University presidents urge lawmakers to limit cuts

MAKING A STAND: The presidents of Arizona's three state universities met in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday morning and urged lawmakers to reconsider budget cuts to the university system. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

Facing a possible $170 million budget cut, the presidents of Arizona’s three state universities urged lawmakers on Wednesday to consider the effects of taking more money from the university system.

ASU President Michael Crow, UA President Robert Shelton and NAU President John Haeger appeared before the House Committee on Higher Education, Innovation and Reform, telling lawmakers that the quality of higher education in Arizona depends on state funding.

“The message today was to convey that the universities are absolutely important for economic development and the state’s future competitiveness,” Crow said. “The universities are an asset [for Arizona] to become competitive.”

The Arizona Legislature will vote to approve the state’s budget in March. On Friday, Gov. Jan Brewer recommended the $170 million cut to higher education, including an $80 million cut from ASU.

Crow and NAU President Haeger both spoke of the university system’s capability to create jobs and increase revenue for the state.

However, this is not possible without adequate funding, UA President Shelton said.

“We need to know the quality of the degrees we award will appreciate over time,” he said. “The value of these degrees comes from the funding (the Legislature) gives us. We are at a point now where we’ve already reduced all we can and still keep the same quality of education.”

For the past 20 years, ASU has been funded by the state at roughly $8,500 per student, per year. With the addition of the proposed cuts, this figure would drop to around $4,500 per student, per year — a level not seen since 1960, Crow said.

With such a dramatic decrease in state funding, tuition will likely increase to make up the difference, something committee member Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said he worries about.

“My concern is access to higher education, and not just for low income families, but middle class (families), also,” Chabin said. “When we were looking at an investment of state funds at $8,500 (per student), we realized (the goal of accessibility).”

Crow said the rate of cuts has become unbelievable.

“What we perceive to be a five-year recession has resulted in a reduction in per-student expenditure by 50 fiscal years,” he said. “The critical point I want to make is that ASU is operating at a high level of efficiency on unbelievably declining funding.”

Tom Anderes, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, spoke to the committee about the high quality of education in Arizona and the need to stop cuts to the university system in order to maintain it.

“We hope to work with you and the full Legislature to look at performance as a basis for funding,” he said. “Right now, we’re not funded based on our performance.”

Committee member Rep. Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, said he thought the university presidents were received well.

“I certainly appreciate their presentations and I appreciate that they realize the financial situation the state of Arizona is in,” Vogt said. “I think all three university presidents, as well as Dr. Anderes from the Board of Regents, are trying to get out in front of what the Legislature has to do.”

Vogt said he didn’t want to speculate on the proposed budget, but he remains positive about higher education funding.

“There’s still a lot of discussions to be had, but I think the fact that the House created this committee shows the Legislature does value higher education,” he said. “It really is a commitment by the Legislature to focus on, preserve and improve higher education in this time of economic uncertainty.”

Reach the reporter at keshoult@asu.edu.