Machen to trustees: Florida universities have suffered nation's worst budget cuts
He says if Legislature must cut further, UF should decide how
Contrary to a common misperception, Florida universities have suffered among the worst state budget cuts in the country.
Looking to the future, more cuts are likely. But the University of Florida firmly opposes measures that could reduce salaries, benefits or otherwise impact employees, and should be given the chance to decide how to make its own cuts.
Those were University of Florida President Bernie Machen’s two main messages to members of the UF Board of Trustees gathered Tuesday morning for the board’s regular quarterly meeting at Emerson Alumni Hall.
Machen said recent headlines about draconian cuts to Arizona, Nevada and California universities have led to the impression that Florida universities had gotten off relatively easily. While the picture may change next fiscal year, he said, cuts to Florida universities began three years ago – a year before most other states. Also, recent University of Washington study found Florida universities were cut 22 percent between 2008 and 2010, more than Michigan, with a 9 percent cut; California, with a 19 percent cut and Nevada, with a 20 percent cut.
“Our cuts are worse,” he said, displaying a PowerPoint slide of a bar graph comparing Florida’s cuts to higher education budget cuts and increases in other states. “As a percentage of the state appropriation for higher education, Florida is the worst in the nation.”
Machen said it’s important to put Florida’s cuts into perspective because several other states are seeking to maintain their higher education budgets — despite experiencing economic downturns and budgetary contractions as painful or worse than Florida’s.
He singled out Michigan, saying it “has much worse unemployment than we do, 14.3 percent unemployment, but their governor has announced there will be no further cuts in higher ed.”
Machen said UF has effectively completed $140 million in cuts, much of it through proactive measures such as offering a one-time early retirement option that 127 employees have taken advantage of, leading to “significant savings” of state dollars, he said. The university has been helped by the addition of federal stimulus money, as well as increased tuition dollars from recent legislation allowing universities to raise tuition as much as 15 percent annually.
“If we had not already reached this point in our budget cuts, and if we had not already been awarded such a generous stimulus allocation from the state, and if we had not also been awarded the opportunity to regulate tuition, we wouldn’t be talking,” he said. “We would be in the kind of retrenchment mode that Nevada and California are in.“
Machen said he had hoped cutting $140 million would be enough. However, he said, more higher education cuts appear to be in the offing in the current legislative session and next year’s session – when federal stimulus funds will no longer be available.
On the one hand, he said, UF is not in as bad a position as some institutions because it did not blend its roughly $82 million in stimulus funds into its annual recurring budget, but used the money for one-time expenses. Stimulus dollars are supporting the current hiring of as many as 100 new faculty members, but increased tuition will cover their salaries when the funds run out.
On the other hand, Machen said, he and other UF officials are concerned about discussions in Tallahassee that center on saving state dollars through employee furloughs, salary cuts, health insurance increases and changes to reductions to state retirement benefits.
If also applied to universities, all such measures would damage UF by hurting morale and making it difficult for the university to compete with its national peers in hiring and keeping the best employees.
“One of my worries is, it could look as if we are not being cut as much on the base budget side,” he said. “But if you are cutting our employees, you are cutting us.”
Machen said UF’s track record during the past three years has demonstrated it can manage budget cuts responsibly, and that he hoped the Legislature gives UF the same freedom to deal with any future cuts. At the close of his remarks, he noted that UF is advocating several proposals in Tallahassee designed to allow the university to be more “entrepreneurial” — including charging single or “block” tuition and boosting distance learning fees.
- Aaron Hoover, email@example.com, 352-392-0186