UW prepares for tens of millions in budget cuts due to pandemic

CASPER — Three years after it cut $42 million, the University of Wyoming is facing another reduction of at least equal size from the state. But that’s not all: The school must absorb several million dollars in lost tuition revenue and another $10 million from the cancellation of the football season. 

“An additional round of serious cuts, after the severe reductions from 2016-2017, concern me deeply,” said professor Rudi Michalak, who chairs UW’s Faculty Senate. “Institutionally, we have not fully recovered from the consequences of the previous cuts, particularly the loss of employees. This new round, for now at a 10% level, is cutting to the bone.” 

The school submitted a plan to Gov. Mark Gordon last week for how it would absorb a 10% cut. 

Gordon asked all state agencies to draw up blueprints to that effect, along with a similar plan for 20% cuts. The state’s revenue has plummeted as the extraction industries have nosedived. 

For UW, the misery is compounded by the lost revenue from tuition — down at least 10% — and athletics. 

Neil Theobald, the school’s senior vice president for finance and the co-chair of the committee looking at how to institute the reductions, said “everything is on the table.” 

The school won’t know its complete financial outlook until November — when enrollment will be finalized and the fate of the men’s basketball season should be decided. 

That’s likely when it’ll know if it needs to cut $42 million or $84 million to deal with state revenue declines. 

Theobald said this round of cuts will be more difficult than last time; that wave of reductions was absorbed in large part by the elimination of scores of vacant positions, plus 37 layoffs and other cuts. 

The university’s flexibility in being creative with cuts is much more limited this time around, he said. 

The school is working to identify its top priorities, he said. That list will influence where cuts will be instituted. 

As an example, he pointed to the school’s energy research and engineering schools as being on the “high end of the range” as far as priorities. Those higher-up levels would receive the smaller share of the cuts. 

He declined to get into specifics, calling the plan submitted to Gordon last week “a guideline.” But he said matching payments for some business, agriculture, and arts and science programs were on the lower end of the priority list. 

“What are our priorities? What are things we’re doing that aren’t our priorities?” Theobald said. “It’s certainly going to be difficult, but we need to focus on what are we all about: How do we serve the state?” 

Like any business, public or private, UW’s budget is heavily tied up in personnel costs. That’s 80% of its expenditures, Theobald said. The school “would certainly like to avoid” layoffs, but it can’t cut all $42 million in the other 20%, he said. 

Michalak, the Faculty Senate chair, echoed Theobald’s position that the school had to align the cuts to its priorities. But he said the school needed to stick to its “heart” as an academic institution. 

“So much of our funding is tied up in salaries,” he said. “Any large cut will have to reduce salaries one way or another. The trick is to find the balance between cuts to what is truly our main mission and core, and cuts to other sectors of business. My vote goes to preserving our core mission, the academic heart, as much as possible, however painful it may be to make those other cuts. Or we may start to not look like a university anymore.” 

When he was vying to become UW’s president, Theobald — who served last year as interim president — often hit on the school’s need to rehire. 

Those plans have been put on hold, to put it mildly. There’s a hiring freeze, and spending of any significant magnitude has been halted. 

He said that the college of agriculture, for instance, had a four-year hiring plan after it was hit hard by the last round of reductions. 

“Suddenly that four-year plan had become a five-year plan,” Theobald said. “We want to bring the college of agriculture back. But it probably isn’t going to happen next year. You just lengthen your plans at this point.” 

The school doesn’t have much control over its revenue picture. It has some say in tuition — and for the past few years has posted record-high enrollment — but even that has been subject to the whims of the economy. 

Theobald said the school may use reserves to buy time until it has “more information” to make better decisions on what to cut. 

“Everything is on the table, absolutely,” he said. “The numbers are big enough — everything is under consideration.” 

Well, everything except eliminating sports, which would threaten UW’s membership in the Mountain West Conference. 

Still, Theobald said he was meeting with UW athletic director Tom Burman later this week to talk money. 

All of this planning aside, depending on the state’s fortunes, UW may be forced to cut $84 million — 20% of its budget, rather than “just” 10%. 

That would be “an incredible cut,” Theobald said. Still, the school knows that the state is in a difficult position, he said, even setting aside the pressures imposed by the pandemic. 

“There’s no whining on this end,” Theobald said. “We understand what’s going on.”