February 11, 2009 in City

Budget woes could mean layoffs at universities

Cuts would reach deep, school officials say
Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – Washington’s two largest public universities painted a bleak picture Tuesday of looming budget cuts as the state grapples with a shortfall that lawmakers say could reach $8 billion.

Lawmakers won’t finalize the budget for another two months, but colleges and agencies have all been asked to show how they would deal with deep cuts.

The cuts would mean “600 to 800 jobs, it’s a 2 to 6 percent decline in enrollment … and it’s 1 to 2 quarters of added time to degree,” University of Washington President Mark Emmert told lawmakers.

In Pullman, Washington State University officials are “doing our best to minimize the number of warm bodies that will lose their jobs,” Provost Warwick Bayly said. “But it is inevitable that there will be some.”

Under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal, WSU faces a 12 percent cut in state funding. Raising tuition by 7 percent – the current maximum – for the next two years would reduce that to just under 7 percent.

With Washington’s revenues getting steadily worse, state lawmakers have asked both institutions to draw up plans for even higher cuts: 50 percent more than what Gregoire called for. Cutting that 18 percent would mean WSU would have to slash $93 million from its budget over the next two years.

Officials from both schools said they’re not ready to name specific programs or services that definitely would be axed. But they sketched out the broad picture. At WSU, Bayly said, such cuts would reach deep – 41 percent – into WSU’s research and public service operations.

“We are trying to protect instruction to the extent that we can,” he said. Public service includes efforts such as agricultural and natural resource outreach programs, nutritional services and small business development centers.

“They are all on the table and would in all likelihood be impacted by the reduction here,” Bayly said.

Also targeted in the plan: student services and administration. Student services include recruiting, the registrar’s office, tutors and admissions.

“Each and every one of those may suffer to some extent,” Bayly said.

Emmert and Bayly said they would like to maintain the current tuition increase cap of 7 percent a year, although Emmert argued that increases of even 14 percent would be preferable to the likely alternative: students forced to stay in school longer to get into the courses they need.

“More people are hurting, and money is harder to come by,” Bayly said. “We want to maintain enrollment to the extent that we can.” Even so, he said, WSU estimates that enrollment would drop by 1,000 to 1,500 students because of the cuts.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, repeatedly suggested that tuition at both schools is a bargain compared to the price of many other colleges in the state.

Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, told Bayly that he wanted WSU to use the financial crisis to rethink the way WSU does business and pare back operations to create a “stronger, leaner, more focused university.”

WSU’s doing that, including eliminating 18 percent of courses, the provost replied. The school’s trying to boost efficiency and identify programs that help the state’s economy, he said.

“They’re all very, very hard questions, because they’re full of good people, and there’s nothing that you can absolutely point your finger at and say, ‘We don’t need that,’ ” said Bayly. “They all contribute.”

“Those are hard questions,” Jarrett replied. “And one of the beauties of hard times is it forces you to deal with hard questions.”

Bayly said WSU considered requiring workers to take unpaid time off under Gregoire’s 12 percent cut proposal.

But under the Senate’s 18 percent scenario, he said, “all it would be doing would be delaying the inevitable with regard to program elimination or layoffs.”

A voluntary early retirement incentive, he said, would probably be better for the school’s bottom line.

Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, offered sympathy.

“Let us endure, and hopefully beyond the cloud we will see the sunshine,” he said. “We feel for you.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at

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