Two presidents of Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities say they are working through budget reductions caused by the recent economic slide, but say state funding can’t drop too far.
“As we look at priorities, we need to do everything we can to protect higher education and the investment that higher education means for the future of the state,” said University of Idaho president Dr. Duane Nellis. Nellis said the reduction of $22 million to the university in Moscow during the past two years is noticeable. “These budget cuts do have an impact on our educational programs.”
“It’s always a tightrope balancing act,” Lewis-Clark State College President Dene Thomas said about managing funding cuts and student tuition increases. During the past decade, undergraduate tuition for Idaho residents has more than doubled at all four of Idaho’s universities and colleges, which also includes Boise State University and Idaho State University in Pocatello.
Nellis and Thomas spoke to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), the panel of lawmakers that writes the state budget. Both the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark face further cuts in Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget, and also have rising undergraduate enrollment. Thomas said she emphasized the progress at the Lewiston college when talking to JFAC, rather than the impact of possible reductions. “I know they know that the cuts harm higher education,” Thomas said. “My focus has been on telling them the good job we’re doing with the funding they’re providing… JFAC is not ignorant of the cuts to higher ed.”
Several legislators on the panel continued to urge that all agencies receiving state funding look for savings and efficiencies wherever possible. “We are, it seems like every day, looking for more efficiencies,” Nellis told lawmakers. He said the university eliminated the communication studies department and is looking at other savings in the College of Natural Resources and College of Art and Architecture. Nellis is also looking into mandatory furlough days for faculty. “We’ve cut over $20 million and we’re doing it in a way that’s trying to minimize the damage.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told Nellis and Thomas to keep looking for savings. He suggested that Lewis-Clark start offering classes year-round. “Our campuses are such great assets, and they sit empty one-third of the year,” Cameron said. But he said the presidents need to be mindful when trimming programs. “Efficiencies are worthless unless they’re effective.”
Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said both presidents made their case for smaller reductions to higher education, but said he isn’t sure what impact that will have on the final budget. “To the degree we can, we shouldn’t politicize their business decisions,” Brackett said. “They made the case, but I’m just not sure they’ll be successful. The dollars just aren’t there.”
Boise State University president Bob Kustra and Idaho State University president Arthur Vailas will speak to JFAC on Tuesday.