UNO to evaluate degree programs for likely cuts

UNO President Peter Fos
UNO President Peter Fos

Layoffs likely will follow elimination of fields

Fresh on the heels of a series of cutbacks, the University of New Orleans is bracing for a new round of belt-tightening, with the school announcing Friday that a working group will meet to determine which of the university’s 84 degree programs will be eliminated in the coming months.

Layoffs are likely to follow those recommendations, which will seek to identify and build on the university’s strengths, UNO President Peter Fos said in an interview Friday.

“The purpose of this is not just to eliminate programs. It’s to identify those areas that we need to reinvest in,” Fos said. “There’s no new money. I don’t have any new money to invest. We’ve got to take existing money and refocus the money and refocus the resources.”

UNO has struggled in recent years with deep cuts in state spending for higher education and an enrollment that has fallen sharply over the past decade. The school, which laid off 28 employees earlier this year to help close a multimillion-dollar deficit, has been looking at ways to bring costs in line with what an institution its reduced size can afford.

An unknown number of faculty and staff positions likely will be eliminated as cuts to programs are made, though Fos said he’s not starting the process with a target in mind.

Asked whether additional layoffs might precede the expected reduction in programs, Fos replied, “I would hope not.”

The working group of about 25 members — including the deans of UNO’s five academic colleges and library, as well as faculty leaders — will decide on criteria for evaluating UNO’s 84 degree programs, then make recommendations on which programs best fit the university’s long-term direction.

Faculty and students will know if their programs are being cut by the beginning of the spring 2015 semester, Fos said. Any changes will take effect during the spring 2016 semester.

The group will be headed by Richard Hansen, UNO’s interim vice president for academic affairs, and Pamela Jenkins, a sociology professor and president of the Faculty Senate. They are scheduled to make recommendations by Oct. 31 to Fos, who will then submit his final plans to the University of Louisiana System’s Board of Supervisors.

“This is the next step to look at what’s going on academically and also in other areas,” Fos said.

Since starting at UNO in January 2012, Fos has cut more than 110 positions — the school had about 1,850 full- and part-time staff as of last fall — and last year closed a popular on-campus child care center. He has said the cutbacks were necessary in light of the school’s reduced size and loss of state money.

Over the past five years, UNO’s state funding has dropped by almost half, from $56 million in 2008 to $32 million for the current fiscal year. Over the past decade, enrollment also has fallen by almost half, from 17,360 students registered in 2003 to just 9,323 last year.

Fos resisted setting a “dollar target” on how much he hopes can be saved by the review, saying the group’s job is to make recommendations based on the merits of the various programs.

“I don’t want money to drive the discussion,” he said.

In an email to faculty and staff Friday, Hansen and Jenkins described the plan as one they hope will make UNO “broadly recognized as one of the pre-eminent urban research institutions in the nation.”

“In order to achieve that goal and to position ourselves for future growth, we have to decide which of our academic programs we will support more fully and which programs we will not,” they said.

As part of the group’s evaluation, Fos said, it will look at which programs have the lowest completion and enrollment numbers.

“It’s not just a matter of looking at programs we don’t need anymore,” he said. “It’s really more focused on programs that we are doing well in and, going forward, trying to decide which programs we should invest more in to really achieve the students’ needs and the community’s needs.”

He added, “Along the way, there probably will be a few programs we don’t do anymore. Once we get financially stable, the money will be reinvested in the programs that this process will tell us are the ones we really need to emphasize.”

Fos said degree programs will not be eliminated until current students have a chance to finish, and UNO will assist those who wish to transfer to a different program or campus.

Likewise, once a program is cut, it’s “not necessarily true that every faculty member will lose their job 12 months later,” he said, because the school will have to continue teaching students currently enrolled in the program.

“This is more of a long-term plan to make us more stable and leaner,” he said.

Looking ahead, Fos said he is optimistic that UNO may not face another year of harsh fiscal blows, contending that the school should have “a little bit more” revenue in the 2014-15 fiscal year than last year, including more than $2 million from the Workforce Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, or WISE, a plan approved in the recent legislative session to create a $40 million fund for state colleges and universities.

UNO also plans to raise tuition about 10 percent in the coming year, which should generate about $4 million in additional revenue. Fos said he expects enrollment to remain mostly flat compared with last year.

“That kind of gets us to where we can see out of the financial hole that we’re in,” he said.

Fos said UNO’s financial woes have slowed some of his initial visions for the university when he took the job. Still, he said, he’s not planning to step down in the near term.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but to be honest with you, I thought I’d have a little bit more resources to be able to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t know it was quite this bad, but that’s the hand that’s dealt me, and I’m going to play it. I’m going to win the pot.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.