Bounds, board somber as universities face budget shortfalls

JACKSON — Dr. Hank Bounds paced back and forth in an empty State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board Room. The usually upbeat commissioner of higher education sighed, looked over his notes, and paced some more.

Bounds was waiting on a meeting of the IHL’s Board of Trustees to finalize tuition hikes as the state’s eight public universities face a significant drop in appropriations due to the shrinking state budget. Unfortunately, those hikes will not be enough to offset the shrinking appropriations. Cuts in faculty and staff, students and programs are a given.

Bounds admitted that these cuts and tuition hikes were among the toughest decisions he has ever had to oversee.

“Those numbers are connected to real people,” Bounds said. “I don’t even know all of the people affected, but it is still painful nonetheless. It is especially difficult for a guy who personally struggled to pay for college (to talk about raising tuitions).”

This morning’s meeting was a continuance of a board meeting held Jan. 21 when six of Mississippi’s eight public universities put forth their plan to make up the majority of expected budget losses over the next three fiscal years through cuts, efficiencies and enrollment growth. The board lacked the reports from Jackson State University and Mississippi University for Women during the Jan. 21 meeting, so the board reconvened this morning with those figures in hand to cast a vote on proposed tuition hikes.

The vote carried unanimously. The rate hikes ranged from 4.5 percent in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 at Mississippi Valley State University to 9 percent at Delta State University and Jackson State University. The system average tuition hike in fiscal year 2011 is 6.8 percent and 6.9 percent in FY2012.

The board also approved non-resident tuition hikes. All of the universities with the exception of the University of Southern Mississippi asked for hikes. Systemwide, approved hikes are 6.1 percent in FY2011 and FY2012.

Bounds clarified at the meeting today that if appropriations came in better or worse than projections, the board could revisit both tuition increases as well as cuts.

However, as a noticeably somber Bounds pointed out, there is no vote as far as trimming of budgets goes. They have been predetermined by a continuing fall in state collections.

“Unfortunately, the cuts are cuts,” Bounds said.

Universities were asked to develop plans to address a 10 percent cut from the original appropriation in the current fiscal year ($39.3 million), including: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars; an additional 5 percent cut in FY 2011 ($55.6 million cumulative cuts from FY 2010 appropriations); and, an additional 10 percent cut in FY 2012 ($115.1 million cumulative cuts from FY 2010 appropriations), including ARRA dollars.

Universities were also asked to include any items that may increase in the coming years including insurance, accreditation costs and minimum wage.

If the appropriation projections are accurate, cuts and efficiencies at the six institutions will likely result in a loss of about 900 positions — 565 through attrition – through FY 2013. Thirty-five degree programs, 22 departments and two colleges within the universities will also likely be consolidated or eliminated altogether.

To make up the remaining losses, the presidents from the six universities requested the aforementioned tuition hikes for FY 2011 and FY 2012.

“Unfortunately, because of the magnitude of the cuts that we are facing, tuition increases have to be discussed. It is our hope that this is a worst-case scenario; if we do not see cuts this deep, we can reduce the increases,” Bounds said.

The only “new” business addressed during this morning’s meeting was a request from Mississippi State University (MSU) that the board grant it approval to initiate an early retirement package for its faculty and staff. MSU’s president Dr. Mark Keenum said he hopes that as many as 30 percent of those MSU workers facing retirement would take advantage of the incentive, which could result in more than $9 million in savings. MSU saw significant savings when it launched an early retirement incentive program nearly a decade ago.

Kennum said timing was an issue. Faculty and staff would need as much as six weeks to mull over early retirement. Thus, he asked the board to move on the issue as soon as possible. Bounds promised he would expedite matters as much as he could.

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