April 26, 2008 in City

WSU, EWU tightening their belts

By The Spokesman-Review

Some Washington college presidents are halting most new hires as a hedge against layoffs and other cuts, given projections of a state revenue shortfall of more than $2 billion.

Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo implemented a “soft hiring freeze” in mid-April, saying the school is facing the possibility of significant cuts in the next legislative session.

At Washington State University, President Elson Floyd this week ordered a similar strategy for administrative hires – but not faculty jobs – asking administrators to fill only “essential” or emergency positions.

In a letter to the EWU campus, Arevalo wrote that the last time Washington state lawmakers faced this kind of shortfall, EWU’s budget was cut by $5 million. That budget cycle, in 2003, included layoffs and other spending cuts.

“With history and prudence as a guide, it is imperative the university prepare itself for the prospect of having less money from the state,” he wrote. “The soft hiring freeze recently implemented will hopefully result in a savings that can help us meet the budget shortfall.”

State revenue projections have sunk in the past year, from an estimated shortfall in the hundreds of millions to the most recent estimates of $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

At WSU, Floyd told top administrators this week that he was putting a halt to most administrative hiring, with some exceptions for emergency situations and “essential” positions. Faculty hiring will continue normally, he said.

“I’m not imposing a freeze,” Floyd said in an interview. “What I am saying is, we clearly will slow, substantially, administrative hiring at this time until I get a better sense of the overall economy.”

In his note to administrators he wrote that he knew the decision would raise concerns. “I fully realize this request will result in a flood of questions, and for some, a heightened level of concern about our financial future,” he wrote.

He said it was necessary to prepare WSU for any contingency, and added, “Trust me … this is a preferred approach when compared with layoffs.”

He also told administrators he was imposing a moratorium on new programs or courses until a campuswide re-evaluation of programs and areas of focus is complete. As a part of that process, each college at WSU is cutting 2.5 percent of its budget – partly to offset past overspending and partly to create a pool of money to direct toward university priorities.

Floyd said that WSU typically has about 100 administrative openings at any given time.

Other colleges in the region haven’t taken similar steps. Spokane’s private colleges, Gonzaga and Whitworth, don’t rely on state funding and are hiring steadily. The University of Idaho also hasn’t changed its hiring practices this spring, officials said.

At EWU, the freeze will affect 75 to 85 positions. Arevalo said critical hires would still be made, but most jobs would be left open. He hopes to save about $1.5 million through the move and is asking administrators and faculty to look for other savings.

“If we can save money now, if we have a shortfall we won’t have to cut program budgets abruptly – or will be able to make smaller cuts,” he said.

He said the freeze was part of an effort to be strategic about the possibility of a reduction in state funding and not be forced to react to a crisis with abrupt program cuts or layoffs. But if the budget forecasts resulted in a big hit to EWU financing, there may be further “hard decisions” to make, he said.

The cycle of state funding swings with the economy; the 2006 legislative session, for example, was a big year for higher education funding thanks largely to a $1.6 billion surplus.

“It’s a bumpy ride,” Arevalo said. “I don’t know where the economy’s going to go. I’d rather plan ahead than all of a sudden be faced with, ‘What do we do now?’ ”

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