US Universities in recession: furloughs and program closures

Arizona State University campus (Wikimedia commons)

Arizona State University campus (Wikimedia commons)

Canadian universities have often pointed south and claimed that American universities are much better funded by their state governments, but this situation seems to be changing due to the sudden US recession.

For example, the State of Nevada is reducing its higher education budget by 36% (WorldNow and KRNV, Nevada, January 23, 2009), which resulted in a campus rally of 2,000 University of Nevada (Las Vegas) students in January.

Arizona’s major cuts to higher education have also resulted in a student protest of 2,000 students strong (Arizona Capitol Times, January 28, 2009).  Several other states are taking similar extreme measures.

This article focuses on two ways in which some universities in the US are handling budget cuts– Furloughs and Program closures.  In contrast, Canadian Universities facing budget cuts at this time rarely make mention of these strategies (see my Jan. 31 blog article on Canadian university’ cost cutting measures)

Unpaid Furloughs

I first became interested in this topic when I heard that the Arizona State University has announced mandatory unpaid furloughs for all its employees.  Depending on the category of employee the furlough is 10-15 days to be taken before June 30, 2009, and this amounts to approximately 8 to 12% of their 2009 salary.

“Faculty members will take furloughs on days they don’t teach class, and supervisors of staff members will be staggering furloughs so that the university remains fully operational,” explained the ASU university president in the online letter linked above.

The posted an Associated Press article by Ellen Simon on December 31, 2008 that company furloughs or “temporary layoffs” were at a 17-year high.  The article cited as an example Winthrop University in South Carolina.  Professors are being told to take 9 unpaid days off before June 30, 2009.

Of course, since professors don’t normally clock hours and have no reduction in overall workload, a professor quoted in Simon’s article observed that  “Most faculty I know will end up taking few if any of those furlough days off — they’ll just go about doing the good jobs they normally do for less money.”

A quick online search discovered several other universities who have instituted mandatory furloughs within the past 2 months, and one that is currently seeking permission:

All State Universities in Maryland

Clemson University (in South Carolina)

University of North Carolina (is seeking permission to furlough)

UCLA – During the holiday break Dec. 2008, staff and faculty had to take 3 days mandatory vacation or unpaid leave, and campus was closed to save energy costs

The cause is usually attributed to a severe reduction in state funding.

The argument is that this furlough strategy saves money without layoffs that may cripple the university.

Another argument is that an accross-the-board policy spreads the burden across all employees rather than singling out a certain category of employee.

However, the University of Arizona VP of Human Relations noted that the cuts being contemplated by the University of Arizona would only apply to employees whose salaries come from the state, not from other sources of funding (Arizona Daily Star,  Jan 28, 2009).

The loss of state-funding for university jobs can result in a shift away from teaching and toward the research mission of a university — at the University of Iowa, “Iowa’s three public universities have lost nearly 600 state-supported jobs since 2001 but added about 300 jobs paid for with grants, private gifts and other non-state money.”  (, January 30, 2009).

Program Closures

Academic programs are continually added and closed at universities, but the large number of closures being announced at 2 universities may have something to do with the recession.

The University of Arizona has just announced that it is considering closing 32 majors (including a few graduate programs) on a list of those producing less than 24 graduates over the past 3 years. (Arizona Daily Star, January 31, 2009).

The University of Idaho has just announced that 41 programs “that cost too much, attract too few students, or fail to meet a long-range need in Idaho higher education” are being targeted for closure (Idaho Statesman, January 25, 2009).

Other options

Other creative options for cutting costs at university include energy savings programs, increasing enrollment, and reducing the number of credit hours required to graduate with a bachelor’s degree — measures taken at Western Kentucky University (Bowling Green Daily News, January 30, 2009).

Other options being considered by the University of Arizona (which, unlike Arizona State University, has not yet decided to implement furloughs) include merging colleges, closing a college that hosts undecided students, a 5% cut to all departments, increasing tuition, and decreasing student bursaries (Arizona Daily Star,  Jan 28, 2009)


One thought on “US Universities in recession: furloughs and program closures

  1. Pingback: Canadian university cost-cutting strategies | edu*rhetor

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