April 4, 2011

$2M Cut to Student Services Has Little Effect on Campus Life, Admins. Say

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Reversing a rapid increase in programmatic costs, the University has cut $2 million — or 1.7 percent — of student service expenditures over the past two years, primarily by condensing administrative units and renegotiating procurement contracts, according to Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73.

Cornell reduced spending on student services — which includes counseling and health services, supplemental academic instruction, intramural athletics and food and retail services for students — after the services’ budget had surged from $100 million in 2006-07 to $116 million in 2008-09. The budget has fallen by $1 million each of the past two years, and is set at $114 million for the 2010-11 academic year.

The Division of Student and Academic Services curbed costs by transferring its entire human resources department and part of its information technology, facilities and finance departments to organizations within the central administration, according to Murphy. The consolidation of the finance unit alone has already saved between $40,000 and $100,000, she said.

“We’re trying to be as efficient as we can to minimize the impact on residential programs, counseling and medical services and career services,” Murphy said. “But our total budget has to be smaller and nothing is absolutely untouchable.”

Accompanying a nine-percent reduction to the University’s total support staff, personnel retirements and vacancies have reduced the division’s staffing by eight percent, according to Murphy.

“With the University at a $200 million dollar deficit … We all need to think of creative ways to restructure while preserving academic and student experiences, ” Murphy said.

The University will save $300,000 annually through renegotiated procurement contracts, according to Joanne DeStefano, vice president for financial affairs and chief financial officer. This includes lower prices for compostables and paper, food purchases, janitorial supplies and laundry services.

“Better deals with our division’s vendors have played a large role in reducing costs,” said Kellie Page, director of finance and administration for the division of student and academic services. “Some savings won’t show up in dollars for a couple years.”

The division also hopes to raise revenue through expanding businesses conferences held at the University over the summer and through closing under-performing dining units, according to its website.

For Murphy, reducing the budget means sorting between “needs” and “wants,” where “the wants often have to be postponed for a balanced budget.”

The reductions in funding to the student service budget has delayed plans to replace the aging Maplewood Park Apartments, send students overseas on travel programs or host expensive guest speakers, Murphy said.

“I’d love to do that, but counseling and medical services is where I have to put my discretionary money,” she said.

Because of the student service budget reduction, the University has used external finances, including outside donations, to hire new counseling staff at Gannett, which falls under the umbrella of the student services budget. Once funding returns, the University will hire new the consulting staff through the student services budget, Murphy said.

Some student groups that fall under the student services budget — including the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, Cornell United Religious Work and Student Disability Services — said they had been protected from the cuts. Others contacted referred requests to comment to Page in the division of student and academic services.

Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations and economics, lauded the division for protecting student services.

“Less than one percent per year in reductions is pretty trivial, especially when you consider that at one point in 2008 Cornell was projecting a 15-percent deficit in operating funds,” he said.

In a recent study, Ehrenberg found that student services are important factors for college success and increase graduation rates, particularly among underprivileged, low-income students.

Although the University has yet to release next year’s budget, Page said the division expects continued reductions until the University’s overall operating budget is balanced.

Despite the reductions, the student service budget remains above levels from a few years ago. Page attributed the 16-percent rise in student service expenditures from 2006 to 2008 to the rise to sustainability efforts, local foods initiatives, three to four percent annual staff salary increases, emergency responses to flu epidemics and the launching of three of five West Campus houses.

Ehrenberg speculated that this increase in student service would return when the University’s budget outlook improves.

“I don’t think there will be a continual decline in funding,” Ehrenberg said. “Once the short-term budget problems are resolved in a couple years, things should get on the growth path again.”

Original Author: Dan Robbins