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University President Elaborates on Closure Controversy
February 18, 2016
Nicholls State University has become the face of Louisiana’s higher education budget crisis as contradictory statements surrounding the school’s possible closure continue to circulate statewide.
“Nicholls has no intention of closing,” Nicholls President Bruce Murphy said yesterday in a speech before students, faculty, staff and other administrators.
“As you know, these are some tough budget times. We’re gonna get through these. We’re gonna stay open. We’re gonna have classes as scheduled for the spring and on into the future.”
But a document Nicholls administration submitted to the University of Louisiana System paints a different picture.
On February 10, Nicholls responded to a request from the UL System to detail how the University would respond to what Interim UL System President Dan Reneau calls a “best case scenario” cut of $808,803. This “best case scenario” is based on a proposal outlined by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, and includes Gov. John Bel Edwards’s tax increases.
The University provided a single sentence document, which offered a complete shutdown as the only solution.
“Due to the timing of such a cut, this would result in an immediate shut-down of the entire campus for a period not less than 14 days which would disrupt all instruction causing delays to graduation, etc.,” the document stated.
Murphy said that although the document was characterized as a plan, what the University provided was actually a data call.
“We’ve been doing these data calls a lot,” Murphy said. “On the tenth of February, a data call came in and it asked with the particular option of $808,803, what would we do. So we talked about it and we had a pretty short turn around time and we didn’t have enough time to do a plan. We said one of the things that we can do would be that we could save that much money by closing for a period of time.”
In response to the same call, other universities offered suggestions such as reduction in staff, hiring freezes, athletic play suspension, reduction in travel and supplies, and other line item proposals. Nicholls was the only University to explicitly suggest closure. Murphy insists that other universities essentially proposed what would ultimately mean closure, but presented it in a different manner.
“That’s exactly the same report as we have. If salaries and fringe benefits is how they’re going to make up for their money, that’s exactly the same thing we have. We said it different. We said it in a way that’s sensational. We didn’t mean to be that way, we thought this was a planning process. They’re all very similar. So we chose to say this is what it would mean if we were to have to provide those costs, but pretty much other people said the same thing,” Murphy said.
The UL System’s list of recommended strategic actions included possibilities such as declaration of financial exigency, reduction of salaries and benefits, hiring freeze, lay off of probational staff, furlough of non-tenured faculty and staff, loss of degrees and classes, reduction of services to students and to the community, increasing of faculty loads and cutting of funds.
Murphy said the University has explored other ways to handle a cut which would not include closure, but that these contingency plans would not be released until the University is given a definite budget number, which should come at the close of the three-week legislative session.
“If people felt that there is a danger that is unnecessary or unreal, I really apologize because I certainly didn’t mean to do that at all,” Murphy said. “Our job is to provide information to the next higher level when they ask for it. There’s no way you could look at that and say that’s a plan.
Murphy said that the other options submitted in the University’s contingency plan will not be released until there is a definite amount for the budget cuts.
“[Closure] is an option that we have,” Murphy said. “This is one of the ways we could do it and have already said that there are other ways we can do it, you don’t see that because you only saw again that one data pull, that one data request.
Such alternatives would directly and indirectly impact Nicholls students as it can affect SACS Accreditation and students’ recruiting, retention and graduation.
Murphy addressed the students and staff at 4:33 p.m. on Feb. 15 through an e-mail regarding the rumors about the possibility of ceasing the university operations early this semester.
Although Murphy is confident about the future of higher education, some students are still worried about their future as a Colonel. Sarah Avett, a sophomore psychology major from Houma explained her concerns with the TOPS cuts.
“I am outraged because in high school we worked really hard for TOPS,” Avett said. “I worked hard for that money and kept my grades up. I understand they don’t have the money for it, but at the same time, I want to be able to finish my degree.”
Nicholls administrators will have to come up with strategies to cover the immediate suspension of TOPS payments. Students were shocked when hours after Murphy’s address on Feb. 11, the Office of Financial Assistance alerted universities across the state of immediate suspension of TOPS payments in direct relation to the uncertainty of the budget. Nicholls was notified Feb. 12th that TOPS would pay 80 percent of what they owe each institution, and universities would be required to absorb the unpaid costs. The future of TOPS beyond this semester is still unknown.
“At Nicholls, this loss of TOPS funding amounts to a $1.04 million budget cut that must be wholly absorbed in the final four months of the year,” Stephanie Verdin, director of University Marketing and Commiunications, said. Other students are not as concerned with the possibility of the school closing. Carolanne Moore, senior vocal music major from Spring, Texas said she is not too worried about it.
“Closing the school is the last resort option. Of course if that happens, I would be upset because I want to graduate, I don’t want an incomplete,” Moore said.
Edwards called on the legislature to work on a plan to close a $943 million budget deficit by the end of the current fiscal year’s cycle on June 30th. The governor’s administration alerted state universities officials in January of a possible $131 million cut to higher education in case Edwards and the lawmakers were unable to come out of the special section with an effective solution to meet the shortfall.
The school’s fate remains uncertain as the state Legislature has yet to determine the significance of the mid-year budget cuts on a three-week special legislative session on state finances and taxes that started Sunday.
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