Lack of school funding causing concern

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been more than a month since New Mexico’s colleges and universities had their funding zeroed out on the 2017-18 state budget, and it may take months – or even years – longer to determine the scope of the potential fallout.

But hints have already emerged, and they have school leaders pleading for a swift resolution to what they have called a “fiscal crisis.”

Some students have postponed registration for fall classes, professors are considering jobs elsewhere, and recruitment efforts – for both students and faculty – have suffered, according to a legal brief submitted to the New Mexico Supreme Court by the Council of University Presidents, an association representing the state’s seven public four-year institutions that together serve about 60,000 students and employ about 14,500 people.

Some schools including UNM, for example, are reporting they have not even set 2017-18 tuition due to lingering questions.

Gov. Susana Martinez in April put New Mexico’s universities and colleges at the center of her standoff with lawmakers, vetoing higher education and legislative funding from a Legislature-approved budget bill for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The Governor’s Office has offered assurances the schools’ funding will be restored during a special session, now scheduled for May 24.

Lawmakers who questioned the constitutionality of her move took the matter to the Supreme Court. But the court last week rejected the petition, determining it was too early for judicial review as other options are still available.

The university presidents’ council had filed a brief in that case earlier this month, saying schools “have a firm conviction that the corrosive uncertainty is beginning to cause long-term damage to New Mexico’s higher education institutions.”

Marc Saavedra, the council’s executive director, said he is hopeful that universities will get their funding back soon, but noted that the last six weeks have taken a toll.

UNM, the state’s largest university, was to get $292 million next year if the governor had signed the budget as submitted by the Legislature. University officials say it’s too soon to know whether the defunding – which they believe is temporary – has affected overall enrollment.

Orientation deposits have tracked close to last year’s numbers, according to Terry Babbitt, associate vice president of enrollment management.

“With that said, there is still a lot of time to go on new student commitments and we have had many inquiries from prospective student families about the budget status. Questions like ‘Will UNM even be open next year?’ And ‘What will that budget thing mean for us?'” Babbitt said in an email.

Questions come from within New Mexico, but also from “California to Pennsylvania,” he said.

“Right now we don’t know the final impact, but it is a serious concern,” he said.

Seat deposits from UNM School of Law’s incoming class were down 20 percent in late April – when deposit activity peaks – compared with last year, according to the universities’ Supreme Court filing. It noted that the UNM College of Pharmacy also has significant concern about recruitment as “several offers to prospective students remain outstanding.”

Some New Mexico State University students have cited a lack of budget as why they’re not registering for future classes, the brief states, and students at Northern New Mexico College asked at a recent forum whether the school “would survive.”

Current registration for fall classes at New Mexico Tech started slower than last year, though President Stephen Wells said in a Journal interview it was still too early to gauge. New student registration does not begin until June 1.

Tech’s first-year president said he worries about long-term damage – especially since he sees higher education as an engine for economic growth – noting that national media outlets including The Washington Post and Chronicle of Higher Education wrote stories that feed “into preconceived concepts of the state.”

“These kinds of things sometimes cast shadows that go on for a while, and I think maybe next year we could see (effects),” he said. “It depends on how quickly this is resolved.”

UNM Acting President Chaouki Abdallah expressed confidence that schools would have funding restored by July 1. But he said not having a budget right now has hurt on the faculty front, especially since the state’s universities have already weathered 7.5 percent cuts the past two years.

UNM’s faculty attrition usually ranges from 3-5 percent annually. While he did not yet know this year’s figure, he said some departments that typically lose one or two people are losing five. In some cases, UNM cannot afford to replace them. Even when it can, it could take a full year to recruit and fill the spot. Holes like that can affect the school for a long time.

“Anything we’re doing today, and we’re cutting today, we’ll feel it four years from now,” Abdallah said.

Asked this week about concerns universities had expressed about student and faculty recruitment in the current budget climate, New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron described recruitment and retention as “an ongoing, year-round issue.”

“I am confident the institutions are navigating that in the best way. They are very skilled at recruiting people in the face of challenges and when there are no challenges,” she said.

Journal Staff Writer Kim Burgess contributed to this report.


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