UMass-Boston budget crunch weighs on campus, system

University of Massachusetts-Boston faculty members and union representatives on Wednesday urged a UMass Board of Trustees committee to help the Boston campus manage a budget deficit they said is threatening the campus's urban mission.

Facing a roughly $26 million deficit, UMass-Boston Chancellor Keith Motley this month sent a letter to students and faculty announcing the "current need for substantial deficit reductions" and detailing how his administration would proceed, based on recommendations from the university's Committee on Budgeting.

Motley directed his vice chancellors and deans to immediately begin making plans for an across-the-board 2.5 percent budget reduction, to implement a hiring freeze, and to require at least five furlough days from certain employees.

"This is killing us. We are cutting faculty, offering fewer courses, increasing student per faculty, cutting budgets needed to perform our work. We are abandoning our urban mission. The result? Enrollments are down," Marlene Kim, a UMass-Boston economics professor and president of the Faculty Staff Union, told the UMass Board of Trustees' Administration and Finance Committee. "We can't educate students on this cost-cutting austerity program."

Driving the deficit is a long-term facility and infrastructure construction project that's ballooned over its initial $750 million budget, UMass officials said, and a slowdown in enrollment-connected revenue as enrollment growth lags amid the construction.

UMass-Boston faculty argued that since the campus infrastructure project is designed to put the Dorchester campus on track for greater success in the future, the entire five-campus UMass system should help Boston manage its budget through this turbulence.

"It's necessary because our students -- your students -- deserve up-to-date learning and research facilities. We're living with the piles of dirt and other stuff, horrible traffic and significantly longer commutes, and we know these conditions will result in lower enrollments in the short-run," Anneta Argyres, vice president of the Professional Staff Union, said. "We think the system as a whole, though, should help to shoulder the financial costs of this rebuilding."

Trustees, though, said it is up to the leaders at UMass-Boston to manage the budget that they designed and got approved by the Board of Trustees.

"What UMass-Boston is going through is that every campus submits a budget. They submitted their budget for fiscal 2017 ... The budget was created by the campus. What we're doing is to hold them accountable to the budget that they submitted, which was approved," James Buonomo, chairman of the Administration and Finance Committee, said. "This came out of looking at (their) quarterly report, saw they were missing some numbers and their deficit was substantial. We need to react to that now instead of waiting until March."

Victor Woolridge, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the board's policy is to require each campus to manage its budget to a 2 percent operating margin. UMass-Boston's operating margin in fiscal year 2016, according to a presentation to the committee Wednesday, was -1.3 percent.

"If a single campus is running a deficit, that means the other campuses have to have a higher positive operating margin in order to break even. So when you ask to go deeper into deficit, you're charging the other parts of the system more positive margin in order to have that happen," Woolridge said. "So no, we don't want to have negative operating margins. Each campus has understood for a very long period of time that that has been our goal."

UMass President Martin Meehan stressed that budget management is handled at the campus level and said, "Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to run deficits."

Motley, the UMass-Boston chancellor, said he and his budget committee have been in talks with students and faculty to find ways to manage the budget deficit while limiting the impacts on student life and academics.

"We continue to find creative ways to move forward. It has not stopped our progress," he said. "The reality is we've been able to do something that our campus wasn't allowed to do in 40 years, which is make progress."

Motley said he is actively fundraising for the campus to help alleviate the deficit, will work with Meehan and the Board of Trustees to identify solutions and will talk with chancellors from other campuses to "help some of them remember that when they were running deficits, I was supporting their issues and so on and so forth."

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