Coronavirus forces USF, state universities to cut budgets

Proposed reductions for USF total $36.7 million so far, with more to come.
Students cross the University of South Florida's Tampa campus last week on the first day of on-campus classes since the pandemic began. The crisis is forcing USF and other state universities to make budget cuts.
Students cross the University of South Florida's Tampa campus last week on the first day of on-campus classes since the pandemic began. The crisis is forcing USF and other state universities to make budget cuts. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing significant budget cuts at the University of South Florida and other schools in the State University System.

Officials at USF say they are consulting with college deans as they decide where to trim, and are in the early stages of the process. But they have already submitted a list of $36.7 million in proposed cuts for this year to the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 state universities. Proposals for further cuts next year of up to 15 percent will be submitted to the USF Board of Trustees on Wednesday.

The list given to the Board of Governors includes cuts of about $16.3 million in “instruction” related expenses, including reducing or capping enrollment, increasing faculty workload, limiting course availability and eliminating or reducing programs “that do not meet strategic aspirations, or do not have the promise to meet strategic aspirations.”

The proposal also includes about $7.69 million in cuts to university support services and about $6.07 million in cuts to academic support services, including advising. It also includes a proposed reduction of $4.26 million in research that would result in fewer lab technicians and graduate assistants.

A possible $2.36 million cut to student services could including some “financial assistance” to students.

According to the proposal, the reduction “poses a threat” to USF’s ability to maintain or improve its performance on state metrics, including the benchmarks the university needs to hit every year to retain its “preeminent” status, on which a large part of its funding is based.

The proposals come after state officials announced recently that school budgets would be cut by at least 6 percent. They also asked all universities to plan for cuts of 8.5 percent by the end of this fiscal year, and 10 percent by the end of next fiscal year.

Chief Financial Officer Nick Trivunovich said none of the amounts in the proposal are set in stone.

“We don’t want to do anything where we have some reductions that set us back at all,” he said. “We want to be very thoughtful and very careful with how we proceed with that.”

At the trustees work group meeting last week, USF’s general counsel Gerard Solis said the university would look at reducing travel, implementing hiring freezes and trimming academic programs before cutting jobs.

Senior vice president for business and strategy David Lechner told trustees “nothing is off the table.”

He added, “We’re going to have to be inventive, innovative and bold.”

Of USF’s approximately $2.1 billion operating budget, about $718 million is the Education and General budget, which funds the general instruction, research, and public service operations of the university. Sixty percent of that comes through state appropriations and the remainder through tuition.

Although the university announced a slight increase in enrollment this year, projected tuition dollars total $284.15 million compared to last year’s $290.1 million in student tuition and fees.

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University officials emphasized they would not lose sight of their strategic goals, including aspirations to join the American Association of Universities, an elite group of 65 schools in the United State and Canada focused on scholarship and innovation.

Lechner said he believes the recent consolidation of the old USF system into one university could offer further opportunities to streamline programs and services across campuses. He said the university is still in the process of working with deans, directors and student leadership to find out “what we should be doing and what we should not be doing.”

Guiding principles of the cuts include maintaining liquidity, or cash on hand for its longer term commitments, and achieve a balanced budget by 2022.

USF President Steve Currall said part of the university’s responsibility is to be a “responsible steward” of state funded money. “We’ve got to make short term decisions, but they have to be in line with our long-term trajectories,” he told trustees during the work group meeting.

Trivunovich said he did not want to speculate on the pandemic’s impact. The university budgeted $31 million on expenses related to COVID-19, from campus improvements to technology upgrades. About $17.4 million of that came from federal CARES Act funding. The rest was funded by the university.

“It’s hard to predict the longer term impacts of that,” Trivunovich said. “I think we will try to hold some funding in reserves until we have a better sense of the progression of the pandemic and hopefully things will ease up coming up.”