Admin grapples with future financial challenges at budget forum

As universities across the state brace for reduced state funding and potentially severe budget cuts, top Portland State administrators told a packed budget town hall the university needs to seriously reconsider its fiscal strategy if it’s to survive.

“We have to start thinking differently,” said Susan Jeffords, provost and vice president of academic affairs, “because continuing to do things the way we have done them for the last seven to eight years is not survivable for the institution, frankly.”

The March 18 budget forum, held in Smith Memorial Student Union, was the only one of four town halls that focused on staff and faculty. The room was packed with administrators, faculty and staff members as well as some students.

Kevin Neely, associate vice president of government relations at PSU and the university’s head lobbyist, described how reduced funding from state governments has led to students increasingly bearing the burden for funding higher education.

“Over the last decade, while we’ve seen significant gains in funding, we have yet to return to those pre-recession levels that really helped shift the burden onto the state,” Neely said.

In the most recently proposed state budget, legislators were able to find an additional $40.5 million for higher education across the state. That’s still another $40 million short of what Neely said would be the minimum amount of funding required to keep tuition increases at PSU below 5 percent.

“Our costs next year will go up approximately $18.6 million,” said Kevin Reynolds, vice president of finance and administration.

“We’ve been able to moderate tuition increases primarily because of these increases we’ve had from the state,” he added. “But even with increases in funding from the state and increases in tuition, our inflationary cost has gotten higher than our revenue.”

PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi addressed the crowd, echoing statements about the need for changes in the way the university conducts its finances. “Continuing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome is not something we can count on.”

Jeffords, who began her job as the top academic administrator six months ago, said PSU has started a conversation about long-term strategic financial planning.

“Continuing to think about how we can cut from existing revenues is not a healthy strategy,” Jeffords said. “As the president indicated, we are at the bone, and that is not a sustainable outcome.”

As enrollment numbers across the state remain stagnant or in decline, Shoureshi pointed to PSU’s online program as a potential source of growth. “[Oregon State University] has 6,000 students online,” he said, “and unless PSU really takes bold action in that regard, they’re going to dominate the whole northwest area.”

Other potential revenue-generating activities floated by administrators included development of online master’s degree programs or post-baccalaureate certificates, enhancement of significant research activities and increased effectiveness of administrative activities, including combining administrative support functions across units.

One audience member inquired about House Bill 3338, which was recently introduced to the state legislature and would limit increases in tuition and fees to zero percent if the state agreed to cover the costs by allocating more money to the university.

“I hope the legislature passes that bill,” Neely said, “and I hope they put the right number there, because I think it’s the best thing for our institution.”

Neely highlighted the PSU Day at the Capitol coming up on April 16, urging students and staff to join in lobbying for more state funding. PSU’s student government has publicly refused to participate in coordinated lobbying with the administration until PSU leaders commit to no tuition increases, while also joining with the Oregon Student Association in pushing the state legislature to fund higher education at a level that would prevent further tuition increases.

“They’re tired of having to go down and fight for more and more funding every session,” Neely said.

Jonathon Cavada, a senior studying psychology who recently transferred from George Fox University, said he came to the meeting to find out more about PSU.

“I hear a lot of things—a lot of bad things—and I wanted to hear for myself from the administrators how they’re going to address various issues,” Cavada said, adding that he felt confident in the university’s future after hearing how administrators addressed fiscal issues during the forum. “Hopefully they get the right feedback to help carry out their ideas moving forward.”