Still dealing with fallout from last fall’s racially charged protests at the University of Missouri, more bad news swirled on the Columbia campus Thursday.
Freshmen enrollment will drop for fall 2016, a hiring freeze is on and faculty won’t be getting pay increases this year.
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley announced late Wednesday in a memo to MU employees that the university will implement a campuswide hiring freeze and a 5 percent cut to its fiscal year 2017 general revenue budget because of a “sharp decline in first-year enrollments and student retention.”
Faculty and university leaders reacted to the announcement with resolve to get through the latest crisis. But some students and administrators expressed concern about the possibilities of reduced services, higher fees and the elimination of classes some seniors could need to graduate.
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“I think if we cut funding too much, students might not have those same resources we have this year,” said Annie Vilks, a sophomore journalism student. “Right now, Ellis Library has 24-hour (access), but they’re stopping that in the future because they just don’t have the funding to keep it going.”
The university expects about 1,500 fewer students will enroll in the fall. That and spending on new campus commitments, such as the new Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, and health benefits and increased stipends for graduate students, will leave the university with a projected $32 million budget gap, Foley said.
Much of the gap — $20 million to $25 million — is expected to be lost revenue from the enrollment decline.
MU officials attribute the drop in enrollment to increased competition from other colleges and universities, a decrease in the number of high school graduates in the region and, to some degree, the fallout from November’s protests, led by a predominately black student group demanding inclusion, equity and an end to systemic oppression on the Columbia campus.
Vice Chancellor Gary Ward estimated that because “most of our expenses are people,” the cuts could affect “hundreds and hundreds of positions.”
But, for the most part, faculty are ready to “pull together and make the best of a bad situation,” said Ben Trachtenberg, chairman of MU’s Faculty Council. “Nobody likes budget cuts, but we have to work together to keep the university up and running.”
The 5 percent cut would eliminate about $20 million of the shortfall, Ward said, leaving the university with a $10 million gap. He stressed that the revenue drop was independent from threatened legislative cuts to state funding.
Missouri House lawmakers have proposed chopping $1 million from the Columbia campus and shifting those funds to Lincoln University, the historically black college in Jefferson City.
The cuts proposed this week for Missouri’s flagship campus would be on top of $7.6 million in cuts that Missouri lawmakers had earlier proposed for the entire university system’s budget. The Columbia campus expects to shoulder the bulk of those cuts.
The House on Thursday approved a $27 billion budget bill, including the cuts, and sent it to the Senate.
But hearing Thursday about the budget issues and enrollment decline at MU, some Republican lawmakers expressed little sympathy for the university’s plight, given its recent problems with racial climate, leadership resignations and its handling of fired assistant professor Melissa Click.
“We cannot reward bad behavior,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican. “We cannot reward a lack of leadership.”
Officials at other campuses in the four-campus system said they are not seeing the same dip in enrollment.
“We project our enrollment to increase by 1 percent to 2 percent over last fall’s totals,” said Andy Careaga, spokesman at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City appears to be on “solid financial footing this year,” said John Martellaro, a UMKC spokesman. “Our enrollment outlook for fall semester 2016 is stable — we’re projecting flat enrollment.”
He said that overall UMKC applications for admission so far for this fall “are up 6.1 percent compared to this time last year. First-time college applications — excluding graduate school and transfer applications — are up 18.2 percent compared to this time last year.”
At the Columbia campus, applications for enrollment as of March 1 were down 1,258 from the same time last year.
To pump up enrollment, “we are reaching out to admitted students who have not yet enrolled and to their parents with phone calls, Skype calls, videos and a text campaign,” Foley said in his memo.
The university is hosting a Preview Mizzou Day recruiting event Wednesday at Arrowhead Stadium.
On campus, students are worried the cuts could hinder student organizations or services, such as the campus tutoring center.
And Vilks, the journalism major, said she was more worried about a rise in new student fees than a tuition spike.
“I think if they won’t raise tuition, they might implement more fees, and I think a lot of students might be concerned or upset with those changes,” she said.
On average, the University of Missouri System has raised tuition and required fees the past five years 2.4 percent annually. Last year, MU’s tuition went up less than 1 percent to $9,335 for Missouri resident undergraduate students.
By state law, tuition hikes are limited by increases in the Consumer Price Index, or 0.07 percent. The university can’t cover its projected financial gap with a tuition hike.
“If a tuition increase were approved by the board of curators, it will account for only about $2 million in new revenues,” Foley said.
And, as Vilks said, students aren’t keen on paying more fees. In November, the university asked students for additional fees to fund renovations for Ellis Library, the campus’s largest library, and hoped to raise up to about $13 million a year. The fee was shot down, with 54 percent of student voting against it.
Gunnar Johanson, a senior political science major who led an initiative against the library fee, said he fears the budget cuts could mean the university might again turn to students to fill the coffers. He’s worried, too, that a shrinking university budget might undermine the value of his degree.
“What bothers me is the reputation of Mizzou after the budget is continuously slashed and how that degree is going to hold up whenever I compete in a global market like we have today. I don’t think the Missouri legislature realizes that,” Johanson said.
Although the hiring freeze wasn’t absolute, Foley said any exception would have to be “absolutely critical to the mission.” The freeze raised concerns about some programs, especially those with extensive vacancies, being able to provide all the classes that next year’s juniors and seniors will need.
In the department of communication, for example, five of 16 faculty posts are vacant, and it’s always possible more will leave after this school year.
The department chairman, Mitchell McKinney, said, “Like many departments, we already feel that we’re stretched thin and doing as much as we can with the resources we have available. We’ve already increased class sizes, combined classes, asked faculty to each teach more.
“So fewer faculty next fall will mean fewer classes we can offer. At a certain point, it’s difficult for upperclassmen to get the classes they need to graduate.”
McKinney said enrollment had been rising in recent years, until the decline projected for next fall, without significant increases in financing.
“So we’ve been handling more students without increased funding,” he said. “And now we face a double whammy, of declining tuition next fall along with the possibility of further cuts from the legislature.”
Tom Hiles, MU’s vice chancellor for advancement, acknowledged that the budget cuts and hiring freeze were “one more challenge, one more obstacle to overcome.” But fundraising, which he oversees, remained a bright spot for the university.
The university raised a record $164 million in fiscal year 2014, he said, and an additional $150 million in fiscal year 2015. And this budget year, which will end June 30, has seen gifts and pledges “at $114 million through February, about $7 million ahead” of 2014’s record pace.
“Our leadership donors are hanging in there,” he said, and the university expects to announce another seven-figure gift Friday.
The Star’s Jason Hancock and Covey Eonyak Son, a freelance journalist at the University of Missouri, contributed to this report.