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Lawmakers propose $390 million cut to state universities

Key Arizona legislators identified possible budget cut options Thursday that could approach approximately $390 million for the statewide university system.

A figure of that magnitude would be double the $191.5 million in cuts recently instituted for Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona by the Legislature for the current fiscal year.

Those reductions, from a total of $1.13 billion appropriated for the universities, helped eliminate the state’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall brought on by the crumbling economy.

The universities also get money from tuition and federal grants. State Board of Regents President Fred Boice told legislators at a hearing in Phoenix that possible new cuts would “cause severe damage.”

Boice told legislators that regents and the universities’ administrators recognize that there are more cuts coming “that are severe and will have to be severe.”

But he said that 85 percent of the universities’ budgets go toward employee costs, so while any cuts implemented will hurt employees, “of course our students will suffer” too, because layoffs will translate to fewer and larger classes and mean lengthening the time it takes many students to graduate.

“What we have to be very careful of at the University of Arizona is that we do not in a very short period of time destroy … a great research university,” President Robert Shelton said.

Research programs at the university drew $530 million in federal and other grants during the current year, but Shelton said that figure probably will be reduced some next year.

“If the U of A doesn’t succeed in competing for federal research dollars with Cal Tech, Johns Hopkins and MIT, I can assure you that those funds will go elsewhere,” he said.

Shelton also said the university remains committed to a biomedical campus in Phoenix. But he cautioned, “If we make any further cuts, we might as well start closing up that shop or drop back to a maintenance level.”

ASU President Michael Crow said his university’s mission as a comprehensive metropolitan research university is to make it institution accessible to the general population.

“We will remain committed to this mission come-what-may, no matter what,” Crow said. “It is our mission” — regardless of the level of investment that the Legislature makes.

But Crow added that the cuts ASU instituted for the current fiscal year reduced the level of state-invested dollars-per-student back to what the school received in 1998.

With more substantive cuts next year, he said, “We will begin to move to a point where we can’t just reorganize and focus our talent. We will have to repurpose the institution.”

Crow also said that the ASU West campus is being refashioned as a new, medium-sized undergraduate-only four-year college, designed to operate at lower cost and possibly as a future model.

As a state, Crow said Arizona is underproducing college graduates by half to reach what is the national average.

Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said cuts of the size mentioned in the chairmen’s options would be, according to Crow, devastating and catastrophic to the system.

But Crandall also said the options listed aren’t all the ones that will be available to the Legislature. The situation could be changed significantly depending upon the federal stimulus package that Congress ultimately approves, he said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “I hope we don’t dwell too long on this math. If the cuts are deep it will be devastating. If the cuts aren’t too deep, it won’t be devastating. I don’t think we’re in Doomsday based on what has happened so far in ’09.”

NAU President John Haeger said his university’s core mission, and continued goal, is to remain focused on undergraduate education. But he said that continued severe cuts — potentially of more than $20 million in the next fiscal year — would jeopardize that mission.

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