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DSU to make more than $1 million in biennium budget cuts

A belt-tightening across North Dakota's public institutions has come to Dickinson State University. DSU President Thomas Mitzel assured faculty and staff members that more than $1 million in cuts made to the school's state appropriated biennium b...

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Dickinson State University President Tom Mitzel discusses the school’s budget cuts at an all-campus meeting, where he reassured faculty and staff that their positions were safe from state-mandated cuts. (Andrew Haffner/The Dickinson Press)

A belt-tightening across North Dakota’s public institutions has come to Dickinson State University.

DSU President Thomas Mitzel assured faculty and staff members that more than $1 million in cuts made to the school’s state appropriated biennium budget as part of an across-the-board reduction by state agencies would not threaten their status at the school at an all-campus meeting Friday.

“Nobody is going to take a pay reduction, nobody is going to take a benefit reduction,” Mitzel said, adding that previously agreed-upon 3 percent pay raises would go through as promised. “We will not lose a single position based on budget cuts.”

Scott Hanson, DSU interim vice president for finance and administration, said budget cuts will be split between the three major areas on campus, which include academic affairs, student affairs, and finance and administration.

Each area was responsible for making cuts in proportion to its percent draw of the state appropriated operations budget, he said.

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Hanson said academic affairs, the largest of the three areas and accountable for 58 percent of those funds, will cut about $320,000 per year.

Student affairs, the smallest area with an 8 percent draw, will cut around $44,000.

Hanson said his own area takes 33 percent of the budget and will subsequently cut $184,000.

“I just got all the department heads to report to me around a table and we just sat there and threw chips into the pot until we had 184,000 of them,” he said. “Rather than have me say, ‘You are now cut by 20,000, you’re now cut by 30.’ That’d just have hostility.”

Hanson said student affairs has already gotten through that same whittling process with its department heads but that academic affairs is still pending.

DSU’s total budget for the biennium extending from July 1 of last year to June 30 of next year was $41 million. Of that, estimated tuition accounted for $12.6 million, while state appropriated operations and capital budgets amounted to $27 million and $1.23 million, respectively.

The 4.05 percent cut to state entities mandated by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple nearly two weeks ago would reduce the operations budget by a little less than $1.1 million over the biennium, or more than $548,800 per year.

Mitzel said budget items concerning student recruiting and quality of life would also not be reduced, saying the school was “turning a corner” in recruitment and “now is not the time” to cut spending in that area.

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Other protected spending categories, Mitzel said, include professor development, DSU promotion, facilities maintenance and construction projects, such as dormitory renovation.

Staying tight-fisted

The decision to cut from the operations side of the state-appropriated funds, rather than the capital side, broke down to a consideration of the high average age of the university’s buildings and the maintenance they require, Hanson said.

Hanson said DSU’s previous experience with scaling back its budget in the face of declining enrollments over the past few years had prepared it well for this most recent downturn.

He praised his predecessor, Mark Lowe, as “a real hero here” due in part to Lowe’s decision to leave positions vacant, some of which were already funded, due to lack of demand.

“That gives you quite a nice shock absorber,” he said. “ … He put us in a very, very solid position, just by being real tight-fisted.”

As such, Hanson said these most recent cuts could keep disturbance to a minimum.

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“Some people may have to do without some paperclips and post-it notes,” he said.

Abating tuition worries

Though the all-campus meeting was open to students, it was largely attended by faculty and staff.

DSU first-year student Melanie Marquardt didn’t attend the meeting, but said news of the cuts “was to be expected” due to the status of the oil economy.

She was concerned the cuts could result in higher tuition or other costs incurred to students.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said his office advised universities against raising student fees or boosting tuition back in January when the full extent of cuts to state agencies was still unknown

“The idea is you keep offering courses to get students out on time .... students were to take minimal effect on this,” Hagerott said.

When the 4.05 percent amount was announced, Hagerott said his office maintained its original guidelines and made an addendum that universities could limit pay raises if necessary.

“I gave latitude to each of the campuses to do what they needed to do, because economic conditions are radically different between Williston and Wahpeton, for instance,” Hagerott said. “But I said if that comes, be sure the upper end carries more of the burden than the lower end, that the vice presidents feel it first before the new assistant professor, and her husband and kids just moving in.”

DSU, he said, is “ahead of the game” when it comes to cutting back. Other universities are still struggling to put those pieces together.

Mitzel delivered a similar sentiment to the attendants of Friday’s meeting.

“We’re sitting pretty good,” he said. “ … We’re going to come out of this and we’re going to continue moving forward in a very strong fashion.”

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