Some North Dakota higher education leaders have begun calling for urgency in fighting a potential continuation of budget cuts to public campuses.
Casey Ryan, a member of the State Board of Higher Education, described the prospect of deeper cuts as "incongruent" with the state's goal of improving the higher education system, particularly the research institutions at UND and North Dakota State University.
"I would tell you there's no way that's going to happen if these budget cuts go through," Ryan said, urging the board to take a more active approach in writing its own funding suggestions. "I can't go along with us just saying, 'OK, we just need to see how we can cut things so we can be in line with what the governor is saying.' "
Ryan's statement came during the board's Thursday meeting in discussion of early budget guidelines released last week by Gov. Doug Burgum.
Burgum recommended a 10 percent cut across all public agencies, including a reduction of that same level to state appropriations to higher education. The governor also suggested agency heads include plans for an additional 3 percent reduction, which he described as a contingency.
Ryan, a doctor with Altru Health System in Grand Forks, dismissed the budget suggestions as being in the best interest for the higher ed system, calling himself a "no vote" on any budget that didn't improve terms for North Dakota's 11 public schools. He wasn't alone in resisting Burgum's guidelines.
Other board members also questioned the notion that the 13 percent total cut could reasonably be absorbed by the system, which would see a total reduction of about $66 million in state general fund dollars. System CFO Tammy Dolan described that cut as "extremely significant," especially given that the university system is still processing a budget cut of about $106 million passed down in the most recent legislative session.
Dolan said her office is still conducting analysis of the next round of possible reductions to find the total impact on institutions of higher education. Roughly speaking, she said, UND and its medical school would see a two-year state funding cut of about $25 million if the full 13 percent reduction is enacted. NDSU would absorb a a $17 million hit.
Board member Ryan was soon echoed by fellow SBHE member Mike Ness, who said another round of reductions are "really going to dig deep."
"It's going to take a lot of personnel out or it's going to take major programs from our system," Ness said, "I don't think we as a board should just accept that like we did last legislative session."
He pointed to the means by which institutions have adapted to the previous round of cuts-specifically citing frozen salaries-when describing how higher ed leaders have made "major changes to our system."
"Maybe that's the intent," Ness continued, "people want more changes and they'll cut us to the point where we'll make more changes, but I think as a board we need to support the system as we have and maintain the budget that we have."
Ness advised his peers to move quickly when addressing the funding question. To that end, he suggested University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott and board Chair Don Morton lead a committee to help make the case in the Legislature for preserved funding.
Morton did not share either Ryan's or Ness' urgency. Instead, he stuck to reasoning he used when Burgum's guidelines first went out, that school leaders should "plan for the worst and hope for the best," while reminding board members that budget planning was still in its earliest stages.
Burgum's guidelines begin the process that will continue through the upcoming legislative session, set to begin in early 2019. The next funding biennium will start in July of next year.
"Do we want to get in a public fight with the governor?" Morton asked in response to the other members' concerns. "I don't know if that serves any purpose."
The chair said the board could make its case to the governor and his staff, who Morton believed was willing to listen.
"We also, I understand, get hate from the faculty that we don't stand up for higher ed, but I think there's work that we can do that can start to move the needle and, at the appropriate time, if we have to become more public, we can certainly do that," he said. "We're not in a terrible rush right now, let's react but let's not overreact."
Some campus leaders at the meeting seemed to disagree with that pace.
John Richman, president of North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, said the board will need to move more quickly in advising campuses how to proceed. Richman said campuses might be able to mitigate state budget cuts with tuition increases, but only if they get forward notice of what the board intends to do.
"We need direction from the board, guidance, and we need that soon," he said.
Morton said campuses should adhere to the proposed 13 percent level for now and can likely count on having some flexibility with tuition raises. In the meantime, Dolan will continue putting together her analysis to present a more compelling picture of the impacts of cuts to higher ed as the board drafts its own budget plan to be wrapped up in June.