UTPA faces budget challenges
Posted: 06/03/2010
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Despite the current economic times and the budgetary challenges that face all institutions of higher learning, The University of Texas-Pan American continues to move forward.

In May, UTPA met the initial request by Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board that required all state agencies, including universities, to identify a reduction of five percent in general revenue for the 2010-11 biennium. UTPA's operating budget development for FY2011 was approached cautiously, and was done without layoffs, furloughs and extensive slashing of academic or support programs that some universities are now undergoing.

"Our budget was built with a sense of restraint to safeguard our most essential services and basic programs. We did not budget any growth even though we know that we are growing," UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said. "As we struggle to meet the new mandate of an additional 10 percent reduction, we will continue to do everything we can to maintain the new initiatives we had identified in the initial budget."

Those initiatives build upon the University's core missions of teaching, research and public service. Under the initial budget submitted to The University of Texas System,

• Students will benefit from services provided by a new migrant office and extended call center hours that will improve the admissions process.

Resources for emerging academic programs, such as civil engineering and environmental studies and others, were addressed by reallocating existing resources.

A split of the College of Science and Engineering into two colleges; the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Science and Mathematics will better serve a growing number of students in those disciplines.

A new aquatics program funded out of the Wellness and Recreational Center will train young students and the community.

Funding for the Starr County Upper-Level Center will support the fall 2010 opening of the new facility and provide greater access to higher education for our communities west of Hidalgo County.

Insurance benefits for staff and faculty were maintained with minimal increases in premiums and while the University is under a flexible hiring freeze which requires presidential approval for hiring into vacant positions, no mandatory layoffs or furloughs occurred.

Funding was provided to align deficiencies in our pay plan for administrative support positions on campus and for an increase in scholarships in the employee education benefit program.

Funding that had been cut has been restored to a program supporting new faculty.

The implementation of new technology in classrooms will assist faculty in providing instruction and enable easier and better access to instructional resources by students.

UTPA was also able to remain one of the most affordable higher education institutions in The University of Texas System with the second lowest tuition in the System in spite of a minimal tuition and fee increases for fall 2010 and fall 2011.

Given the Legislative Budget Board's and the Governor Office new call for an additional 10 percent reduction, the University will need to be strategic as it further tightens its belt for the next fiscal years. Nelsen's frequently heard cautionary comment of doing "less with less" has taken on new meaning.

"We are going to have to do more than just determine what programs give us the 'most bang for the buck'," Nelsen said. "We must focus on maintaining first-rate instruction for our students, and we will have to align our resources for maximum effectiveness and efficiency. During these coming months, we must continue to assess and review all our existing services and programs, while we continue to build on our strengths."

What are some of the key challenges that UTPA will face as the faltering economy, decreased private support and rising costs impact the state-funded portion of its budget?

Already, in the initial budget, employee merit raises were not provided and travel funds lowered, both areas that impact negatively faculty and staff.

In FY2011, one-time Stimulus Package (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding from the federal government distributed by the state to higher education institutions is being used to fund existing expenses and will not be available in the 2012-2013 biennium and beyond. A drop in ARRA funds will also impact research projects.

Space needed for new classrooms and offices is essential. In fall 2009, UTPA had a 329,368 square-foot deficit in classroom and office space. However, UTPA's reserves are dwindling and its current debt ratio will limit the ability to issue debt for capital projects.

The legislature is considering switching to outcomes-based appropriation based on the numbers of graduates and completed rather than attempted credit hours, which would result in significantly lower state funding for UTPA.

Dwindling funding threatens UTPA support for important programs such as college work study and scholarships.

The legislature may decide to cut costs in the future by eliminating appropriations for special line items that are outlined in the appropriations bill. Currently UTPA has $10 million in special line items for Starr County, Diabetes Registry, the cooperative pharmacy doctorate, Center for Manufacturing and other centers and programs that particularly serve Valley needs.

In a worst case scenario the Legislature could choose to push Tuition and Revenue Bond payments, which they now fund, onto higher education institutions. Faced with this requirement or other dramatic funding reductions, prospects of freezes on all travel and new projects, cessation of current projects and programs, furloughs, compensation reductions or even layoffs loom closer.

"With the call for these new reductions and with the uncertainty of the next legislative session, we will have to make some tough choices in the next few months," Nelsen said. More than ever, he reiterated, collaborations and partnerships will be necessary to move UTPA forward. And Nelsen went on to remind us of the cautionary adage, "to make every penny count."

"In these times, it rings truer than ever," he said. "We'll have to be smart about every decision made regarding resources and how those resources are spent. What matters are our students, our faculty, and our staff. We must do everything we can to protect them and to maintain the excellence that has been obtained over the years at UT Pan Am."