By Mark Fischenich
MANKATO — Administrators, faculty and a student painted a variety of pictures for visiting state lawmakers to illustrate what budget cuts have meant to Minnesota State University.
But every landscape contained the same geological formation.
“The fear we have is what’s going to happen in 2012, when that cliff comes,” said Murtaza Rajabali, president of the MSU Student Association.
Many of the new faculty at the school are being offered only one-year contracts, many administrators have “interim” before their titles, and class sizes are increasing, said MSU President Richard Davenport.
Those sorts of decisions are being made to retain future budget flexibility “given what we’ve heard about the cliff coming in two years,” Davenport said.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, the chairman of the higher education committee in the Minnesota House, was at his fifth college among seven he was visiting Thursday and Friday, and the Iron Range Democrat has heard plenty about the steep drop-off ahead.
“When the stimulus package disappears and we hit the cliff we’re talking about — we’re hearing a lot of horror stories,” Rukavina said.
It’s not that the current situation is a bed of roses. MSU had to cut about $8 million out of the current budget, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty imposed an additional $100 million cut for state colleges and universities in fiscal year 2011, which starts on July 1, 2010.
The crag that everybody is worrying about comes a year later, when the state might be facing a budget shortfall equal to or worse than the $4.6 billion deficit the governor and lawmakers dealt with earlier this year. That’s because the next two-year budget, starting in July of 2011, could face similar levels of red ink but without the nearly $2 billion in emergency aid from the federal economic stimulus package that was present this year.
Part of that federal money went to colleges and universities, erasing much but not all of the funding cuts imposed by the Legislature. The impact is being felt and it will be worse a year from now, Rukavina and three other lawmakers were told.
Mary Bliesmer, a professor in the School of Nursing, said funding cuts have reduced the number of adjunct faculty in the school, forcing reductions in the number of clinicals offered, which means fewer new students can be accepted. There will be 40 new nursing students admitted in the fall and spring semesters rather than 48 each, Bliesmer said.
Faculty reductions have forced class sizes up to the point that there aren’t lecture halls large enough to handle some sociology courses, forcing MSU to hold classes in the movie theater across the street from campus, said Don Larsson, head of the MSU faculty union.
Davenport noted that student numbers are increasing even as faculty counts are reduced. And attempts to streamline operations are reaching their limit as MSU already has significantly fewer employees than comparable colleges for cleaning and maintaining buildings, handling business operations and doing other non-academic support work.
Reorganization has eliminated administrative positions, including all but one vice presidential post, Davenport said.
“I think we’re leaner,” he said. “I think we’re more efficient.”
Future budget reductions are inevitably going to bring much of the pain to academic areas, officials said.
“We know ’12 and ’13’s not a pretty picture,” said Rick Straka, vice president of finance and administration. “... We do know there’s going to be fewer classes offered, fewer sections for students to choose from.”
That will mean delayed graduations for students, something that is happening now to one student Rajabali knows who needs just one more class to graduate. It’s not being offered until spring.
Those sorts of delays aren’t just a hardship on the students, they also harm Minnesota’s economy, said Sen. Kathy Sheran, a Mankato Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
“One of our goals in both the House and Senate is to have students moving through in a timely manner so they can get into the work force and be productive in the economy,” Sheran said.
Another long-standing goal of Minnesota government is to keep the cost of attending state colleges and universities affordable by having the state cover two-thirds of the cost so students need to pay just a third. Larsson said that objective is disappearing from view as the student share already approaches 50 percent.
Looking ahead, Larsson sketched some water into his request for relief as the state’s higher education system moves closer to the precipice.
“We know there are going to be rapids,” Larsson said. “But keep them from becoming waterfalls.”