North Texas universities brace for tough times ahead on state funding

AUSTIN -- A projected state budget shortfall is casting a shadow over university campuses across North Texas, where burgeoning enrollment and goals of academic excellence could be on a collision course with a potential drop-off in state funding.

"If you're trying to educate more students with less money, that's a train wreck waiting to happen," said James Spaniolo, president of the University of Texas at Arlington, which has seen a 20 percent enrollment increase over the past two years and now has more than 30,000 students at the start of the 2010 fall semester.

Adequate funding is crucial to UT-Arlington, the University of North Texas in Denton and the University of Texas at Dallas. The three North Texas campuses are among seven Texas universities engaged in a high-profile quest to become nationally prominent Tier One research institutions. A plunge in state financial support, say advocates, could at least slow if not seriously impair those efforts.

"It's a matter of wind in the sails, and we just don't know how hard the wind's going to blow," said V. Lane Rawlins, president of the University of North Texas, the region's largest campus with an enrollment of 36,000. "I would say the effect is more one of speed than direction. We certainly aren't going to stop our pursuit of excellence, even in the face of budget cuts, but you have to change some short-term priorities."

Public-funded institutions throughout the state, including campuses across North Texas, are cutting expenses to meet a top-level directive requiring state officials to outline potential savings of 10 percent over the next two years. The 10 percent contingency plans come on top of a 5 percent reduction imposed earlier this year for the current fiscal biennium.

More belt-tightening

The budget-cutting orders -- issued by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus -- affect each campus in varying degrees, but none has completely escaped the impact.

Some institutions are reducing administrative costs such as travel and utilities. Others have imposed hiring and salary freezes and are leaving some positions unfilled. University officials hope to avoid layoffs and a retrenchment in academic offerings but acknowledge that nothing is untouchable in the state's gloomy budget climate.

"It certainly will have an impact on the institution," said Scott Ransom, president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, which includes the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. .

In complying with the 5 percent reduction, the institution eliminated 124 vacant positions, which Ransom said actually proved to be beneficial by streamlining operations. But further cuts, he told state officials last week, could force the nationally recognized health science center to scale back academic programs and reduce staff.

Ransom says he is taking a wait-and-see approach on possible layoffs but acknowledges that option is a "distinct possibility."

The cuts, he said, are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the center's goal to bring the state's ninth medical school to Fort Worth. Although the Legislature must approve the project during its 2011 session, officials have already raised more than enough private donations to cover the $21 million in startup costs and are planning to start classes in 2013. The school, which Ransom calls a "huge deal" for Fort Worth, recently won the backing of the UNT regents.

Texas academic leaders hope to head off a possible reduction in state higher education funds, expressing fears that a rollback in the state's financial commitment could endanger long-term goals to advance quality education.

But lawmakers, who will convene Jan. 11 to begin their four-month-long biennial session, are facing a projected budget shortfall of at least $18 billion and will be under pressure to make hard choices as they write a state budget for the 2012-13 biennium. State leaders have ruled out tax increases and are calling on lawmakers to balance the budget by cutting spending.

Anything is possible

"The next session is going to be a tough one on everybody because there are competing priorities," said Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a member of the House Higher Education Committee. "Everything at this point is on the table."

Patrick, a former public school teacher and one-time faculty member at UT-Arlington, said the budget crunch comes at a time when universities and students are facing increases in fees, textbook prices and other expenses. Scholarships for thousands of students, as well as other assistance programs administered by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, could also be on the chopping block. Many of the initiatives are aimed at helping low-income and minority students get into and stay in college.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, expressed concern that a drop in education spending may force universities to increase tuition at a time when college costs already are too high for many families.

"We need to ensure that we fund them [universities] adequately, and I'm very concerned about that," Zaffirini said. "The best way to avoid higher tuition fees is to fund higher education appropriately."

UT-Arlington, in its legislative appropriation request, warned of a "potentially crippling effect" if the state reduces funding. Spaniolo, in a telephone interview last week, said significant budget reductions would make it hard to "maintain the quality of our programs" as the university absorbs record enrollment.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes is recommending $8.8 billion in spending for colleges, universities and health-related institutions, a 9 percent increase over the current 2010-11 fiscal biennium. Paredes is also calling for what he says are needed changes in the funding formula to put a greater emphasis on class completions instead of enrollment at the beginning of a semester.

"As a rule, the Legislature understands that higher education is critical to the economic well-being in Texas and the quality of life in Texas," he said. "I think they will do everything they can to preserve funding and even increase it a bit."

But he concedes that potential cuts are "a very real danger," adding that "we're going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening."

Tier One campaigns

The budget uncertainty is doubly worrisome to the Tier One candidate schools. Curtailing state education dollars could not only sap efforts to offer quality programs and keep pace with enrollment growth but could also weaken revenue sources needed to create top-level research universities, officials said.

The 2009 Legislature initiated the Tier One program to give Texas more top-flight universities and bolster its competitiveness with other states. Dubbed as "emerging universities," the seven candidate institutions in Texas must meet certain criteria to be able to draw from a half-billion-dollar National Research University Fund that voters approved in November to help finance qualifying universities for Tier One status.

Lawmakers also created a second pool of money -- the Texas Research Incentive Program -- which provided matching money from the state for research-oriented private gifts raised by the universities. That $50 million fund was quickly emptied as universities raced to bolster their private donations and get matching state dollars.

"Obviously if any of the funding for Tier One institutions ... is cut, that will slow the progress," Paredes said.

Among other things, the candidate schools, with the help of their supporters in the Legislature, are pushing to replenish the research incentive fund to continue leveraging private donations. Patrick said she plans "to keep fighting" to continue the fund, but acknowledges that it may be hard to keep the pool of money at 2009 levels.

Area universities are also urging the Legislature to use state general revenue money to replace millions in federal stimulus dollars that will no longer be available during the next biennium. They are also asking lawmakers to keep in mind that education is a driving force for economic growth, pointing out that hundreds of area businesses recruit from nearby campuses to maintain a well-educated work force in North Texas.

Although the legislative session is still four months away, belt-tightening is clearly the order of the day throughout Texas academia. At the University of Texas at Dallas, communications Vice President Susan Rogers says that officials may take a hard look at courses that aren't essential for graduation.

"We may examine our course offerings and make sure we're offering courses that people need to get out of school," she said.

The area's two largest public universities -- UNT and UT-Arlington -- are also taking steps to deal with the tough economy. UT-Arlington has identified cost savings that include a hiring freeze, an executive salary freeze, energy and utility conservation, and travel restrictions. UNT officials say they are prepared to consider a hiring freeze, possible layoffs and the elimination of programs if forced to impose a 10 percent reduction.

The University of North Texas at Dallas, which is making the transition from a satellite campus of Denton's UNT into a fully accredited four-year university, could face a hiring slowdown as a result of the cuts, said President John Ellis Price. The south Dallas campus now has an enrollment of 2,150 but is shooting for a goal of 16,000 students by 2030.

At Texas Woman's University in Denton, which has registered a 68 percent enrollment increase since 2001 to grow to nearly 14,200 students, officials are worried that the 10 percent cuts would hurt nutrition education, women's health research and an online nursing education program, according to the school's spending request.

Dave Montgomery, 512-476-4294