Layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes at Kentucky’s universities

During a weeklong 2011 National Junior Classical League Convention at EKU, 1600 students representing 32 states marched through the EKU campus in a Roman triumphal march in Roman regalia on Friday July 29, 2011 in Richmond, Ky.
During a weeklong 2011 National Junior Classical League Convention at EKU, 1600 students representing 32 states marched through the EKU campus in a Roman triumphal march in Roman regalia on Friday July 29, 2011 in Richmond, Ky.

Eastern Kentucky University just enacted a hiring freeze. Kentucky’s community college system has started laying off workers. Morehead State University put all its employees on an unpaid furlough.

All over the state, public universities have started what’s become a biennial rite of belt-tightening in the face of state budget cuts and increased fixed costs for pensions and health insurance.

Certainly, the state cuts turned out to be less severe than expected. When Gov. Matt Bevin first released his proposed budget, higher education faced a 4.5 percent cut in the current year, and 9 percent in the next two. Compromises lowered those to 2 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. But eight years of cuts and increases in costs will leave many campuses little choice but to make some drastic changes, said Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education.

“The presidents anticipate laying off hundreds of people and shutting down programs,” over the next few years, King said. “As they have in the past, they will have to figure out how to bridge the gap between the combined impact of cuts, new pensions costs and health insurance.”

This week, the council set caps on how much schools can raise tuition, but even if schools choose the maximum increase they will still need to trim a combined $64.8 million in spending, King said.

Schools will finalize their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, in coming weeks, but some have already begun announcing cutbacks. Others, such as the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and Kentucky State University, are remaining mum.

KSU was exempted from the cuts after officials warned they might cause the school to close its doors. UK and U of L officials declined to provide budget details ahead of upcoming board meetings, but both schools can raise tuition by no more than 5 percent.

At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, a 6.1 percent tuition increase will generate $11.7 million, but increased costs mean it still must close a $28 million gap.

“Over the last year, KCTCS has tightened its belt to the point there are no notches left,” said spokeswoman Terri Giltner. “This revenue shortfall has led to some tough decisions, including staff reductions, program elimination and now a tuition increase for our students.”

Giltner said she didn’t yet know the full extent of faculty and staff reductions.

At Western Kentucky University, the school faces a $6 million hole, even after a 4.5 percent tuition increase. The school’s contribution to the Kentucky Employee Retirement System has jumped 48 percent from the prior year to $1.9 million.

Still, President Gary Ransdell said the school is committed to a 3 percent employee raise.

To cope, Ransdell is reorganizing the university’s administration, and said the school will look at programs that need to be “consolidated, reduced or eliminated.” In a move that will save an estimated $700,000, employees of the Building Services and Grounds Department will become employees of Sodexo, a private management company, according to the College Heights Herald.

“Budget cutting is a painful and difficult process, and unfortunately, we have been faced with this nearly every year for the last decade,” Ransdell said in a campus-wide email. “I know the campus is weary, as am I, of budget cutting. Our priority has always been to protect people, preserve academic quality, and maintain student services, and that continues to be my goal.”

Eastern Kentucky University’s board adopted a 5 percent tuition increase, slightly less than the CPE cap. That will almost offset state cuts, but another $7.3 million is needed, President Michael Benson said Thursday in a campus-wide email.

To find that money, EKU will lower tuition subsidies for employees, allow only one year of accrued vacation, and charge a higher administrative rate on grants. Twelve lecturers in nine departments on yearly contracts were told they might not be renewed because of financial uncertainty, but there have been no layoffs so far, said spokeswoman Kristi Middleton.

“These decisions are not easy and all will be approached with a goal of limited impact to our students and our employees, but we simply must make adjustments now to build a solid future for our university,” Benson said. “As Chair Turner said today: ‘Students are going to remain our primary focus. We will not compromise our academic standards, and our faculty and staff are our greatest asset.’”

Morehead State University started facing its financial problems in March. Its enrollment has fallen in line with job losses in Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry, leaving a $2.6 million tuition shortfall. President Wayne Andrews implemented a five-day unpaid furlough for all faculty and staff. He did not rule out further cuts to employees and programs.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford