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EWU restructuring programs, cutting positions to fix $3.6 million shortfall

Facing a projected $3.6 million budget shortfall, Eastern Washington University is working to cut costs by restructuring colleges and academic departments – a process that will affect jobs.

EWU President Mary Cullinan and Uriel Iñiguez, chairman of the board of trustees, made the announcement in an April 8 email to faculty and staff, saying the university can’t afford to continue dipping into reserves.

“We must cut costs, and that work involves difficult decisions affecting all of us,” the email said. “While some services can be reduced, many of our expenses include items such as interest payments and energy costs. Cutting these would damage our ability to operate. Salaries are the lion’s share of our costs. We can’t meet our target for reduced expenses without affecting people.”

EWU spokesman Dave Meany said neither he nor school administrators could discuss details of the budget plan, as they’re figuring out the best way to restructure programs.

Meany emailed a statement that said proposals will be presented to the trustees in May and budgets will be finalized in June.

“The university community has been involved in this process since last fall, with the goal of reducing costs while minimally impacting students, faculty and staff,” the statement said. “Eastern is following the procedures outlined by university policies and collective bargaining agreements.”

Meany wouldn’t say which jobs, or how many, were on the chopping block. “As you know, we cannot share personnel details,” the statement said.

Meany also noted that in 2017, the Legislature changed the compensation funding policy for employees at state colleges and universities. The state used to fully cover pay raises, but now institutions like EWU are responsible for about half of any increases approved by the Office of Financial Management, according to a summary of legislative priorities on the university’s website.

Chris Valeo, an English professor serving as president of EWU’s Faculty Organization, said she had heard that 40 positions were eliminated last week, though she didn’t know how many of them were already vacant.

Valeo said academic departments were informed last fall they would have to cut spending by about 3% for the coming two-year budget cycle. To avoid disproportionately affecting some students and programs, they’re planning to make selective reductions instead of across-the-board cuts.

“There were places where there was 3% to give easily,” Valeo said, “and there were places where programs are underfunded and we need more resources and not fewer.”

Madyson Rigg, a member of EWU’s student government, said student leaders had received assurances that budget cuts wouldn’t have a dramatic impact on their education.

“We’re not overly concerned about it,” Rigg said.

Valeo said the university had expected to enroll about 10,650 students this year, but early registrations indicated the school would miss that mark by several hundred students. A final count was being conducted on Friday, the 10th day of the quarter, she said.

Valeo said transfers from community colleges are down significantly. Declining enrollment could have something to do with a steady economy.

“Especially when unemployment is low, people are not looking to get back into school,” Valeo said, though she cautioned it’s not yet clear what has caused the decline at EWU.

The letter from Cullinan and Iñiguez acknowledged that “softening” enrollments in the winter and spring terms have contributed to budget woes.

“University revenues, as you know, come primarily from student tuition and state funding. State funding has decreased and is always unpredictable,” they wrote. “Given our mission, we have always worked to keep tuition as low as possible. And now the Legislature limits tuition increases.”

It’s true that state funding accounts for a smaller percentage of the university’s revenue than it did a decade ago. But since 2015, when the Legislature capped tuition increases at public colleges, state operating appropriations for EWU have only increased.

“But it’s gone up less than it has historically, and it hasn’t gone up at the rate that covers the cost,” Valeo said.

In fiscal 2018, EWU received about $58.5 million in operating funds from the state, accounting for nearly a quarter of the university’s revenue. That’s up from fiscal 2012, when state operating appropriations totaled $34.8 million, about 17 percent of EWU’s revenue.

State Sen. Jeff Holy, of Cheney, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Higher Education Committee, which recently approved about $130 million in capital and operating funds for EWU for the 2019-21 biennium. That would represent a nearly 10 percent increase from the current two-year budget cycle.

“For them to say we’re not giving more money, well, that’s just not true,” Holy said.

Cullinan and Iñiguez said school officials have doubled fundraising revenue over the past year, but “while fundraised dollars contribute significantly to student scholarships, those dollars will not support ongoing university expenses.”

They said EWU isn’t the only school facing a budget crunch.

“Universities nationwide are experiencing revenue and enrollment pressures similar to ours,” they wrote. “EWU is in a position of strength: We are already working together to build the university of the future.”

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