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UNM president preparing for budget cutting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the Legislature in Santa Fe wrestles with a state budget shortfall, students on Monday wrestled with how that will translate to their own education at the University of New Mexico.

During a town hall-style meeting in the UNM Student Union Building, Acting President Chaouki Abdallah answered questions posed to him by some of the crowd of 50 attendees – mostly UNM students. Foremost among those questions was what happens if UNM’s budget gets cut, as is likely to happen during the current legislative session, Abdallah said.

Putting the numbers into perspective, Abdallah explained that of the university’s statewide budget of $2.8 billion for all its campuses, the majority of that money goes toward funding UNM Hospital and the UNM Health Sciences Center. That leaves about $830 million to operate the rest of the university’s main campus in Albuquerque.

Of that $830 million, $200 million comes from a state allocation and $130 million from tuition. If the state mandates an across-the-board cut of just 1 percent, for example, it will impact UNM to the tune of $2 million, Abdallah said, and that could translate to programs getting cut.

Higher education in New Mexico and across the country has suffered more since the 2008 recession “exactly because they (state legislators) know there is tuition,” a somewhat flexible revenue stream. Consequently, if a state’s budget has to be cut by 1 percent, “they cut higher education by 2, 3 or 4 percent, because they know there is tuition,” even as they’re saying “don’t raise tuition,” Abdallah said.

“We look at reserves or we look at not filling positions, and that’s where it starts to hurt, when programs and positions are not being filled,” he said. “We can do it for a year or two, but now we’re in the third or fourth year of doing that.”

The answer, he said, is to find new streams of revenue, though what those might be is unclear at this point.

Abdallah also fielded questions about what some see as a nasty climate on campus regarding the tone of discourse in the wake of the recent presidential election and on-campus speakers.

The university ought to be a place of vibrant but civil discussion. The issue is “very personal to me,” he said, noting that he grew up in Lebanon at a time when freedom of speech became dangerous outside one’s immediate family. High school students went from reasoned arguing to punching one another in the schools and pulling guns on one another outside the schools. Eventually, civil war ensued, he said.

While he didn’t expect that to happen in the United States, he noted, “I do fear that some of the protections that we enjoy in the U.S., that unless you lost them, you don’t know how precious they are.”

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