Friday, March 1, 2024

U of A to ‘permanently eliminate’ $27 million worth of jobs in academic units

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The University of Arizona has found $27 million in savings by “permanently eliminating currently vacant positions” in colleges and has already identified 13 positions within its administration it plans to eliminate or “reclassify,” according to a letter sent to Gov. Katie Hobbs Friday afternoon.

The Arizona Board of Regents sent the 17-page letter to the governor detailing the UA’s financial recalibration process amid its $177 million deficit, after Hobbs wrote a scathing letter to the board last month expressing deep concern about ABOR and UA leadership.

“I no longer trust the process that is in place,” Hobbs wrote to ABOR leaders on Jan. 26.

ABOR has designated a regent to coordinate with university senior leaders daily, according to the board’s response letter, and is now holding board meetings “two or three times a month for comprehensive updates on progress.” Those meetings are in executive session, however, meaning members of the public and the media cannot attend.

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There was one such special meeting on Friday afternoon, just hours after the ABOR report was released. Board Chair Fred DuVal gave brief remarks before the board went into private session.

“We are focused on the long-term success of the universities to ensure that our kids and our grandkids, and your kids and your grandkids, can go to a great university,” he said. “Stability and sustainability is job one.”

DuVal mentioned the on-campus protest organized by the United Campus Workers of Arizona union on Monday.

“We listened to the gathering that occurred at the university mall Monday and the clear messages expressed were ‘do not raise tuition’ and ‘do not apply any layoffs,’” he said. “I want to be clear that we wish as much as anyone that we could do both, but denial of the reality and the challenges and the choices that we face just isn’t a responsible option for us with this level of deficit.”

The UA has committed to not raising tuition, so in response, he said, there must be cuts.

The university will provide ABOR and the Governor’s Office monthly reports to update the progress of those cuts, according to the ABOR letter.

Besides outlining what has already been presented to the UA community and public about the deficit — including the internal and external factors including overspending, a lack of centralization and the COVID-19 pandemic — the board’s letter also shared a few new details about the financial plan.

Cut and delays so far

While acknowledging that the UA is “perhaps the single most important institution in Southern Arizona and creates tremendous statewide economic impact as one of the foundational blocks of Arizona’s economy,” the letter identified jobs and job openings already “eliminated” amid the crisis.

The Office of the Provost has “already identified $27 million in savings by permanently eliminating currently vacant positions” after “working with the colleges and their own units,” it says.

The positions eliminated were not specified.

The 13 administrative positions set to be eliminated or “reassigned” were also not specified. It seems there will be more, as ABOR wrote the process was in the “beginning stage.”

The university will suspend competitive grant programs in the Provost Investment fund, which allowed faculty and staff to seek funding from the office for special projects. The university will save $1.5 million per year from this cut.

Additionally, UA leaders have suspended the Strategic Priorities Faculty Initiative to save $475,000 per year, delayed the initiation of the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program’s next cohort to save $400,000 over the next year, and has saved $300,000 per year by eliminating the eSports program.

The UA has also eliminated the fiscal year 2025 Salary Increase Program and “will reevaluate the program in future years.”

In December, UA President Robert C. Robbins told ABOR that the university would “defer” several capital projects through the end of June.

ABOR released the official list in Friday’s letter, which includes the new construction of the $60 million UA Museum of Art, the $30 million College of Veterinary Medicine Surgical Center and the $15 million Human Animal Interaction Building.

The UA has also delayed renovations including the $10 million health sciences “Building 201” medical imaging project, the $7.5 million “CAST Tenant Improvements,” the $7 million Arizona Cancer Center project, $2 million for various athletic facilities and $1.5 million for various classroom upgrades.

Several infrastructure and utility projects have also been deferred including the $5 million underground utility tunnel enhancement project, the $2 million agriculture well replacement project, the $1.7 million campus-wide backflow prevention upgrades, the $650,000 central chiller building electric relay upgrade and the $400,000 health sciences chiller refurbishment.

Final projects within the “strategic initiatives” category “will be completed by the end of the current fiscal year, reducing the strategic planning spend from $15 million in (fiscal year) 2023 to $3 million in (fiscal year) 2024 to $0 in (fiscal year) 2025.”

Centralization timeline

Robbins and UA Interim Chief Financial Officer John Arnold have repeatedly spoken about their desires to centralize certain offices on campus.

“The university has operated with longstanding and extensive decentralization in core functions critical to its operations and mission, including business and finance, facilities management, human resources, information technology, marketing and communications and university advancement,” the regents’ letter states. “These decentralized practices were not supported by sufficient levels of reporting or protocols to provide for a unified approach to decision making nor university-wide financial monitoring.”

Friday’s letter said human resources and information technology will be centralized by March 4. In both cases, the university will “eliminate duplicative efforts,” though the regents did not include any information about potential layoffs in either department.

Facilities, as well as marketing and communications and university advancement, will be consolidated by June 30.

Athletics and UAGC

Hobbs’ initial letter last month to ABOR was in direct response to concerns she held about the acquisition of the UA Global Campus project, though that was mentioned just one time in the 17-page response.

The letter states that “the university and Board of Regents are in final negotiations with a global professional services firm” to help modernize the athletics department and review online platforms including UAGC. It did not specify which firm it was choosing, nor if the same firm would be working on both athletics and UAGC.

Defending Arnold’s dual roles

In her letter to ABOR last month, Hobbs wrote she was concerned that Arnold, who is executive director of ABOR, was also serving as interim CFO of the UA.

The potential conflict of interest was defended in Friday’s response to Hobbs.

“Mr. Arnold is uniquely qualified to serve in this short-term role as he is one of the state’s foremost budget experts,” the letter states.

“The University of Arizona will need a permanent chief financial officer, and the university and the Board are moving in that direction as quickly as appropriate,” ABOR wrote.

Impacts on the other universities

Though Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University are not in similar budget deficits, ABOR has used the UA’s financial crisis to change some ways it monitors university funds, which will impact the two other state universities.

Each university will now employ a centralized financial planning and budgeting process, a centralized management and control structure for information technology, and budgetary controls meant to prevent expenditures in excess of established budgets.

Additionally, ASU and NAU will also have to put budget controls on non-resident institutionally funded financial aid after the UA overfunded its financial aid operations.

All three universities must now have specific ABOR approval to expend cash reserves below established thresholds and will provide additional transparency in budget communications.

ABOR is also establishing new guidelines to monitor the financial future of the public universities. There will now be an annual tri-university gathering of financial administrators to “share best practices and collaborate on emergent challenges in administering financial policies and managing financial risk” and triannual reviews of university financial business processes.

Transparency

ABOR wrote that in an effort to increase transparency, UA leaders have already engaged with various shared governance units on campus including the Faculty Senate, the Committee of Eleven, the Strategic Planning and Advisory Budget Committee, Heads Up, Staff Council and student governments.

Additionally, Robbins and Arnold “also are engaging community leaders and have held meetings with community partners, non-profits and elected officials,” as well as “various members of the media, including the Arizona Daily Star Editorial Board.”

Despite the challenges, the regents remained positive in their letter to the governor.

“Through this transparent, inclusive, and rigorous process, the Board is confident that the actions taken at the University of Arizona, along with the enhancements to Board policies, will result in improved outcomes for students, their families, the faculty and staff of all three universities, and for millions across the state of Arizona,” the board wrote.

“We are confident that the University of Arizona will emerge from this challenge more efficient, more effective, and more empowered to achieve its critical mission for our students and our state than ever before.”

Get your morning recap of today’s local news and read the full stories here: tucne.ws/morning



Reporter Ellie Wolfe covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson.com. Contact: ewolfe@tucson.com.

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