Economic crisis on campus: Utah State University furloughs employees

Budget cuts » USU president says furlough is most compassionate response
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Utah State University President Stan L. Albrecht on Monday announced a mandatory furlough for all full- and part-time employees as a way to deal with budget cuts.

The action was taken to avoid "immediate, widespread layoffs" and judged the most compassionate solution to difficult circumstances, said Albrecht, who warned deans and department heads of the eventuality late last week and notified the rest of campus via e-mail Monday.

Albrecht emphasized he is grateful for the budget compromise reached by lawmakers and the governor to cushion the blow to higher education. Earlier budget scenarios would have stripped $12 million from USU three-fourths into the current budget year. Instead, USU was asked to do without a more manageable $5.7 million. That's on top of $4 million that lawmakers chopped during a September special session.

"It's hard to say you feel good about a budget cut, but it's a lot better than it could have been," said Albrecht. "Having said that, a furlough is a difficult thing to do and something that affects our entire university family."

So far, USU is the only university to take this step, though none of Utah's public colleges will go unscathed.

The furlough equates to a 2 percent pay cut and only student employees are immune. All 2,995 USU employees, from faculty and high-paid administrators to front-line office personnel, will be required to take leave without pay for five days over spring break, March 9-13. During that week, campus will be closed. USU's enrollment is around 25,000 students.

The furlough will generate enough to cover 60 percent of the lost revenue. The rest will come from a 0.65 percent cut to all department budgets.

Within 20 minutes of the announcement, Albrecht said he received two dozen e-mails from faculty and staff, expressing relief and pride at his "choosing to share the burden" and "preserve the university's academic integrity."

Linda Goetze, an economist and research professor, agreed the furlough is preferable to faculty losing their jobs, though it means a double-whammy for her household. Goetze's husband is a tenured professor at USU, and she will absorb a salary cut even though her position is funded entirely through state and federal grants.

"We can all eat out a little less," Goetze said.

But she wishes colleges were a "higher budget priority" for lawmakers, emphasizing that most faculty will continue to work over the break, grading papers and preparing lectures without pay.

To ease the blow of losing a full week's pay all at once, USU will reduce paychecks by the equivalent of one day's salary for each month over the next five months, beginning in March.

But Albrecht warned the worst may be yet to come with even deeper budget cuts anticipated for fiscal year 2010.

Under a best-case scenario for that year, USU would extend furloughs through Christmas and the fall break, said Albrecht. Campus must remain open and functioning during the academic year to preserve the university's accreditation, which sets a minimum number of classroom days.

Albrecht has asked department heads to devise plans for further trimming, to be reviewed by a six-member Budget Reduction Committee. On the table are early retirement options; later this week the university will make available a voluntary separation incentive plan that outlines a series of options that administrators can discuss with interested employees.

But "any kind of significant budget cut will result in layoffs," said Albrecht, promising "we will do everything we can to protect our majors, so students can complete them."

Other Utah colleges and universities have imposed hiring freezes and offered early retirement, including Utah Valley University, which also eliminated 23 positions. The goal of early retirement is to voluntarily cut 10 to 15 jobs, said UVU spokesman Chris Taylor.

Furloughs are not being discussed at the University of Utah, which will lose $20 million under budget cuts approved for this fiscal year, according to David Pershing, senior vice president for academic affairs at the school.

The U. is less reliant on state funding, because of its hospital revenue and research grants.

But if another 15 percent is trimmed from next year's budget, as has been proposed, the U. will probably be looking at pay cuts, along with tuition hikes, Pershing told members of the U. Academic Senate on Monday.

"Tuition hikes have to be part of the solution," he said.

Any pay cuts would be made according to scale, with employees who make more taking bigger hits, Pershing said. Employees who make $25,000 or less would be protected.

-- Brian Maffly contributed to this report.