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WSU president announces sweeping budget cuts to reduce $30 million deficit

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 23, 2017

Incoming Washington State University President Kirk Schulz speaks during his first visit to campus April 1, 2016, at the Compton Union Building in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins / AP)
Incoming Washington State University President Kirk Schulz speaks during his first visit to campus April 1, 2016, at the Compton Union Building in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins / AP)

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz announced sweeping budget cuts in an online statement Monday evening, fulfilling a promise he made when starting the job to curb the university’s spending habits.

Each department at all five of WSU’s campuses has been instructed to reduce spending by 2.5 percent in fiscal 2018, Schulz said in the statement. The goal, he said, is to shave $10 million from an estimated $30 million in annual deficit spending.

Schulz said positions in many colleges and departments – including athletics – are being eliminated, although he did not specify how many. Those positions include retention counselors who work face-to-face with students to help them stay in school.

Additionally, the cuts mean WSU’s Performing Arts program will be eliminated at the end of this performance season.

“These decisions are painful. They will disrupt lives, and the consequences of eliminating and reducing positions will ripple throughout our community,” Schulz said. “But as much as I and members of the leadership team regret the necessity of these actions, they must be taken in order to restore the University’s overall fiscal health.”

In a presentation to the board of regents last month, WSU’s chief budget officer, Joan King, said the university has spent about $115 million, or 56 percent, of its reserves since fiscal 2013. Schulz reiterated that such spending habits are “simply not sustainable.”

WSU’s vice president for marketing and communication, Phil Weiler, said Monday evening that the university should break even in three years if it sticks to the plan of spending $10 million less each year. He stressed that more changes are on the horizon.

“This is not a one-time thing,” he said. “These are the first of a number of changes that are going to take place over the years. If we don’t get this sorted, we’re going to start hitting some really treacherous waters, financially.”

Schulz said about 85 percent of the university’s operating budget covers salaries and benefits, so staff reductions are “inevitable.”

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review last week, Schulz said a number of positions were intended to be temporary but became “semi-permanent” as departments sought reserve funds to keep them around.

In Monday’s statement, he said that temporary positions in the Office of Multicultural Student Services and the Office of Equity and Diversity have been funded with reserves for years.

“Several two-year temporary positions were established to support an increasing number of diverse students,” he said. “However, no permanent funding was designated at the time of their creation and no permanent funding has been identified since then.”

Last week, WSU’s vice president for student affairs, Mary Jo Gonzales, informed the student government that retention counselor positions in the Chicano/a and Latino/a Student Center would be eliminated, according to a report in the student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen.

At the same time the university is seeking to fill a new adminstrator position - the associate vice president for community equity and inclusive excellence.

Other departments facing staff reductions include Student Affairs, and Finance and Administration.

Schulz said the Performing Arts program, which brings an array of musical and theatrical performances to theaters on campus, does not receive state or tuition funding and is “not otherwise self-sustaining,” so it will have to be eliminated. The program has used $1.6 million of the university’s reserves since its inception in 2011.

The program, Schulz said, “has contributed significantly to the cultural richness of our community. However, ticket sales, grants and gifts are not enough to keep it financially viable.”

Weiler said the program’s reliance on reserve funds was “a short-term solution that became sort of a long-term obligation.”

Schulz has talked openly about paring down the university’s budget since he started the president job in June 2016. WSU officials have said the school borrowed heavily to invest in capital projects during a post-recession enrollment boom.

Weiler gave one example: “We made a very conscious decision to start the College of Medicine (in Spokane). We knew and expected that we were going to have to use our savings to launch that.”

Much attention has been focused on the athletics department’s multimillion-dollar deficit. A year ago, students balked when Schulz proposed charging students $50 per semester to bring the department into the black.

The student fees were part of a multipronged plan that also included increased support from the university’s operating budget, doubled spending from the Cougar Athletic Fund and revenue from proposed beer sales in Martin Stadium.

Weiler said the university plans to issue monthly updates on efforts to reduce the budget shortfall during the remainder of the academic year.

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