March 5, 2009

HumEc Prepares Budget

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The College of Human Ecology had no inclination as to any future benefits when it was given three days notice that it had to abandon the old north wing of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall eight years ago. In 2001, the college effectively lost 30 percent of its space that it used for academic, research and outreach programs when the north wing of MVR was determined to have structural deficiencies, according to John Lamson, assistant dean of communications for Human Ecology.
In order to combat some of the space constraints imposed by this sudden loss of the north wing and to create some necessary expansion, the college began construction on a new 88,228 square-foot building that would connect to MVR, as well as an accompanying 290-car garage complex in early 2008, according to the University. The University as well as the State University of New York helped the college fund these projects. For the college’s own funding responsibilities for the project, it was decided the college would not to pay for the construction through debt financing.
Dean Alan Mathios explained that in order to pay for these projects, the college withdrew funds from its operating budget. The college used $1.8 million a year taken out of its operating expenses annually to pay for these construction projects.
In order to cope with the losses of space in 2001 and funds in 2008, the college was forced to cut back on its programming and search for other areas to minimize expenses.
The college, like all of Cornell’s colleges, is subject to the vicissitudes of the current economic climate. On March 1, the college had to provide Provost Kent Fuchs with a plan to reduce its budget by 5 percent — $1.5 million from its unrestricted budget of nearly $33 million.
Human Ecology has a strengthened ability to cope with this decrease in funding because of the cuts it had already made in programing and in terms of its budget to finance the construction.
Instead of scrambling to find where to cut programs and cut costs, the college has already scaled back its programs and funds before the current economic climate made such cuts essential. While there are still cuts and changes that need to be made in light of the recent decline in their budget, the human ecology college is already on its way to making these changes because of the alterations it had been forced to make before the current fiscal troubles.
Even though the college is in a good position to handle these cuts, it is not immune to the inevitable negative effects of the economy. Mathios explained how the college is still looking for additional ways to conserve its fragile funds by looking for any ways possible to limit expenses while refraining from causing harm to the college’s operations.
According to Lamson, the executive assistant in the dean’s office “was a long time Cornell employee who took another position within the University.”
Mathios cited this example as an indication of how the human ecology college is relying somewhat on attrition to conserve funds. Rather than finding another executive assistant, Mathios elected to leave the position vacant and reshuffle the duties and responsibilities of the other people in the office to make sure everything was covered. Theoretically, the same amount of work would be accomplished with one fewer staff member, and one fewer salary having to be paid.
Lamson noted that natural attrition and the intentional vacancy of some of these positions is not enough, however. He said that while four staff have left voluntarily and their positions have not been filled, “the college has had eight employee layoffs this fiscal year, and we do not know the extent of additional workforce reductions at this time.” Mathios said that leaving these positions unfilled will translate into a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the college.
While each college has had to prepare for its own budget reduction, Mathios assured that the colleges were not isolated from each other or from the University in this matter. The college is working in conjunction with the College of Industrial and Labor Relations to minimize costs, for instance. After ILR lost its human resource director, rather than hiring a new one, the human resource director from the human ecology college assumed responsibilities for both colleges. Again, additional responsibilities had to be taken on by other staff in order to make up for the vacancy of the one position.
Conserving money by leaving staff positions open inevitably inserts a large amount of stress on the remaining staff who have to assume new responsibilities. Mathios explained how the human ecology college is trying to acquire additional external funds in addition to conserving funds internally.
“I’m traveling a huge amount trying to keep our annual fund contributions high,” Mathios said.
Mathios is constantly traveling around the country — he was in California this past week — trying to find people willing to donate money to the college, an increasingly difficult task, as individuals are often just as affected by the financial meltdown as are many universities.
Mathios noted that all the actions being taken by the human ecology college were being done for the benefit of students.
“We have an obligation to be sure we provide quality education for the student both graduate and undergraduate. Everything is being done to protect that vision.”