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In hard times, FSU sings upbeat tune

TALLAHASSEE — The leaders of Florida State University are so worried about the faltering economy's impact on employees that they're pushing forward with plans to help their lowest-earning workers pay for things like food and gas.

Meanwhile, the ambitious research institution is still investing in superstar professors and at-risk students.

A politically seasoned president and budget chief are making this possible at a time when Florida's public universities are losing tens of millions in state funding. FSU's budget for next year is leaner by $32-million.

So how can FSU afford all these investments?

Credit two years of careful, quiet penny-pinching that has left the institution with a rainy-day fund of roughly $90-million.

Leading the effort: the president and budget chief who know enough about economic downturns to have anticipated the depth of the current one earlier than their counterparts in the state university system.

"We saw it coming," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said. "We started planning two years ago."

"We" includes vice president for planning and programs Robert Bradley. Wetherell was House speaker. Bradley was Florida's budget director under Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Bradley went to Wetherell and longtime provost Larry Abele two years ago, and they agreed: The economy here is about to go south, fast, and we need to start saving money.

So FSU quietly set aside tuition revenues, plus enrollment money the state gives FSU each year for new students. While other universities continued to fill vacant positions, FSU slowed its hiring and banked those savings, too.

The result: By the end of last year, FSU had saved about $90-million to spend on priority initiatives.

The latest priority: FSU trustees are giving Abele and Wetherell the green light to pursue options that would provide help to lower-paid staff members — and to find ways to keep faculty members from resigning.

Administrators aren't publicly discussing the plan's details, but it could consist of subsidies of a few hundred to several hundred dollars a year for employees who meet a certain salary threshold.

"You know, people are taking on more work, and the state isn't giving them a raise," Abele said. "Why not, instead of penalizing people or letting their hard work go unrecognized, send the message that we know they are working hard and that they are paying more for gas and food?"

Abele and Wetherell also will explore ways to retain faculty members, after about five dozen left recently for jobs in more financially stable states. Should the incentives take the form of raises, FSU's savings might help cover the cost.

The money is letting FSU continue to recruit and hire nationally renowned faculty members through its Pathways to Excellence Program, a multiyear, more than $100-million push aimed at boosting FSU's national reputation.

Abele this year also added 50 slots to an academically rigorous program for low-income, first-generation students.

Meanwhile, the libraries have longer hours this year, and funding for undergraduate research remains strong.

Still, FSU isn't immune to the financial worries plaguing state colleges from Miami to Pensacola.

In the forthcoming budget year, the university has $32-million less in state funding. So it will begin the fall semester with 250 fewer faculty and staff positions (most of them already vacant through attrition); seats for 2,000 fewer students; and cutbacks to student services and campus maintenance and improvement projects.

Last week, trustees took the unprecedented step of approving not just the forthcoming year's budget, but the one for 2009-10. It's based on the current dismal revenue projections for Florida.

Wetherell said FSU is just trying to prepare early for the worst that he believes is yet to come.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

In hard times, FSU sings upbeat tune 06/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:55am]
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