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UNM president says school must ‘do business differently’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With the University of New Mexico bracing for less state funding and wrestling with enrollment declines, the school’s acting president says all manner of money-saving measures are possible heading into the 2017-18 year.

And Chaouki Abdallah said it is time to consider more substantial changes to a higher education model that is “broken.”

In a campus town hall this week, Abdallah spoke plainly about the university’s financial predicament, suggesting that anything from employee furloughs to further efficiency efforts can help plug the immediate holes but that a new approach might be necessary for long-term sustainability.

“What we need to do is do business differently,” Abdallah told a standing room-only crowd of 100-plus in a room at the UNM Student Union Building.

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Already-declining state funding – which pays for about 58 percent of the main campus’ instruction and general budget – will almost certainly drop again this year. Tuition must cover most of the rest of the nearly $330 million budget, but enrollment also is falling. The school’s fall 2016 head count was down 7 percent from its 2012 peak.

Current forecasts project a $10 million shortfall in the main campus instruction and general budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But unless it makes bigger changes, Abdallah said UNM likely will find itself looking for an extra $10 million every year just to reckon with rising costs in areas like utilities or employee health care.

Abdallah, elevated from provost to acting president in January after Bob Frank stepped down, presented no definitive evolution plan but said he wants to continue the conversation while in his leadership role.

“What is the new business model? I asked some of the economists who have been looking at this to see if anything makes sense,” he said.

UNM already has implemented a hiring freeze, and Abdallah said employee furloughs, or unpaid days off, could also happen. The school has identified about $1.3 million in savings by centralizing some financial services functions, and the university may consider a similar approach with other services.

Abdallah raised the possibility of squeezing additional savings out of consolidating UNM’s class schedule into four days. The campus would still function to a smaller degree on Fridays, but the shift could reduce some expenses.

As for boosting revenues amid a state budget crisis, Abdallah said UNM needs more students or higher tuition. The UNM Board of Regents ultimately makes tuition decisions, and board president Rob Doughty said nothing has been decided yet for the 2017-18 year.

A student challenged Abdallah to “justify” any potential tuition increase given the impending 10 percent student-approved hike in fees and given uncertainty about the future of lottery-funded scholarships.

Abdallah defended such a potential action, as long as the school set aside a portion of the new revenue to bolster need-based financial aid. He said UNM tuition (currently $6,950 annually for in-state students) already is more affordable than many other institutions and that increases might help enhance facilities and retain the best professors.

“It’s not what you’re spending, it’s what you’re getting,” he said.

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