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USF trustees approve $36.7 million in budget cuts

Staff, adjuncts, visiting faculty positions will be cut, but no permanent faculty will face layoffs.
The University of South Florida's board of trustees approved a plan Tuesday to cut $36.7 million from its budget.
The University of South Florida's board of trustees approved a plan Tuesday to cut $36.7 million from its budget. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 13

The University of South Florida’s board of trustees approved a plan Tuesday that cuts recurring costs by $36.7 million in preparation for the upcoming legislative session, where lawmakers are sure to tighten state university budgets because of the pandemic.

“In some ways it’s an exciting day, because it will allow us to be on a path to greater fiscal stewardship,” USF president Steve Currall said.

The cuts, which affect the fiscal year starting in July, will not include layoffs of permanent faculty positions, but will see the loss of staff, adjuncts and visiting faculty positions. Faculty positions that become vacant through retirements will not be filled, and some colleges will see less state-funded support for graduate assistant positions.

University officials acknowledged that the cuts could be felt in the classroom. Provost Ralph Wilcox suggested the university would invest in lower cost graduate assistant positions in colleges with larger class sizes.

“We have to certainly preserve the grand reputation we’ve carefully built and zealously protected at the University of South Florida,” he said, noting public universities like USF compete to some degree with smaller private colleges that have faculty-to-student ratios in the single digits.

“We’re going to have to work hard to preserve (the undergraduate experience) with budget constraints of this kind,” Wilcox said.

Though the second federal stimulus bill passed in December has about $23 billion allocated for colleges and universities, the amount of the one-time payment each university will receive is still unknown.

While the state Board of Governors did not require Florida universities to make cuts from recurring expenses, USF’s decided to streamline its budget by more than $66 million over two years.

Decisions on the second year’s cuts were pushed until later in the spring, after USF’s new strategic plan is developed and more information on state and federal funding is available.

As for this year’s budget, university leaders said they could not wait until after the legislative session to make plans.

“It’s very important for us to operate on the facts we have now,” Currall said.

The cuts were based on plans submitted by college deans and unit leaders.

University support units — including the human relations department, facilities and public safety, which includes University Police — saw a $6.5 million cut. Academic support units, including those that work with accreditation and student success initiatives, were cut by $4.96 million.

Cuts to the university’s 12 colleges ranged from $5.97 million in the College of Arts and Sciences to $125,350 in the Honors College.

In the College of Education, cuts were reduced to $2.8 million after a public outcry from an earlier proposal to carve out 6.8 million. The college will continue to work on “curriculum changes to meet market demand,” in light of dwindling enrollment, the university said.

Other colleges were able to streamline their budgets by moving costs that were funded by the state to money earned through research dollars or philanthropic endowments.

While faculty see this year’s cuts as necessary, they worry about higher teaching loads and larger class sizes that will come with not filling vacant positions and letting go of adjunct and graduate assistant positions, said Tim Boaz, a trustee and president of the Faculty Senate. That eats into research time, which the university prioritizes, he said. And he worries about looming cuts next year.

“Someone’s going to have to pick up that work,” Boaz said. “It’s going to be a real challenge to get those classes filled.”

Trustee Charles Tokarz echoed that concern at the board’s meeting Friday. He wondered what larger class sizes might mean for the university’s student success metrics and the ability to recruit students and faculty.

Colleges such as the Muma College of Business and the College of Engineering already had student to faculty ratios of 33 to 1, while the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of universities USF repeatedly states it aspires to join, has an average of 16 to 1.

“We’ve been sweating bullets over this,” Currall said.

Wilcox said the university has already invested in improving its metrics and has “a few tricks up our sleeves” to maintain its standing.

“Given the manner in which we’ve clawed to the No. 1 position in performance-based funding over the past several years — we’ve clawed our way to that position — we have no intention of sliding backward,” he said.

The university will begin creating its new strategic plan this spring and will deliberate on the next fiscal year’s budget after that.