UMass Budget Planning Task Force sets out to advise administration

By Herb Scribner

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When the University of California’s Board of Regents voted to raise undergraduate fees for its students by 32 percent on Thursday, it was clear that the economic freefall of the past 18 months is beginning to take a major toll on both public and private institutions of learning.  

Barring another injection of federal stimulus money, the University of Massachusetts will itself be facing down a large budget cliff in the coming months and years. In the meantime, Chancellor Robert Holub has retained the Budget Planning Task Force (BPTF) that was brought together last year, and rekindled its efforts in advising the UMass administration.

“We’ll probably see some effects of this [economic situation] as early as summer 2010, with the full impact emerging over the next two years,” said task force chair and linguistics professor John McCarthy.

“In collaboration with the BPTF, I am trying to put the campus on a sounder financial basis,” Chancellor Robert Holub said. In recent months the Chancellor has been working closely with McCarthy, who has been heading the charge to increase revenue for the school before the economic landscape worsens.

“I have worked well with the BPTF [so far],” said Holub. “I have accepted most of their recommendations, and meet frequently with Professor McCarthy to discuss the recommendations of the task force.  I don’t foresee any changes in this relationship in the coming year.”

The BPTF is primarily looking at altering certain aspects which the school itself controls, rather than things that the state has control over, such as the amount of funding coming from Beacon Hill. The Task Force’s focus has evolved of late, as it now looks to work on cost savings, entrepreneurial activities and financial aid fees.

“The BPTF advises the chancellor about ways of dealing with the on-going budget crisis,” McCarthy said. “It also serves as a way for the central administration to disseminate reliable and complete information about the budget.” McCarthy went on to explain that the focus of the BPTF is to increase revenue and change the costs of certain aspects of running and maintaining the University.

The Cost Savings Committee, chaired by Robert Pollin, has been given full leadership by McCarthy and the BPTF in trying to reduce expenses. Pollin is a professor of economics at UMass, as well as the co-director for the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI).

Many students at UMass are expecting fee increases, which could soften the financial pressure put on middle-class students and protect the poorer students if it is paired with more financial aid packages. This aspect is likely to be handled by the financial aid and fees subcommittee, chaired by Carol Barr, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Isenberg School of Management.

“We feel it is a high priority to maintain access for students from lower-income groups,” said Holub. “We will continue to devote a considerable percentage of fees to financial aid.”

According to Holub, UMass has contributed 30 percent of the 50 percent increase in financial aid seen at the University over the past five years.

McCarthy noted that the increase in fees is already in effect, yet it has been covered by the rebate many students received this past fall. Fees and other financial aid changes for the poorer students are also already in effect. Some of these financial aid fees that will affect students will come from the proposed increased out-of-state enrollment. By recruiting more out-of-state students, who pay more to attend the University, UMass plans on adding some extra revenue.

The Entrepreneurial Activities Subcommittee will also be looking to spread its initiative, focusing on improving the profitability of UMass’ online courses and five-year masters programs.

“The administration is trying to proceed as quickly as possible on plans like increasing online courses,” said McCarthy. Online classes are viewed as a large potential source for earnings, which is something the BPTF is looking to encourage.

“Some [online classes] are very well designed and increase access for individuals who are distant from campus or employed and unable to attend during the day,” noted Holub.

The task force hopes to encourage more students to take online classes, as well as fix the unit structure of these classes, as a way to help improve the school’s budget.

“Many students can only take online courses for a variety of reasons. Others prefer to do so,” said Holub. “Education is accomplished in a variety of ways in our times, and most studies have shown that learning does not suffer in online courses.” While unsure of what the fee structure will look like, Holub explained that “online courses are a source of revenue for many colleges.”

With all of these changes on the way, the BPTF is looking at even more areas as a way to help the school in the economic crisis, including improving the indirect costs on grants, creating a more effective development plan, offering a reduction in capital costs and altering the maintenance and administrative costs to be more efficient.

“We need to balance the budget with a combination of revenue generation and reductions in expenditures,” Holub said. “I’d love to see more revenues, which would make our task of managing the campus easier.”

“No meetings of the entire BPTF are currently scheduled. That may change soon, but at this time only the subcommittees are meeting regularly,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy has been a professor for 21 years, and now specializes in linguistic theory. He received the University Distinguished Teaching Award twice during his career.

 “The goal of all of these actions is to maintain quality and access to courses despite the biggest reduction in state support that we have ever faced,” McCarthy said. “To the extent that we can succeed in these goals, students will benefit.”

 Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected]