Why do college officials use dire-but-impossible budget scenarios?

With legislators pressing them for budget-cut scenarios this week, officials from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) have been using an interesting (and familiar) tactic that injects a little drama — necessarily or unnecessarily? — into the proceedings .

So what are they doing?

When explaining how a 15-20-percent decrease in state appropriations would affect their institutions, college officials are painting pictures of what would happen if they made cuts in only one area (such as faculty, staff or whole campuses) or just raised tuition to make up for the shortfall.

Naturally, that one area is clobbered — not trimmed, as it would be if administrators spread the cuts all around. After painting those bleak pictures, however, college officials pull back and make the assurance:

This isn’t likely to happen. We won’t cut in just one area.

Examples:

In yesterday’s case, MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick told House higher-ed committee members what would happen if he had to cut the system by 15 percent:

“To put a cut of that magnitude into perspective, if we chose only one method to make the reduction, here’s what the impact could be:

  • Staff reductions of almost 1,000 full-time equivalents, more than 15 percent of our total staff; or
  • Faculty reductions of 880, almost 10 percent of the total faculty.This would mean the reduction of 9,200 course sections; reduction of 166,500 credit registrations, and a decrease in enrollment of more than 16,100 students; or
  • A tuition increase of 12 percent.  This would increase the average annual tuition by $580 over current levels; or
  • The equivalent of closing two large universities and four of the largest colleges, or closing at least 10 of the smallest colleges within the system, primarily located in rural Minnesota.

Obviously, none of these alone would be acceptable, and we would likely apply a combination of these measures.  But it gives you an idea of the impact a 15 percent cut would have.”

On Tuesday, U of M President Robert Bruininks made similar remarks:

A cut in state support of 15% is nearly $100M. A deeper cut of 20% equals nearly $130M. What would that mean to the University of Minnesota?

  • We could eliminate the Medical Schools on both the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses—which receives $87.2M in state support (or nearly 25% of the U’s total allocation)—and still not fill the hole in our budget.
  • Alternatively, we could eliminate all four of our coordinate campuses—$76.0M in state support—and not balance the budget.
  • We could eliminate the College of Science and Engineering, which produces nearly half of the state’s STEM degrees and significantly higher percentages of graduate and professional degrees in these fields, and close the schools of Pharmacy and Dentistry—$83.5M in state support—and still be in the red.
  • We could eliminate the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, which protects the health of our population and our animal agriculture industry from animal-borne diseases (such as avian influenza). Currently this laboratory is subsidized by the University’s other operations, because sending biological samples to Wisconsin or Iowa for testing is simply not viable. We could then close all of our remaining regional Extension offices—saving a combined total of $30.2M in state support—and we still would not have solved even a third of the proposed cut.

… A state cut of 15 to 20% would require a tuition increase of 13 to 17%, jeopardizing the futures of countless U students. On the other hand, reducing staff in order to meet this cut could add as many as 1,700 workers to Minnesota’s unemployed—and that would still require us to eliminate entire operations in order to continue others.

As you can see, it’s not just a statistic or two being thrown around. In a couple of those statements (with no prepared remarks to read and some distractions that kept me from hearing properly) it took me a minute or two make sure they were describing distant hypotheticals and not credible scenarios.

So what’s the point of such language?

MnSCU CFO Laura King told MPR’s Tim Post:

The object is to have them understand the scale of the numbers we’re talking about. … All the parties in this process use the same language.

Indeed, King used dire language during budget talks two years ago.

But U of M CFO Richard Pfutzenreiter told me this is the first time the U has resorted to it.

We thought long and hard about it. Higher ed isn’t prone to … scaring people. But at the end of the day, the president felt he needed the legislature to understand better the scope of these numbers.

But isn’t it just a little dramatic — especially since we all know it’ll never happen?

Well, sure. I think the president felt he needed to make a statement on the size of numbers they’re throwing around.

So how effective is the tactic?

I’ve got some calls and e-mails out to a few legislators on the higher ed committee, and we’ll see what they say.