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MU looks to tackle budget shortfall

MU budget
Apr. 09, 2013 @ 11:39 PM

HUNTINGTON -- In response to the looming state budget cuts to higher education, the administration at Marshall University informed faculty and staff Tuesday morning that a hiring freeze remains in effect and that most of the dollars in the departmental revenue accounts had been shifted to a university holding account.

While the hiring freeze wasn't a surprise to anyone, a number of faculty members were disturbed to learn the university had "swept" some of the money from the revenue accounts overnight.

"It's a little on the perturbing side what's going on over here," said Dan Holbrook, the chairman of the History Department. "There was no notification whatsoever."

Employees received an email Tuesday morning from President Stephen Kopp about the measures, noting that the university is expecting a $5.11 million cut, or about 9 percent, in state appropriations in the coming fiscal year. This fiscal year, Marshall's appropriation was $57.1 million of a $193 million budget.

Kopp explained that those revenue accounts were not left empty; an adjusted available balance or either $5,000 or the current balance, whichever is less, was left. Kopp said funds already encumbered were not included, although a new funding release procedure was put in place.

Ginny Painter, the communications director for the Marshall University Research Corporation, said the exact amount shifted from the accounts was not available Tuesday night but likely was in the millions of dollars. She said the finance department is still sorting out all the encumbrances and other commitments.

"To be clear, all encumbered commitments will be honored, and there is a process in place for people to request a release of funds from the swept accounts," Painter said, noting that Kopp's accounts also were included. "This is basically a way to help manage and monitor the university's cash flow. It doesn't mean that the money is absolutely not available to spend. It means that people have to ask first and justify expenses from those accounts."

Some faculty members would like to have it all explained more clearly, and more timely, said Holbrook.

"We have four faculty members who have travel for work purposes already approved, and two are traveling this weekend," Holbrook said Tuesday afternoon as he filled out "swept-balance release forms" to make sure the faculty members would be reimbursed when they return. "I think if our dean or provost or president had given us some inkling this was going to happen, you could do some actual planning. Now I have to take two hours and file paperwork for funds that were already obligated."

What happened also prompted psychology professor Marty Amerikaner, who is the faculty representative on the board of governors, to email Kopp with his concerns.

In the email, which was obtained by The Herald-Dispatch, Amerikaner told Kopp his colleagues want to understand what happened to the money and how the university may spend it.

"Quite naturally, faculty are very concerned about where this money has gone, how it will be used, and how they are going to fund the programs and initiatives for which that money was internally allocated," Amerikaner wrote. "And, of course, faculty and departments are distressed over the lack of opportunity that was provided to prepare for this change.

"It is the absence of information that is critical here -- all we have been told is that money is being 'swept' -- it is gone," Amerikaner said. "There is no clarity as to anything else, and the absence of information on priorities or process is generating a great deal of anxiety and anger."

Those departmental revenue accounts are funded through student fees, e-course money, department allocations and other income sources, Amerikaner noted in his email.

Painter said Tuesday evening, reiterating Kopp's message, that the latest state budget projections required swift action.

"State tax revenues continue to fall and it looks increasingly likely that the state will end this budget year in the red," Kopp wrote. "Although the state budget for next year has not yet been finalized, we do not anticipate that this outlook will improve.

"Decisions have and will continue to be framed around the priorities and mission of our university, and as such, the best interests of our students and our employees. However, after careful consideration of the circumstances looming before us, we have decided to take action now to avoid more drastic actions in the future. While these decisions are tough to make, they represent the prudent and most appropriate course of action," Kopp wrote.

Kopp added that a downturn in state allocations has been expected for several years and the university community has been working together to streamline operations and identify opportunities to reduce expenditures.

Painter said the administration doesn't want people to think there is an emergency.

"But the university's administration feels that the state's budget sutiation -- declining state tax revenues and projections of finishing this fiscal year in the red -- require some belt tightening now," Painter said.

Students also are concerned about what's happening, wondering why lawmakers and the governor think cutting money to higher education is a good idea at all. Marshall senior Adam Fridley, who is serving as chairman of the State Advisory Council for Students, led a statewide student signature campaign to let lawmakers know that students are concerned with the ripple effect of cutting state support.

"As a result of these cuts, our colleges and universities will have no other option than to raise our tuition, yet again," Fridley said.

The petition was introduced to the Senate Monday by Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, with 1,788 signatures from institutions across the states. It states that since 1980, tuition has increased by more than 500 percent, while state support has decreased by 38.3 percent since 1991.

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