Thursday, October 22, 2009

UCI Budget Official: "It's going to be very difficult....Basically the ship is still going down"

By: Natalie Oshin

This interview is with Richard Lynch, the Associate Vice Chancellor of the Budget Office. Before starting the interview, I went to the restroom near his office and decided to write down a few of my observations; namely, that only the ‘cold’ spigot of the water faucet worked, which I thought might be a foreboding of the interview that was to come. Also, there was a sticker on the paper dispenser that said “Think green take only what you need”, which I thought was ironic because many will argue that UC President Mark Yudof takes plenty more than he needs. In addition, what I thought was odd about the budget office was that everything in it was of the era of 1986, including the wooden chairs and tables, the secretary desk that had a barrier around it, and the old carpet that reminded me of 80’s movies. The only modern things in the room were the pictures. There were three pictures of UCI as a modern campus, showcasing glass buildings and modern designs. Other than those, you would’ve thought you had just stepped back in time.

Q: When did you switch over from Senior Budget Analyst to your current position?

A: Well, I came to the University in 1983 as a budget analyst and I worked in the budget office as a senior budget analyst and was assistant director to the budget office and I worked in this budget office until 1996…and went to UC Riverside and was there between 1996 and 2003 working in their University Advancement or their External Relations area, fundraising….And in 2003 I returned to Irvine working in Irvine’s University Advancement division, and then in ’07 the then-chancellor planning the budget had this vacancy and he asked me to apply and I applied. He hired me so I’ve been with the University for quite a while, 26 years of about 16 of those spent in this budget office.

Q: What exactly is your job right now? What do you have to do now?

A: (Jokingly) I meet with journalism students…. I’m responsible for…managing…UCI’s budget resources, primarily the core resources that come from the state, student fees, overhead recovery, those types of sources. But we also provide analysis and decision support services to the Vice Chancellor of Planning and Budget and to the Executive Vice Chancellor’s office…which supports the development of the resource plan for the campus.

Q: Even though the quarter just began, has anything really changed from the past few years that you have been doing this, or is it pretty much you are doing the same thing, as far as your job is concerned?

A: Oh, no the environment is much different. The global financial crisis, the California state financial crisis, has caused us to be involved in a lot of different activities over the course of the last 12 months or so. Most recently, there’s still an incredible amount of uncertainty of… how we will be able to continue to fund the programs we have here at UCI and provide the resources that support our strategic plan. The state’s situation hasn’t been resolved. Most recently we heard that they have been projecting a $7-8 billion deficit for fiscal year of 10-11. That doesn’t bode well for their ability to replace or even continue to provide perhaps the same…support to all the agencies including the University of California. That’s, that’s a problem. So we’re certainly looking at other resource alternatives, how to reduce expenses, expenditures, conserve resources, and how to generate new revenues. So there’s a lot of ad hoc analysis activity going on and in many areas. Areas related to students, areas related to our external relations and fundraising area and programs, areas related to the programs we offer and how we present those.

Q: What do you personally think about the problem? Is it that big of a problem? Are people overreacting about it? Is it something that we can easily take care of?

A: No. No. This is an unprecedented situation and we…mentioned earlier, I’ve been here 26 years. I’ve certainly been through budget crises that have impacted UC and Irvine in particular. But the level of funding reductions and the obvious inability of the state to meet their commitments, not just to us but to other state agencies in this time period is without a doubt unprecedented. I think it’s because you have a global recession, you have a national recession, you have a decline in property values,…an increase in unemployment that impacts tax revenues, a decline in stock market which impacts capital gains which impacts tax revenues. You basically have all these things happening at once. I’ve never seen all these things happening at once, so it is as big a problem as people are saying.

Q: Where do domestic funds go to, for example shirts sold at the bookstore or people buying tickets for a basketball game at UCI? Does that just go right back into the school?

A: Yeah, I mean it stays here, certainly. The athletic department generates revenues from their sporting events, and those revenues are used to support the athletic programs….The bookstore is pretty much run as what we call an auxiliary enterprise. In other words, they’re kind of a little stand-alone business. They’re expected to operate in a solvent manner, so their sales, revenue, and sales profits just go to pay for their staff, pay for their facility, pay to maintain their operation.

Q: Is it the state that pays for staff at school or does the school’s revenues like tuition and things like that pay for staff and faculty?

A: The state’s resources primarily pay for faculty salaries and the core administrative functions. The things we know we have to have in order to operate. Accounting, facilities, utilities, an office like mine is state-supported…which is very important. Those state resources only represent – gosh, it’s declined – maybe 14, 15% of our total resources. It’s a very important 14 or 15%. When it goes away it’s like putting a hole in the middle of your bed. You notice that whole lot more than if you put a hole out in the corner of the bed. (Laughs). So that’s what the state funds go to support. Funds that come from students generally support the reg fee, for instance, support student services, the cross-cultural center, student health, parts of athletics, recreation, those types of things that are outside of the classroom. Now, some of the educational fee, and the history of the educational fee has become that…the majority of that is converted into state-like general funds. About 1/3rd of it goes to financial aid, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and that’s a fact, that’s what happens. But the rest of it basically comes back to us through the office of the President as the core support. That does support the educational activities. Part of your educational fee does.

Q: Have you been affected at all by the new budget other than what you said about having to change how you do your job?

A: Well, sure I’ve been affected just in the same way that all other employees have. The University of California instituted a furlough program that involves both a reduction of work time and also a reduction in pay. I’ve been affected by the different types of projects and focus that we’ve had to spend time on. I’m affected just like everybody else.

Q: What do you think should happen with the budget? What would you do if you were Yudof, or what do you think should be changed right now?

A: Well, gosh, that’s a tough question and I’m not sure that it’s even a question that even Yudof could answer, or be comprehensibly responsive to. The first thing, in my opinion, needs to happen is the state needs to establish some stability in what they are going to fund. In my own personal opinion, one of the big problems we have is the decline in state support and the unreliability of state support has happened fast in the last 12, 14 months that there’s so much uncertainty that it becomes very difficult to manage an institution like the University of California. The University of California is a pretty big operation, so we need to understand what the state’s going to be able to support and they need to get to the point where hopefully they can make some commitment so that we can have some planning. We don’t react well to surprises. No big organization does…. So the first thing needs to happen is some stability from the state. Then, we would have to, the University of California would have to decide how are we going to go forward in our objectives and our priorities and meet our mission, which we are committed to with that amount of state support and with the other resources we know we can rely on. Federal contract and grant activity, other fundraising activity, you know we can pretty well predict those things….We’re basically going to have to find something to replace what the state can no longer provide or we’re going to have to resize or refocus the institution. That’s my own personal opinion. We can’t continue to go forward in the same fashion with the dramatically reduced resources we have. And we’re talking dramatic, I mean, you know…resources have declined from the state by over $800 million. That’s a lot of money. That’s a whole lot of money, so we’re either going to have to get more strategically focused on our mission and decide what we can do with the resources we have or we’re going to have to find new resources and continue to try to do this same level service to the citizens of California that we’ve been able to provide in the past. It’s just not a big mystery.

Q: On the first week of school there was a demonstration of students and faculty. They were mad at people in charge of the UC system like Yudof, but do you think people should also look at taxpayers because of the special election where they said no more tax money should go to the schools?

A: I think people should continue to voice their opinions, perspectives, and provide input to those entities that can affect some impact or some change and those people right now, most of them, are in Sacramento and Washington D.C. Those are the people that need to understand what’s important to the people that are engaged with the University of California or with any other public service. We’re a democracy, people vote, that’s where tax resources go.

Q: Originally when the UC and Cal State systems were made they were supposed to be free public education. Do you think that that’s too grandiose and unrealistic that such a large system can possibly be free?

A: I think it could be. Sure, it could be. It essentially was for many, many years. For whatever reasons, and I assume they’re directly related to voters and public needs, the state has not been able to fulfill their commitment to that master plan that was established, I think in about 1960, and until the state and the citizens of this state decide that it’s important, I don’t think it’ll change. I mean, right now other things are more important than fulfilling the commitment to the higher education master plan.

Q: Colleges like Harvard and Stanford are at the top in terms of quality education. Do you think that we should sacrifice not paying as much for education and then it may not be as good quality, and therefore make it open to the public so that you have a more intelligent public, or should it be a higher cost and better quality, so that not everyone can afford it?

A: Well, first of all, I’d observe that University of California, Berkeley campus, for one, is probably ranked within a fingernail’s length of the privates that you mentioned, as are some of the other UC campuses. So I think that with the proper amount of public support, public institutions can offer as good or better education as any other, differently-funded institution. And I also think it’s very important that that be available to the public. I think that accessibility and diversity are important components of a free society and a successful society. That’s just my own personal opinion. I don’t think we should sacrifice quality for the sake of a resource issue. I think UC’s doing everything that they can to provide financial aid in order to maintain access to the general public. Certainly that’s being strained, and those who don’t qualify for as much financial aid as they think is necessary for them to have access certainly become disappointed. That’s an unfortunate outcome, but if you begin sacrificing quality then why are you even here?

Q: What do you think will happen this coming year and in the coming years in terms of budget and fees or tuition?

A: It’s going to be very difficult....Basically the ship is still going down. Until it rights itself some way I think you have to accept and understand that challenges are going to remain just as difficult as we’ve had these last few years. That puts pressure on the fee levels because of the many issues we’ve already talked about; one is maintaining quality, and it puts pressure on other revenue opportunities and people that support the University. I couldn’t predict any better than anybody else could what’s going to happen or how it’s going to turn out, but I do believe in the institution. It’s been here since 1868, I think. I don’t see many universities go out of business.

Q: Do you think that it’s really possible to satisfy both sides of the issue, in terms of the state being happy with what they’re giving the school, and also the students and the faculty being okay with it?

A: When I’m asleep it might be possible. (Laughs). No, it’s a resource issue, unless you believe there will always be more money than anyone ever needs, that situation is unlikely to ever exist. There’s always a pull for resources. Societies have many needs, and it gets very tough. I’m glad I’m not in Sacramento making these decisions. Do you take care of people’s health or do you educate them? I don’t know. We leave that to … leadership and the contributions of the public opinion to make those decisions. It will always be a difficult kind of compromise, trade-off situation. But it always has been too.

Q: The freshman class this year was the most selective, meaning they took the smallest amount of people out of the largest amount of applicants, making it the class with the highest GPA. Do you think this can be attributed to the budget because they have to take less people, or are students just getting smarter, or is it something else?

A: It’s a combination of both….I think the quality of our applicants has been increasing as our visibility and reputation have increased, and as we have grown, but certainly if you admit fewer students, you’re probably going to increase the quality of the ones that you do admit, so it’s a function of both things. Of course I believe students are getting smarter. Why would you be here? (Laughs).

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