Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Amid financial woes, UMass must retain faculty

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As Massachusetts sits mired in a $600 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick announced plans over past weeks for dramatic cuts effecting state employees, with as many as 2,000 state jobs possibly on the chopping block and plans for mandatory furloughs. While it is too early to say exactly how many jobs will be affected at the University of Massachusetts’ flagship Amherst campus, local labor leaders were clearly disturbed by the governor’s announcement and with good reason.

Historically there has been a pitifully low level of spending on public higher education from Beacon Hill, and, despite pledging to change this in his campaign, Patrick admitted during his forum with UMass students last week that he will have his hands tied until state revenues return to their pre-recession levels. In the meantime, UMass Amherst  now faces a grim situation.

The numbers are jaw-dropping. UMass Chancellor Robert Holub stares at a $38.2 million shortfall. His administration will be looking at suggestions from the University’s Budget Planning Task Force to help make the tough decisions in the best long-term interest of the school.

Holub has made a number of solid suggestions for how the Amherst campus can be more efficient, cost-effective and self-sufficient. But the chancellor has acknowledged that when federal stimulus monies expire in 2011, even more drastic measures could surface.

There is no doubt, at this point, that the recession will mean job losses, leaving the Amherst 250 plan to retain faculty an apparent victim of circumstance until the economic tide comes back up. The importance now lies in determining how to best balance the distribution of the University’s modest resource pool.

In the context of the mid-year budget cuts, UMass Amherst Labor Coalition last week came out strongly against the demolition of the 60-year old University Apartments, which the school long ago deemed a public safety hazard. The building has sat empty for the past 15 years, and is in the process of being razed and turned into a 90-car parking lot, clearing the space for a future, modern building.

The situation offers an example of many such critical budget debates that will be occurring on campus in upcoming years. The Labor Coalition released a press release calling on the University to stop the $1.2 million project, along with other optional construction spending. Funding for the project came out of the school’s capital construction budget rather than the operating budget that pays out salaries, and this particular project has been planned for probably as long as the building has sat vacant.

It would be foolish for the school to cease all capital spending on a campus that already has stacked up deferred maintenance during decade after decade of weak support from Beacon Hill. However, there is validity to the idea that the capital budget for building renovations and maintenance should be reduced in order to retain as many jobs as possible at UMass.

Clearly the global economic downturn has left both state and campus leaders struggling to make the decisions needed to balance the bottom line, while at the same time hoping to position the school to emerge from the recession with impressive, world-class faculty and facilities. Thanks to UMass’ lack of dependence on its (small) endowment, it dodged the devastation sustained by most private college endowments in the past year of Wall Street turbulence.

If stabilized, UMass could improve its overall stature while most schools are still recovering. According to a recent Amherst Student article, Harvard’s endowment is down 27 percent this year, and Amherst College’s is down more than 20 percent.

Despite having its own unique set of problems, UMass has a good deal of upward institutional momentum at the moment, considering the new buildings opening across campus and a freshman class that is the brightest in school history. For this momentum to continue on though, it is imperative that the University does not forsake investing in what has been an increasingly precious resource: its faculty and staff.

Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian editorial board.

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