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North Dakota University System told to brace for more budget cuts

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—North Dakota University System officials were warned to brace for cuts in the next two-year budget that likely will go deeper than the 10 percent reduction they're now planning to handle.

State agencies were told to plan budgets for 2017-19 that are 10 percent lower than appropriations for the current biennium—reductions that are combined with 6.55 percent cuts in the current budget.

The probability of increased austerity measures, and the need for ongoing efficiency and collaboration at the state's 11 campuses, loomed over discussions at the State Board of Higher Education meeting here Thursday, Sept. 29, on the University of North Dakota campus.

"It more than likely will be higher than that," said Tammy Dolan, the university system's chief financial officer, referring to the planned 10 percent funding reduction now being built into budget requests.

Word that more budget reductions likely are coming came from a budget meeting, she said. State revenues have continued to slump because of sagging oil and farm commodity prices.

Campuses already are engaged in finding more ways to collaborate and identifying other steps to increase efficiency, Chancellor Mark Hagerott said.

"This is already happening," he said, citing as an example a new cybersecurity program that will be taught by faculty on three campuses. "Our goal is not to do damage."

Dolan presented board members with a summary of budget figures based on cutbacks already announced for the 2015-17 and 2017-19 higher education budgets. Although plans were submitted to the Office of Management and Budget in August, Dolan said the final numbers won't be known until the state Legislature meets.

State campus budgets for the remainder of the current biennium were reduced by $48.5 million, including $17 million in operating cost savings, or almost a third of the total savings.

Campuses will see another net decrease of $49.5 million, a blow softened by an $11.9 million funding formula increase, resulting in a $564.9 million base budget.

The 10 percent reduction for the 2017-19 budget includes $53 million in salaries and benefits across the system. Staff reductions will include not filling 190 vacant full-time positions and 125 early retirements or voluntary separations, and 105 layoffs.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Legislature's interim Higher Education Committee, briefed board members on recommendations and legislation his panel will present to the 2017 North Dakota Legislature.

The committee is examining university system costs, including administrative expenses, as well as governance and campus missions.

"Clearly we are in a cost-containment time frame now," Sanford said. Even without the slumping state revenues, higher education will find itself striving to cut costs and gain efficiencies because of high tuition costs and college students' heavy debt load, he said.

"The reality is for students the cost is getting more and more burdensome," Sanford said. "So cost containment is a big piece."

Because of the fluid and unpredictable budget picture, board members postponed discussion of proposed changes to the university system's tuition waiver program, which has been the subject of legislative scrutiny.

The university system has been working to increase student retention and graduation rates. Board members voted to raise North Dakota's retention rate goal to 65 percent, in line with the goal for the national average.

"I don't think we should ever settle for the national average," board member Greg Stemen said. "I'm fine with it as a baseline."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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