UTPB town hall tackles potential budget cuts

Sounding an optimistic note in the wake of proposed budget cuts to the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, President David Watts encouraged staff, faculty and students to keep their chins up during a meeting in the Library Lecture Hall Tuesday.

While nothing is final yet, the Texas Senate has proposed a budget that includes a 52 percent cut for UTPB. Watts said he wanted to talk to the university community about it face to face. 

“Anytime you’re looking at a proposed 52 percent budget reduction, that’s a pretty serious amount of money so I wanted to have a conversation with the people here in the room to encourage them to take heart and to recognize that is the beginning of a very long process that will not end until May,” Watts said.

He added that people should not assume the 52 percent reduction in the Texas Senate’s proposed budget would happen. That budget zeroes out special line items such as the college of nursing and engineering, the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, the Small Business Development Center and the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is chair of the working group that will determine how much money will be restored to those zeroed out items, Watts said.

Watts said the tuition revenue bonds for the new engineering and kinesiology building are part of the budget.

The Texas House budget has more funding for higher education. Watts said he doesn’t think 52 percent will be cut, but the university probably will see a reduction. 

“In fact, it’s very likely to be that we’ll come out with an increase in our appropriation from the state of Texas,” Watts said.

The Senate and House have to vote on their budgets and then a conference committee will be selected to reconcile the two versions. Both chambers will vote on that.

“We will pray … that they do the right thing because what they issue will be pretty much the state budget,” Watts said.

Gov. Greg Abbott a few weeks ago announced a general hiring freeze on state appropriated funds. The order also froze job postings, Watts said. He noted that there are other funds such as grants, contracts and tuition.

Watts said discussions are underway on how to implement the freeze at UTPB. Watts is resigning as of Aug. 31, but he noted that the presidential search now underway won’t be impacted, nor will the hiring of a new dean of the college of education.

“Of course, we’re going to honor the governor’s order,” Watts said. “We have no choice in that, but we want to honor it in such a way that it harms our academic programs (and) our students, as little as possible,” Watts said.

Watts said summer school will be affected, because it’s not known whether UTPB will have to go to the governor for a waiver to offer summer school. He said most faculty is contracted for nine months and summer school is extra.

Summer school is a separate item for UTPB in terms of budgetary operations, Watts said.

“We want to maximize the number of classes that we have that fulfill student need and we’re going to have to generate some cost savings in summer school. That’s a requirement by the governor,” Watts said.

As for fall, Watts said as far as he’s concerned, UTPB should be planning its schedule “Full bore.”

Under a worst-case scenario, should the legislature adopt anywhere from a 52 percent reduction on down, Watts said adjustments will have to be made in UTPB’s operations.

“But I believe that the legislature will understand that what we do is significant. We don’t duplicate any other higher education,” he said.

Watts added that UTPB is the only four-year institution in Odessa or Midland.

“We’re going to come away with funding that’s adequate for the operations of the university …,” Watts said.

Higher education cuts have been proposed many times during, even during Watts’ tenure, he said. Watts has been president of UTPB since 2001.

“But this time it was a little surprising, insofar as the process that they used for consideration of reductions was different than what they’d done before,” Watts said. He added that if the 52 percent cut happened, it would “do harm to the university.”

Watts said Texas Reps. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, and Tom Craddick, R-Midland, are “very supportive. And they say very clearly that the House budget has not been determined yet and that as I tried to explain to this group simply because the Senate has started with a 52 percent reduction does not mean that that’s how it will end.”

Using the analogy of a marathon for the legislative session, Watts said things won’t be resolved until May 29 when the session ends.

Watts said various announcements will be made, but those are steps “in a long legislative process. … The end of that process is what will count for UTPB and every other higher education institution in Texas. Remember, it’s not just UTPB that’s involved here, it’s every other public higher education institution in Texas.” 

He said he is asking people who support, care and believe in the university and its importance to West Texas to contact local legislators.

Steve Aicinena, professor of kinesiology and athletic director, has been at UTPB since 1988, so every two years when the legislature meets the university goes through similar uncertainty in terms of funding.

Athletics is not funded through state appropriations, Aicinena said.

“One of the things I think is important, whether it’s the prospect of cuts in our funding or anything else in life that might be negative, you have to continue to do your work and live your life as best you can being as productive as you can,” Aicinena said. “Worrying about it really won’t help. I know that the president is working very diligently to accomplish the goal of preventing any major losses from us …”

Watts said he would keep everyone apprised of developments either through emails or meetings like the one on Tuesday.