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Edna Mora Szymanski, Published December 10 2013

Letter: A time for tough decisions

There is a fundamental reality that we must live with at Minnesota State University Moorhead: when enrollment shrinks, you need fewer faculty members. Our enrollment has declined 10.9 percent since 2010 so now we face a need for a corresponding faculty reduction.

This is a painful reality because our faculty members are the heart and soul of the university; they are the people who on a daily basis provide our students with an exceptional educational experience. Time and again, I hear from students and alumni how this experience goes beyond the classroom and becomes a foundation for fuller lives and careers.

On Dec. 5, a plan was submitted to our Faculty Association for their input. In this plan, five low enrollment majors would be phased out and some academic departments merged. The plan would result in 16 fewer temporary faculty and six fewer tenured or tenure-track faculty, with the exact number depending on how many faculty accept a second round of early separation incentives. The plan would save $3 million.

These actions haven’t been our first reaction to a projected deficit that, if we do nothing, threatens to rise to $8 million by 2016. Savings of approximately $3 million have already been realized from a reduction in the number of administrative positions, reductions in operating budgets, early retirement incentives, and a partial hiring freeze. The university is also taking steps to increase revenue through enrollment growth strategies.

There are two key reasons for our projected deficit; a pattern of declining state appropriations only recently reversed, and lower tuition revenue coming from a competitive job market, turnover in some key positions and, as is seen across Minnesota and the nation, fewer high school graduates.

Certainly a factor in this decline is an intentional decision to more closely follow our own admissions standards, defined in agreement with our Faculty Association. The regional economy needs more post-secondary educated workers. No one gains when a student leaves with debt and no degree. I believe it is important to help students start their education where they are most likely to succeed.

We are fortunate to be part of the Minnesota State Colleges and University System, a system focused on student success and supporting the state and regional economy through collaboration across its 31 institutions. To that end, we have significantly increased our referral of underprepared students to our System partner community college, M-State. M-State offers excellent remedial and developmental courses along with opportunities for certificates, associate degrees, and potential transfer to our university.

Although our increased referrals to M-State account for part of our enrollment decline, we believe they are in the best interest of students. For well over 15 years, between 15 and 20 percent of each freshman class did not meet the university’s published admissions criteria. Unfortunately, the average 6-year graduation rate for these students was only 25 percent. Many left with debt and no degree. For FY12 and 13, the average debt for students who had student loans and withdrew was over $25,000.

In January, after we consider the input from our Faculty Association, we will announce the final budget plan. Even with these difficult faculty cuts, we will still have one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios of our Minnesota public university peers. Even with the elimination of five low enrollment majors, we will still have 70 outstanding majors, some of which have been recently added as a result of student demand or workforce needs, including an Executive M.B.A. with a healthcare emphasis and a bachelor’s degree in Project Management.

As a search is conducted for MSU Moorhead’s next presidential leader, I am committed to making the difficult decisions now so our next president can begin by moving the university forward in solid financial health.

Szymanski is president, MSUM.