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Education

USF’s austerity moves to replenish reserves concern faculty

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Published:   |   Updated: October 14, 2013 at 11:55 AM

TAMPA — Students raised a ruckus last month over cutbacks in library hours as the University of South Florida tightened its belt.

Now, it’s the faculty’s turn to stir things up.

Department chairs met with top USF administrators earlier this month after sending President Judy Genshaft a letter stating the cuts could “cause significant long-term harm” to the university.

A group known as the Council of Chairs told Genshaft the austerity effort “is taking a significant toll on our colleagues, projecting an image of instability that is reducing confidence in the university and will undoubtedly have a negative impact on faculty retention and student success.”

USF administrators said earlier this year that after years of higher education cuts from the state Legislature, the university would have to replenish reserve funds that propped up the school in lean times.

State lawmakers, for example, whacked $300 million from the state university system in 2012 alone, about $50 million of that from the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses of USF. That year, USF reserves dropped from $216 million to $158 million as the administration protected the faculty ranks from layoffs and maintained programs.

The reserve fund stood at $125 million as of July.

While state-level funding increased this year with the improving economy, USF administrators are concerned that reserves have reached a level that could damage the university’s coveted Aa2 bond rating from Moody’s Investor Service, one of the elite ratings agencies.

Approaching 60 years old, USF is still relatively young in university terms and needs that strong bond rating to keep major construction projects affordable.

The plan calls for eliminating the university’s dependency on cash reserves for ongoing projects; growing revenue through programs such as distance learning and summer school; and the cutbacks, such as reduced travel, marketing and noncritical maintenance.

The university also intends to terminate programs that have low degree productivity, present limited opportunities for graduates, or “lack strategic alignment.”

The austerity measures haven’t gone over well on campus. In July, Graham Tobin, vice provost for strategic and budget planning at USF, resigned, saying he did not want to be associated with the new direction the university was taking.

In September, students at the Tampa campus held an overnight demonstration outside the main library after its 24-hour schedule was scaled back and planned a second demonstration before administrators capitulated.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Philip Levy, a history professor and vice president of USF’s Faculty Senate. “We’re waiting to understand the full shape of the budget. There’s a lot of stuff to be positive about – there’s a lot of good, collegial work between the administration and faculty, and that’s what’s going to pull us through. But there’s still a lot of questions to answer.”

After the department chairs expressed their concerns to USF administration, Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Wilcox responded with a three-page letter explaining the strategy and detailing where the cuts would come. He and Genshaft also invited the chairs and college deans for a meeting.

“The meeting really, really helped a lot. It lowered the anxiety levels significantly,” said Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Wilcox’s letter targeted $12 million in reductions in the current fiscal year — $9 million in academic affairs, information technology, student affairs and USF World on the Tampa campus; $500,000 at USF St. Petersburg; $400,000 at USF Sarasota-Manatee; and $2.1 million from sources yet to be determined, but not from academic affairs.

That category is what had concerned many faculty members, but overall, academic affairs stays relatively flat with a budget of about $233 million in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

Categories not faring so well under Wilcox’s scenario include information technology, which stands to lose 22 percent of its budget from 2012 to 2014, and student affairs, which could lose 88 percent of its money.

“I have committed to President Genshaft that, together, we will do our very best to achieve the targeted reductions this year while preserving USF’s academic position and reputation, limiting impact on student access and success along with faculty scholarly, research and creative productivity, and protecting other strategic priorities,” Wilcox told the department chairs.

Greg McColm, secretary of the faculty union United Faculty of Florida-USF, places the blame for the belt-tightening directly on the state Capitol.

“Hopefully, we will, over the next few months, resolve this immediate crisis, whatever this cash reserve problem is,” McColm said.

“But the basic message was that the university system was going to have to cut back, cut back, cut back. Whatever you say about how (universities) are dealing with cutbacks, those cuts are real, and they’re the result of Tallahassee not being serious about what it takes to move Florida’s economy forward into the 21st century.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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