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Officials carry on normally despite budget mandate

BY EMILY BUSSE and JOHN DOETKOTT | OCTOBER 12, 2009 7:20 AM

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UI officials say a directive to freeze hiring and suspend new construction projects in light of massive budget cuts is unclear, and the university has seemingly continued with normal operations.

State Board of Regents President David Miles announced the mandate on Oct. 8, calling for immediate cessation. But construction on projects such as the new Campus Recreation & Wellness Center continued on Oct. 9, and UI spokesman Tom Moore said university officials are waiting for more specific directions before deciding how to react.

In addition to halting construction, officials said the specifics of the hiring freeze will not be clear until a special regent meeting on Wednesday.

“We can’t say much because we’re waiting for more clarification,” UI Provost Wallace Loh said. “What we’re doing is sitting back and waiting for instructions as to how this policy will be managed.”

Miles’ mandate came in response to Gov. Chet Culver’s announcement of a 10 percent across-the-board state budget cut. The cut translates into a $59.8 million reduction for regent universities and a $24.7 million gash to the UI’s budget. In total, Culver has trimmed roughly $950 million from the state’s fiscal 2010 budget.

Regents did not return calls over the weekend, and Miles said in a statement he would not issue further comment until after Wednesday’s meeting.

But regents’ communication officer Sheila Doyle said the mandate is subject to board ratification and specifics of the plan should be ready by Wednesday’s meeting.

“The assumption is that these two items will be ratified by the board,” she said. “If not, then I’m not sure what that means.”

Construction projects on the Ames campus have also continued as planned, said John McCarroll, executive director of university relations at Iowa State University.

Though he said ISU officials are also waiting on more instructions from the board, they “understand very clearly what the spirit of the statement is.”

McCarroll also raised the issue of how the moratorium would affect contract negotiations on projects for which bids have been accepted but construction has not yet started.

On Oct. 7, UI officials turned in bids for a proposed $1.35 million central Cambus facility, but building has yet to begin. Facilities Management has several other multimillion-dollar projects on the horizon, including a $47 million renovation for Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

UI Facilities officials did not return calls seeking comment on what projects will come to a standstill.

Miles’ mandate also called for a hiring freeze on all general education-funded positions, which Loh said encompasses staff paid through appropriation or tuition.

But some hospital and athletics staff positions paid through clinical revenue or private funds may not be subject to a hiring freeze, he said.

One area of the hiring freeze that Loh said needs more clarification is whether top administrative positions could be filled under the mandate.

“For example, there is a search for a law school dean. Are we really going to have an entire college operate without a dean?” Loh said. “Right now, I would say the answer is no.”

Loh said further explanation from the board in the coming week could answer the question of whether there will be exceptions to the freeze.

“With more than 20,000 employees, there are lots and lots of searches going on,” Loh said. “The question then becomes, which searches are frozen and which can go on.”

The hiring freeze comes after UI and regent officials implemented a slew of other options to meet budget cuts, and UI President Sally Mason said in an e-mail last week that long-avoided layoffs are now an option.

“We’re going to try as much as possible to minimize layoffs, but I don’t say prevent because I don’t know if it’s a possibility to have absolutely zero,” Loh said.

With some faculty and staff leaving under the early retirement program and the possibility of layoffs looming, the hiring freeze will increase staffing issues.

“If certain positions are not filled, someone still has to teach those students,” Loh said.


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