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As UMSL faces a $15 million budget shortfall, Chancellor Tom George discusses the uncertain future

UMSL Chancellor Tom George joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss financial issues at the university and what's in the works going forward.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
UMSL Chancellor Tom George joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss financial issues at the university and what's in the works going forward.

University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Tom George is under pressure. This year, the school must find a way to fill a $15 million-sized hole in the budget — and that means layoffs. Who or how many will be laid off remains to be seen.

In November, George announced that instead of seeing a 2 percent increase in enrollment, the university actually saw an enrollment decrease of about four percent and that was the root cause of the shortfall.

On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” George elaborated about the issue.

“Looking at some other issues, our caliber of students keeps getting better and better and we have some scholarships that we automatically give out if they meet certain criteria, and that went way up,” George said. “Combined with that, we have a deficit that we have to correct. We’re doing that. It’s a cooperative effort across the campus involving the deans. We have committees that are working on this made up of faculty, staff and students.”

George said that transfers were a huge issue for the university. Freshman enrollments were up, he said, but transfers went down…stemming from lower enrollments at community colleges, which act as feeder schools to UMSL. He was reticent to say the deficit was because of a ‘Ferguson Effect.’

“I’m very careful not to use that as an excuse,” George said. “There was an effect last fall but we’ve climbed beyond that. In fact, we really used Ferguson as an opportunity to do things with our students, faculty. We’ve had resources coming in from Emerson, Ameren, Express Scripts…particularly in the form of scholarships. When you look at what happened in Ferguson and what’s happening now, there’s a lot of positive that came out of that as well.”

The recession also had an impact on how much the university thought enrollment was growing.

“We hit a trough of high school graduates,” George said. “When the economy starts getting better, enrollments tend to dip in higher education. When the economy goes down, enrollment goes up, people want to go back to school be retrained. There’s some of that. Some universities overbuilt simply projecting what you think is going to happen in terms of expenditures and programs. Thank goodness we’re in Missouri and not Illinois.”

"Thank goodness we're in Missouri and not Illinois."

While the university continues to chug along under a hiring freeze, George also reaffirmed that layoffs will have to happen to fill in the budget.

“We’ll lose some positions, yes, that’s going to happen,” George said.  “Either losing programs or combining them. We’re looking to do the most efficient way we can to make this happen.”

Likely, that means consolidating and combining programs that don’t have a lot of students in them.

“They’re nice programs to have but we might see by combining them with something else, we could be more efficient,” George said.  “What we’re going to see is fewer people in administrative positions.”

"What we're going to see is fewer people in administrative positions."

Some have criticized UMSL for the number of new buildings being built when budget issues are a concern. George said that the buildings are needed. Examples included obsolete science labs, business classes all over the campus and outdated optometry facilities.  

Statewide, George said he’ll follow the legislature’s lead on if they’ll stick to the governor’s proposed six percent of the budget going to higher education. He also said he’s looking for ways to make sure UMSL is better represented on the UM System Board of Curators, which recently lost two St. Louis-based board members.

“Is there fallout at UMSL, UMKC or Rolla from events at Mizzou? Sure, there are. As things evolved this fall, we ramped up our activities in that arena. Call it diversity arena, call it the arena of inclusion, and we have a bunch of forums focused on Ferguson and we were all set to move into the latest wave of what’s occurring at Mizzou.”

Developments  at the university, aren’t all bad, George said. For example, Natural Bridge Road, which cuts through the campus, is a $20 million project that MODOT is doing on its own dime. George says he’s been hearing from businesses that normally wouldn’t have considered locating to the street considering coming in and opening up shop. The campus’ new recreation center is also a shining star.

As for the persistent idea that UMSL and Harris-Stowe should merge to save money?

“It’s not an active discussion,” George said. “It was raised to me when I first got here. Dwaun Warmack and I, we look at cooperative things. In terms of an active discussion of would there be a merger, no, I haven’t had discussions like that. … I haven’t really thought about it."

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.