State lawmakers hear testimony on higher ed budget woes

The School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Photo by John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

By Lauryn Allen
BU News Service

BOSTON — Budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced Massachusetts colleges and universities to make difficult choices such as laying off employees and cutting certain programs, but faculty in the state said these measures have been extreme and unnecessary.

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan told the Legislature’s joint committee on higher education Tuesday that the pandemic has caused severe revenue losses for higher learning institutions while also leading to significant increases in expenses.

With fewer students on campus, loss of room-and-board revenue has posed a serious problem for the UMass system struggling to manage the new expenses of frequent COVID-19 testing and intensive contact tracing.

Uncertainty over a federal aid package, the state’s budget and how the virus will behave in the colder months has also contributed to budget worries and has led the university system to take drastic steps to remedy its current budget shortfall of $335 million and to prevent future gaps, according to Meehan.

The UMass system is the third-largest employer in the state and recent furloughs and layoffs have led to a 16% reduction in its workforce, Meehan said.

Max Page, a professor of architecture at UMass Amherst and the vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said laying off and furloughing employees should have been a last resort for institutions of higher education.

“All reserves should have been tapped at this moment,” Page said. “Bad as this crisis is, it is a temporary one, but when you lay people off and you close programs, you are making permanent changes — damaging changes — for a temporary event.”

The possibility of universities and colleges purposely inflating budget shortfalls to make cuts they planned on making before the pandemic is all too real, according to Page.

“We fear that campus executives are using this opportunity to do some clear-cutting, get rid of faculty and staff and close programs they’ve wanted to get rid of,” Page said. “So that when we recover and get new funds, they can pursue their goals.”

Page called for greater budget transparency from colleges and universities to allow the MTA and other organizations the ability to assess other areas in the institutions’ budgets that could have been set aside to protect jobs and programs.

Page also pleaded to legislators to make an “ironclad commitment” to making funding for colleges and universities contingent on an end to layoffs and furloughs.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who is vice chairwoman of the Senate’s higher education committee, wrote in an email that the Legislature must push for greater funding for higher education institutions in the state’s budget.

“Regardless of what happens at the federal level, we must do everything we can to level-fund public higher education in the FY21 state budget,” Comerford wrote. “It’s critical for our students. It’s critical for faculty and staff. It’s critical for our region’s economic health. It’s critical for the unparalleled promise and necessity of public higher ed — especially amid an economic crisis.”

This article was originally published in The Gazette.

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