KU’s interim provost fields tough questions at town hall meeting on budget cuts
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
University of Kansas Interim Provost Carl Lejuez received pushback from faculty and students and fielded some tough questions Wednesday during the first in a series of town hall meetings held to explain why the university is cutting its Lawrence campus budget next year by $20 million.
But Lejuez insisted throughout the meeting, the video of which is available on the provost office’s website, that the cuts are necessary to avoid a financial calamity in the next five years. And he said the university is revising its budget process to make sure it never runs into the same kind of financial trouble again.
“I don’t like the idea that we have to do this with no warning and what it’s going to mean, but I just don’t understand how we can become a stable and thoughtful university without making these cuts,” Lejuez said.
Lejuez said KU has been running a deficit in its “base budget” for each of the last two years. The base budget, he said, is the regular money the university gets in state support and student tuition, which currently totals about $420 million.
If that trend continues and the university does nothing about it, Lejuez said that within a couple of years, KU will completely devour its cash reserves, which are already down to just $11 million, and by 2023, its cash balance would be about $80 million in the hole.
KU announced May 29 that it would make the cuts, starting in the upcoming 2018-2019 academic year. The budget reduction amounts to a 5.9 percent cut across the board for all university departments.
“A very likely casualty of this will be significantly reduced hiring,” Lejuez said.
Some of the strongest pushback came early in the question-and-answer portion of the meeting when Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering, said cutting the budgets of academic departments was unfair. He said the university’s budget problems are the result of decisions made by people in KU’s upper-level administration.
“There are lots of other places where waste is going on on this campus, and it needs to stop. The first one is the jet. The jet’s got to go,” he said, sparking loud applause from others in the audience.
That was a reference to the the private jet that KU owns, which costs just over $1 million a year to operate. Barrett-Gonzalez serves on a Faculty Senate committee that wrote a report last year that recommended selling the jet to generate an estimated $6 million in one-time cash.
Barrett-Gonzalez also criticized the administration for the amount of money it spends on consultants, and for what he called the “explosive growth” since 2009 in salaries for upper-level administrators.
“In 2009, we had just over 90 administrators that were making, on average among the 90, a little more than $200,000,” he said. “Now we have 135, according to the state’s latest budget numbers. It’s an explosive growth in upper-level administration, and we’re paying administrators to come back and we’re paying administrators basically to come back and do nothing, kind of like ex-football coaches.”
Meanwhile, he said, the average salary for a KU faculty member has fallen 11 percent since 2009, and he said it is now less than the mid-career salary of a KU bachelor’s degree graduate.
Lejuez conceded that many of the things Barrett-Gonzalez said were true, and he said the university is looking at options regarding the private jet.
He also said the university is planning to earmark some money over the next five years for salary increases, and that the provost’s office is consolidating some jobs into single positions.
Later, Tommy Finch, a student and co-founder of the group Kansans Against Rising Tuition, pressed the issue about faculty salaries going down while administrative salaries have been going up. In particular, he asked why former Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was still receiving her $510,000 salary after leaving her position as chancellor last year.
Lejuez wouldn’t respond to the question about Gray-Little, saying that was a decision made by the Kansas Board of Regents. He did, however, concede that administrators make high salaries, and he disclosed that his own salary is $410,000 a year.
“That is a really high salary,” he said. “I am, comparatively to other provosts, in the bottom quartile. I’m not ‘poor me,’ but I’m saying comparatively, if we want to bring in administrators who are competitive, those are the salaries to pay.”
Joseph Harrington, an English professor, later asked if Chancellor Douglas Girod had considered asking KU donor David Booth to redirect the $50 million donation he is making for improvements to the KU football stadium and using that money instead to help pay off the $350 million in bonds KU issued in 2016 to fund construction of new buildings in its Central District.
Lejuez said he agreed with Harrington’s sentiment, and in another portion of the meeting he said that the cost of maintaining the university’s new buildings, some of which were not part of the Central District project, has been a contributing factor in the university’s deficit spending. But he said there is often little the university can do when a donor directs a gift toward something other than academics.
Lejuez was named interim provost following the departure of former Provost Neeli Bendapudi, who left to become president of the University of Louisville. He has been on the job about four weeks, and announcing the $20 million budget cut was one of his first acts in the new position.
He was previously a psychology professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.