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Letter to the Editor: CLA corrects misinformation on proposed budget cuts

After data from the College of Liberal Arts Council of Chairs showed discrepancies in departments’ instructional budget cuts, the college discovered a budget coding issue that caused an over-reduction in funding.
Image by Morgan La Casse

I appreciate the passion and support for the work of the liberal arts represented in Monday’s ”Reaction to proposed ethnic, gender studies budget cuts.” I am writing to correct some of the budget information included by the writer.

The article claims significant overall budget reductions have been made in several College of Liberal Arts (CLA) departments. This is not the case.

Enrollment in CLA has fallen since the start of the pandemic, with the college 1,300 students smaller since the 2019-20 academic year. Most of that reduction, 1,100 students, has been a decline in the number of transfer students, primarily due to lower enrollments in community colleges. With this smaller size, the need for teaching capacity has also declined.

Recently, CLA department chairs were notified of planned reductions in the Teaching Assistants/Unassigned Instruction (TA/UI) line of CLA’s budget. TA/UI is the budget CLA uses to pay for classes or sections taught by graduate assistants and some non-tenure-stream or adjunct faculty. As we prepare for fiscal year 2024 (July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024), we have planned that our overall TA/UI budget be reduced by $2 million. This amount is less than a 6% reduction. In recent years, about $1 million of TA/UI allocated each year went unspent, so half of the $2 million reduction in FY24 is simply our effort to be more accurate in projecting instructional needs upfront.

Investment in TA/UI teaching capacity is evaluated each year based on an analysis of course enrollment and teaching needs. We also take into account the availability of faculty and the number of graduate teaching assistants. For faculty, we consider new hires entering a department and also account for retirements and faculty on leaves or sabbaticals. Departments also have other funds that are sometimes used to support instruction, such as course buyouts for faculty on grants, and departments vary in how much they rely on TA/UI to deliver their curriculum.

Most CLA academic departments were seeing likely reductions in FY24 TA/UI when the allocations were sent out. These generally ranged from 1-5% of total departmental budgets, including for our ethnic and gender studies departments.

As we sought to understand why the perceptions of the size of the reductions didn’t align with the $2 million cuts we were planning, we discovered a budget coding issue that led to an over-reduction in projected TA/UI for next year of about $941,000. I’m grateful to CLA’s Council of Chairs for sharing their data so that we could pin down the discrepancy.

While we still need to reduce $2 million in TA/UI spending, the unearthing of the coding issue opens up the $941,000 for distribution. We will be working with departments to identify where those funds should be allocated to support course enrollment needs. We have also reached out to two ethnic studies units that may have inadvertently submitted incomplete TA/UI requests, which gave the appearance of outsized reductions compared to the current year. These departments have been invited to submit updated requests.

The University of Minnesota is still developing its FY24 budget, and no budgets are final at this time. It’s unknown what level of funding may be approved for the University as part of the Legislature’s work this spring, which will affect any budget forecasts as well.

To be clear, any reductions require difficult decisions. None of us want to be in a situation where we are discussing reductions in any aspect of our crucial work in the liberal arts.

CLA is the proud campus home for wide-ranging research, teaching and community engagement that has significant impact. Over the years, we have invested in advancing this work in multiple ways. As a deep believer in and advocate for the power and importance of the liberal arts on campus and in communities from the local to the global, that has always been my goal and priority as dean. I welcome and applaud students, faculty, staff and others who are supporting the liberal arts.

John Coleman is dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

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