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Facing shrinking budget, NDSU president calls for optimism

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani delivers his ninth State of the University address Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, at Festival Hall on campus. Tu-Uyen Tran / Forum News Service

FARGO — After weathering "unprecedented" cuts in state funding, being told to expect more cuts and now dealing with a serious enrollment decline, North Dakota State University's president acknowledged Friday, Sept. 21, that times are tough.

"Sadly, but perhaps somewhat understandably, some on campus concluded that things have never been worse," Dean Bresciani said during his ninth annual State of the University address.

Much of the speech amounted to a pep talk, highlighting the "many reasons for optimism," including growing support for the university's mission by local and state leaders — at least three groups are pushing for a rainy day fund for higher education — and careful planning to minimize the pain of funding cuts.

Bresciani said the declining enrollment has "created the need to make further cuts," but didn't specify where the cuts would be made.

When asked for specifics, spokeswoman Sadie Rudolph said administrators were tied up because of homecoming week. Bresciani left the stage at Festival Hall after his speech and was not immediately available for comment.

The university reported earlier this week that 562 fewer students enrolled this fall compared to the last, a 4 percent decrease. The administration estimated that will reduce its tuition revenue by $5 million. Fewer students will likely result in further cuts in state funding, which are currently based on the number of credit-hours completed by students, though that wouldn't happen until fiscal year 2019.

The starting point of NDSU's budget woes began in 2015 when state lawmakers cut the university's general fund appropriations by 6.6 percent to cope with slumping oil and farm commodity prices, leaving the budget at $157.4 million. The next year, the governor ordered all state agencies to make a 4 percent cut, which amounted to $6.4 million for NDSU. In 2017, lawmakers cut NDSU's general fund appropriations by 18 percent to $129.1 million.

"I've been a higher education professional for 35 years, have taught both undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of American higher education, and I do not know another example of universities' state appropriations being cut as much in one fell swoop," Bresciani said Friday.

In response to the university's progressively smaller budgets, it has offered early-retirement buyouts and cut jobs; Bresciani said more than 100 faculty and staff members have departed as a result, including administrators and part-time faculty. It also raised tuition.

This past summer, Gov. Doug Burgum released budget guidelines that include a 10 percent cut to all state agencies, with an option for another 3 percent.

"NDSU has weathered the economic storm in our state far better than any other state institutions or agencies," Bresciani said Friday.

Seeing storm clouds on the horizon, the university made plans to protect its full-time tenure-track faculty at all costs to preserve its educational mission, he said, and it has.

In response to declining enrollment, which he said affects many research universities, NDSU has an "aggressive" plan that includes calling prospective students earlier and more often, announcing scholarships earlier, reducing the time it takes to apply, and speeding up acceptance notifications.

But even as it dutifully makes cuts, NDSU must also make the case for adequate funding, Bresciani said. A state investment in the university means more qualified workers for the state, which faces a labor shortage, more tax revenues from college graduates who typically earn higher wages, research funding from outside the state and economic diversification through spin-off jobs, he said.

One potential bit of good news for NDSU going into the 2019 legislative session is news that state sales tax revenues appears to be on the rebound. Earlier in the week, the state tax commissioner's office reported second-quarter tax receipts were up 10 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago.

On the web: To read the State of the University address, go to

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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