UND deals with the reality of budget shortfall

GRAND FORKS -- While a short-term solution for this fiscal year is in sight, a state budget forecast means those at University of North Dakota have an even larger task in front of them to balance the school's budget in coming years.

GRAND FORKS -- While a short-term solution for this fiscal year is in sight, a state budget forecast means those at University of North Dakota have an even larger task in front of them to balance the school's budget in coming years.

UND receives budget appropriations from the state on a two-year basis. In the 2015-17 biennium, UND already faces a $5 million deficit partially due to a legislatively mandated tuition increase cap of 2.5 percent when a 3.7 percent increase was needed to cover costs.

Vice President for Finance and Operations Alice Brekke said solutions for balancing the fiscal year 2016 budget will be nailed down in about two weeks with two or three remaining departments still working out the details, but as of Monday, no employee salaries would be affected and no programs will be cut.

"There's a difference between negative impact and no effect," Brekke said. "We can't keep doing everything we're doing the same way and expect it to cost less. That isn't going to happen, so it's about making sure we understand how it will affect (students) and making sure what we're doing is reasonable."

Brekke said the short-term solution will involve one-time ways to save money throughout the coming fiscal year that include not rehiring if positions become open, delaying expenditures, better using space to save on facilities costs and sharing services, such as information technology, administrative services or accounting with other state institutions.


Brekke said she has three budget meetings through early February, after which definitive cost saving plans would be available.

"Do I have one piece of paper that has it all on it? No," she said. "There are lots of moving parts yet. We'll get it all together, and obviously all of those things need to be reflected on our books by year's end."

More cuts

The $5 million budget shortfall was first discussed at a May University Council meeting. In fall, officials looked to individual departments to find ways to save money and submit individual plans.

Brekke said efforts to find long-term solutions are ongoing for fiscal year 2017, and on top of that, due to the state's revenue projections falling short, Gov. Jack  Dalrymple said a 2.5 percent budget cut to UND's allocation for fiscal years 2015 to 2017 is possible.

Brekke said this means UND may have to cut another $8 million and "nothing is off the table," including the School of Medicine and Health Sciences budget.

"I think the governor's comments really do solidify the reality of what's coming, and I'm understanding it'll be another week or two before the specifics come out," she said. "Given we've already been engaging in budget-related conversations, this is just one more layer that increases the importance of the work that we are doing."

Interim UND President Ed Schafer, a former North Dakota governor, has said his first priority in office is balancing the budget.


Brekke said Schafer has participated in one meeting on the subject, adding employee compensation is an important part of the budget, along with making sure there isn't negative effect on students.

"Things will have to happen differently," she said. "How do we focus on improvement in what we're doing, not necessarily a focus on 'Oh my goodness, this is change and therefore it must be bad?'"

Finding a way

At the same time, Brekke said anything is possible when it comes to finding ways to cut costs in a long-term basis, especially given the governor's potential cuts.

For example, Brekke said her department is looking at space utilization to see if decreasing their footprint on campus could cut expenses.

Brekke said the university is also considering changing where classes are held during the summer to find out if temporarily closing buildings for those months could save money.
"We're exploring it as a strategy, and part of what we need to validate is what kind of savings will that generate, so it's a work in progress," she said.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said doing something as drastic as cutting a program would take a lot of time and planning to make sure it aligned with everything else happening at UND.

"And if you're a student in that area we've got an agreement, so they're not things that just happen like that," he said.


North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott appointed a committee to look at how the SBHE shares services, something Brekke said is being looked at as a way to cut costs at UND.

This means looking at how things like accounting, financial, IT and administrative support services could be shared among departments or even universities.

"You always start with a bit of denial that it's going to affect my area, and really it's about helping people understand the importance of prioritizing, the importance of thinking to the future and making sure we're focused on the right things, and we're doing the best and most efficient job we can do," Brekke said. "It's iterative. You have to keep working with people."

Brekke has worked in various positions at the university since she graduated from UND in 1979. She said the last time she dealt with a budget issue this large was after the 1997 flood when the university's enrollment decreased by hundreds.

"It was an instant big number, but you roll up your sleeves, you work together, you have the conversations around the campus and, ultimately, a president makes a decision and you move," she said.

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