

The budget deficit forecast will be updated at the beginning of May — many expect it to rise by at least a billion dollars.

“We’re still kind of waiting to hear more. And as we’re waiting to hear more we’re starting to put our plan together on how we can work through this,” Royer said. “I’m telling the employees too, stay tuned — this isn’t over.”