KU budget cuts ‘forcing departments and units to make near-impossible decisions’; KU not providing additional information

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

After releasing some details earlier this month about its budget reductions, the University of Kansas is not providing any additional information about the extensive cuts — which range from zero to 12% by unit.

The Journal-World reached out to various deans and KU’s spokesperson to ask about the impact the cuts would have on the hardest-hit schools, but was met with either silence or referrals back to the provost’s budget message from earlier this month.

When asked whether KU expected job losses as a result of the cuts, KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said units and schools were determining how to implement budget reductions.

Meanwhile, faculty member Nick Syrett said leaders of departments and programs were doing everything they could to retain faculty, staff, graduate students and hourly student workers.

“Even so, the budget cuts are forcing departments and units to make near-impossible decisions, choosing between, for example, funding promising new graduate students or employing the dedicated staff responsible for running our departments,” Syrett, a professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, said.

The units with the largest cuts are the School of Music and the School of Engineering, which will both have a 12% reduction of the fiscal year 2021 general use budget. The second-largest cuts are 10% reductions, which will affect the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Pharmacy, the School of Law, the Office of the Chancellor, Public Affairs, the Provost’s Office, the Office of Research and the finance unit.

Deans and media relations staff for the aforementioned academic units did not respond to the Journal-World’s questions, which included inquiries such as how the cuts will be made, whether any employees will lose their jobs and whether the deans knew why their units were being hit harder than others.

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor in the School of Engineering, said that the engineering dean’s office was absorbing as much of the reduction as possible and that departments may or may not still have to cut a full 12% from their budgets.

Barrett-Gonzalez, who works in aerospace engineering, said that department had been told there would likely be a reduction in the department’s staff and graduate teaching assistant support. He also said the operating budget would likely be reduced — “That means a lot of broken equipment stays broken,” he said.

As the Journal-World reported, the university’s budget planning was guided by three considerations: what revenue a unit generates to cover its operations costs, how much money KU has at the campus level to cover the gap when unit expenses exceed revenues and how KU can allocate funds to create a return on investment and move the university into an upward climb.

Syrett said these considerations set a “dangerous precedent” that would harm KU going forward.

“The Provost reported that the budget reduction centered on three fundamental questions — all of which focused on revenue, with no mention of students, the campus experience, or the university’s mission,” he wrote. “The administration’s goal of ‘right-sizing’ must balance budgetary concerns with the core values of higher education: rigorous research and creative, student-centered teaching.”

In the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Syrett said the various departments had decided on their cuts long before Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer sent her May 5 email regarding the budget. He said that the cuts within the college varied by department but that most hovered around 10%. As for his department, Syrett said some GTA positions would be lost but no current GTA students would lose their funding. That is, the department will not be able to replace the positions of some graduating GTAs.

The Journal-World reached out to the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition to ask whether it knew how the budget cuts might affect GTAs in various schools. The president of the union, Andrew Kustodowicz, said he did not wish to comment at this time.

Two units at KU did not receive any cuts: International Affairs and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging. When asked why these units did not receive cuts, Barcomb-Peterson referred back to the provost’s message. She wrote that the criteria for the budgets of administrative units included “unit alignment with strategic priorities, such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; enrollment growth; or student persistence.”

Despite receiving no budget cut, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging did face a “small reduction of staff” in December, according to a Dec. 15 announcement. Shannon Portillo, associate dean for academic affairs at the KU Edwards Campus, told the Journal-World in December that two staff members lost their jobs as a result of the changes.

It is unclear whether student enrollment in academic units corresponded to the severity of a unit’s cut. Of the five academic units facing the largest budget reductions, four have seen declines in student enrollment over the past five years. (In the past five years, KU in general has seen a 3.7% decline in fall enrollment for the Lawrence campus.) But the School of Engineering, which is facing a 12% cut, has actually seen an increase in student enrollment in the past five years.

When asked whether a correlation existed between student enrollment and budget cuts, Barcomb-Peterson once again repeated information from the provost’s message. Bichelmeyer wrote last week that for the budgets of academic units, KU took into account units’ revenues and expenses relative to their peers’, teaching and research productivity compared to peers, ability to generate revenue through other sources, personnel compensation and vacancy rates, research and degree program strength, degree and research programs in strategic areas, growth potential and capability to subsidize other areas of the university.

Here’s a look at fall undergraduate and graduate student enrollment levels for the past five years in the five academic units facing the largest budget cuts:

School of Music:

2020: 428

2019: 450

2018: 445

2017: 473

2016: 484

School of Engineering:

2020: 2,904

2019: 2,950

2018: 2,811

2017: 2,877

2016: 2,855

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

2020: 12,223

2019: 12,826

2018: 13,218

2017: 13,106

2016: 13,308

School of Pharmacy:

2020: 633

2019: 648

2018: 677

2017: 689

2016: 727

School of Law:

2020: 335

2019: 337

2018: 345

2017: 371

2016: 371


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