No matter what happens in the coming years at the University of Wyoming, one thing is certain: It will not be the same institution it was before entering its current fiscal crisis.
That is the sentiment longtime UW faculty member Stephen Bieber — who chaired the Financial Crisis Advisory Committee tasked with preparing a plan to further reduce spending in fiscal year 2018 — presented during his preface to UW President Laurie Nichols’ presentation of a budget plan at Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting.
“No matter how it happens, this will be a fatal blow to the University of Wyoming as we’ve known it — UW will not recover,” Bieber said. “How much we have experienced and how much we will experience are still unknowns.”
Wyoming’s economic struggles stemming from conditions in the energy commodity market led to a loss of $41 million in state block grant funding for UW. In addition to $19.3 million in cuts in fiscal year 2017, UW’s leaders are now looking to realize another $10 million in permanent reductions and internal reallocations to its operating budget for fiscal year 2018.
The biggest savings are projected to come from division reductions — at just more than $5.9 million — mostly in Academic Affairs. Administration and athletics are also expected to see reductions in amounts at or topping $100,000.
Another round of separation incentives would be offered, this time targeting faculty at or near retirement. A one-time offer for faculty with 20 years’ experience or more could realize $4 million in savings, with $2 million to be returned to Provost Kate Miller for hiring new faculty in high-need areas, where the payout would be taken from cash balances.
Nichols said losing faculty positions was regrettably integral to realizing UW’s budget reduction goals.
“In order to be successful with a $41 million budget reduction, we must have less employees at this university,” Nichols said. “About 85 percent of our budget is personnel — salary and fringe benefits. And so there is no possibility to reduce 10 percent of our budget without addressing personnel. Our goal has been — mostly through attrition — to work on starting to downsize our payroll.”
More staff than faculty took separation incentives previously offered in 2016, so Nichols said it was important to focus on eliminating high-paying faculty positions from its payroll, which is why UW is not offering any further incentive packages to staff in this round.
Nichols said her goal of finding a way to implement salary increases for faculty and staff remains a priority, but it would not happen in the current fiscal year. Knowing the challenges UW faces, she said she would continue to explore possibilities for raises in the future.
“If I can possibly work toward a salary increase for the wonderful faculty and staff who have come in here and are staying at this university and will become part of its future, we really want to work in a salary increase as well,” Nichols said. “That will not happen this year, but I am working on it for next year.”
Eliminating vacant positions for approximately 12 faculty and academic professionals could save an additional $750,000, according to Nichols’ plan. About 100 vacant positions were eliminated in the fiscal year 2017 budget, which accounted for its largest savings.
To fully meet its budgetary benchmarks, Nichols said any cuts that exceeded the block grant reduction goal would be considered internal reallocations for structural deficits UW needed to correct. In addition to the utility budget, which Nichols said has continued to run at a deficit of approximately $3 million or more, UW needed to budget to pay for its new cloud-based software, Oracle, designed to centralize and replace outdated systems across the university.
“Those are the two internal re-allocations we are doing so we can move into our new financial system and take care of the utility shortage,” she said. “I just want to be really clear, because I know there’s been some concern, about, ‘You don’t really have to cut $10 million from the budget, Laurie.’ The answer is, ‘No,’ but we have internal allocations we need to take care of, and we’re trying to do it all together, so that when we’re done with this, we really can be done and reset our budget and move forward.”
Another round of savings projected to be just less than $1.6 million are expected following recommendations by Huron Consulting Group, which was hired to review UW’s administrative functions and find opportunities for increasing efficiencies. Consolidating information technology functions, procurement functions and reductions in student health staffing are included in the recommendations.
In his closing remarks Thursday, Bieber said he was “haunted” by the burden of the task to define the integrity of UW and make decision that would affect it for years to come. Despite the weight of his statements, Bieber ended on a call for optimism.
“The integrity of the institution will be found in what it will become rather than what it has been,” he said. “I have faith in our leadership, I have faith in the strategic planning process. And most importantly, I have faith in our people. We are down, but we will rise up to meet the needs of our students and our institution — this is the UW that can never be taken away from us by any budget reduction or external force. In closing, I want to paraphrase a saying used when there’s a change in the monarchy in England: The old UW is dead. Long live the new UW.”