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Minnesota Duluth navigates 'devastating' cuts

UMD students and others crowd the halls in Kirby Student Center Monday morning. UMD is facing $5 million in budget cuts in the 2020-21 school year. (Steve Kuchera / / 7
Delaney Anderson2 / 7
Griffin Bryan3 / 7
Students arrive at UMD Monday morning. (Steve Kuchera / / 7
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Students walk past a logo of UMD’s bulldog mascot. (Steve Kuchera / / 7

DULUTH — University of Minnesota Duluth juniors Delaney Anderson and Griffin Bryan could join thousands of other students since early this decade who've finished undergraduate degrees there without knowing a time that didn’t include budget deficits.

“You always have to hope that it’s the last time,” said Bryan, a finance major and chief financial officer of the UMD Student Association, the students’ governing voice. “We need more funding to keep up with what we’re trying to do here.”

But the 2020-21 school year will bring the worst cleave yet — $5.2 million more in cuts, meaning as many as 50 or 60 faculty and staff jobs at risk and the corresponding program and course cuts that would come with some of those losses.

The cuts loom as a reckoning intended to once and for all resolve a "structural imbalance" that has dogged the campus since 2012 — when a university that had been leaning into its tuition sails lost wind as student populations settled post-recession.

Strongly worded letters to University of Minnesota system leadership within the last week from state Sen. Erik Simonson and another one cosigned by the UMD Faculty Senate and University Education Association-Duluth are unlikely to curb the momentum on a budget set long before the new U of M system president, Joan Gabel, took over in July.

Sources interviewed were optimistic about Gabel. They agreed that she seemed more attentive than previous leaders to the health of institutions outside the metro campus. But the reality is that UMD's four vice chancellors face deadlines on having their proposed cuts to Chancellor Lendley Black this month. Meetings to hash out the details will follow.

Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations Steve Keto clarified that $1.2 million of the overall cuts were required system-wide and that $4 million was directly tied to tuition declines that add up quickly when it’s $12,000 missed at a time.

"We’ve not had as many reductions as we’ve had (declining) students,” Keto said. “What we’re trying to do this fall for next year is balance the recurring revenues and expenditures of UMD. And it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time.”

UMD proponents say at this point, after years of trimming, they’ve reached the flesh of the mission. History professor Scott Laderman is the head of the 550-member faculty bargaining unit. In addition to fearing the loss of 5-10% of faculty, he laments a shift toward becoming a tech school.

"A comprehensive university is one that isn't just focused on churning out people who are going to become automatons in corporate society," Laderman said, softening that critique by explaining it's the goal of a university to expand students' horizons and develop minds and what he termed "civic identities."

Departmentally, proposed cuts he's privy to are aimed at fine arts most heavily (9%), he said, followed by liberal arts, education and business colleges (5%). The popular Swenson College of Science and Engineering is being asked to negotiate 1.5% budget reductions that Laderman agreed will be hard for it, too.