Expecting $22.5M less in 2017, UNM faces ‘no win’ situation, president says

September 23, 2016 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE — Facing declines in enrollment and financial support from a cash-strapped state government, The University of New Mexico’s leaders are bracing for the prospect of having $22.5 million less to spend in fiscal year 2017.

And that means everything — including possible cuts in programs, staff and administration — is on the table, UNM President Robert Frank told about 500 concerned staff and faculty members Thursday afternoon.

Frank, Provost Chaouki Abdallah and Executive Vice President David Harris took turns explaining the bleak financial picture of New Mexico’s flagship university and navigating what Frank called “a difficult conversation” during a forum in the student union ballroom.

Frank told the assembly that the university has struggled with financial starvation — and the famine is not going to end anytime soon.

“We have stretched ourselves to the point where we can no longer do any stretching,” he said. “This is a ‘no win’ for all of us.”

As a result, the Albuquerque-based institution, which serves about 35,000 students at its main campus and various branches and employs about 7,000 people, put a freeze on hiring.

College officials also will perform departmental audits of temporary and part-time staff positions in an effort to ensure that all programs are “mission critical.” Those that aren’t likely will end up on the chopping block.

In addition, the administration is reviewing a recent external report on the efficiency of its Information Technologies Department and looking for ways to save money.

The school’s leaders are asking staff and faculty to join a committee to come up with long-term solutions.

UNM, which operates on an annual budget of about $2.85 billion, is not alone in its financial distress, which is partially the result of declining revenues for a state heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry.

New Mexico trimmed funding for public colleges and universities by 2.4 percent — $16.5 million — in fiscal year 2016. And some universities have already begun preparing for more pain. New Mexico State University, based in Las Cruces, reduced its budget by about $12.1 million through job cuts and eliminating at least one academic program.

Frank told Thursday’s gathering that UNM is running a “crisis drill.”

But one UNM student, Sally Barker, told Frank that she doesn’t see it that way. “You said this is a crisis drill,” she said during a public comment period. “I think this is actually a crisis.”

She was one of about 15 speakers who either asked questions about the financial challenges or suggested ideas for addressing them.

Karen Gardner, who said she works in UNM’s College of Arts and Sciences, said that after reviewing the number of salaried employees on campus who are paid more than $100,000 a year — and some even more than $200,000 — she deduced that cutting those salaries by 5 percent could save some $8.3 million in one year.

Her suggestion drew applause from the crowd, as did one from associate dean and lecturer in Africana Studies Sonia Rankin, who said that as the head of a small department she “gets anxious when I hear phrases like ‘mission critical.’ ”

She asked Frank to keep her and others in mind when putting together any sort of committee and ensure that it reflects cultural diversity.

Frank, Abdallah and Harris repeatedly said all options are possible, including cuts to the administrative leadership. But when one woman asked about salary cuts, Frank said that had not yet been discussed.

After the forum, Frank said it is unlikely that any cuts will happen this academic year because the college has already committed to a certain number of programs and staff positions.

Frank, who earned three academic degrees at UNM, has served as president since 2012.

“I love this place,” he said. “I want to see it prosper. But it hurts me when we have to come in and talk about these kinds of cuts. It’s heartbreaking to me.”

The college plans more such forums.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com