Three years ago, after several federal programs fell victim to the recession at the National Institute of Aviation Research in Wichita, director John Tomblin knew he had to make up the difference or cut staff. NIAR is one of aviation’s premier testing labs.
Leaders in higher education say what Tomblin did by turning to industry to make up what he lost shows what can sometimes be done to deal with the budget cuts of recent years — and additional cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback might recommend on Wednesday.
Cutting research three years ago would mean Tomblin might have had to lay off some of his 345 people. There was no use whining about it, he said the other day. No one listens to whining in a recession.
“I didn’t want to lay anybody off,” he said. “We’re like family at NIAR, so it would be like laying off family.”
He drummed up new business with industry.
In the fiscal year beginning July 2009, federal dollars made up 49 percent of NIAR’s $39.4 million budget.
Today, his budget has actually grown, to $45.5 million. Federal dollars make up only 34 percent.
WSU president John Bardo said that kind of thinking will help WSU navigate what lies ahead. He hopes to harness research more to create new revenue.
But what lies ahead probably includes more government budget cuts. And for those colleges and schools that don’t have Tomblin’s long-time relationship with industry, finding new money won’t be as easy.
Brownback’s budget office in November recommended an 8 percent cut for universities, according to the Board of Regents. The governor will make his own recommendation on Wednesday.
Bardo said he will deal with whatever the budget is. One of Bardo’s bosses, Kansas Board of Regents member Fred Logan, said he is “guardedly optimistic,” in part because he knows Brownback. When Brownback appointed him to the board in 2011, Logan said, the governor impressed Logan by reciting a considerable body of knowledge about research going on at WSU.
But there are “budget realities,” as Logan said, including those created by Brownback and the Legislature last year when they cut the state income tax, hoping that would create jobs. That cut, by the state’s own projections, will create a $267 million shortfall for the budget year that starts July 1. The Legislature, convening Monday, will have to cut services or extend a sales tax increase scheduled to expire.
An 8 percent cut would be substantial, university leaders said, not only for WSU but for the south-central Kansas job market, where WSU has productive ties with industry.
State support used to make up the majority of WSU’s budget. As recently as 2005 it was 37.3 percent of a total budget of $175 million. It is now 23.6 percent of the 2013 budget of $282 million.
Bardo has so far not asked his deans to identify budget cuts as contingency plans.
Long term, he wants WSU to evolve to survive even slimmer state support if need be.
He says he’s still new, and learning, but has ideas.
Tuition might go up again, he said. That won’t please students, who have seen several increases. Students at WSU are currently paying $212.45 per credit hour for tuition and student and user fees, said Joe Kleinsasser, a university spokesman.
Bardo hopes to increase enrollment.
In the latter years of Bardo’s first career stop at WSU (as a teacher from 1973 to 1983), WSU enrollment reached 17,000. It’s been at about 15,400 in recent years.
This is part of the reason he’s planning new dormitories, hoping more attractive living will attract more.
The main selling point he hopes to convey to future students is quality of education. He thinks he can not only find new ways to save money but better ways to organize the campus. Many of his ideas will involve science, technology and partnerships with Kansas businesses.
In the coming months, he hopes to harness education and research into a newly organized institution that will attract more students, money and business by being noticeably improved. Budget constraints have taught him what WSU might no longer have, he said. But he said he has been impressed, after he arrived in July, to see what WSU does have.
He said that most of America’s ingenuity and research is personified on the campuses of research universities like WSU, where biochemists like Moriah Beck are developing promising cancer research and engineers under Tomblin at NIAR have helped make plane crashes a rarity worldwide.
Bardo said university researchers like Vice President for Information Technology Ravi Pendse are working to invent new technologies that might develop new money streams for WSU. So are scientists in WSU’s engineering building, and under Tomblin at NIAR.
That still raises the question of how to keep things thriving in those parts of the campus that don’t have Tomblin’s business relationships.
One dean who can’t negotiate deals with industry in the way Tomblin can is Rodney Miller, WSU’s dean of Fine Arts — theater, music, dance, Shakespeare.
Miller isn’t complaining either.
“I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but basically our job is to do what we are asked to do with the amount of money we have to do it,” Miller said.