Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng is asking all departments to tighten their belts in an effort to close a $17.3 million budget hole caused by a dramatic reduction in state funding.

At a campus forum on NAU’s fiscal year 2016 budget Thursday, Cheng said 60 positions will be cut and she has asked all academic departments to cut spending by 4.5 percent. All other divisions in the university have been asked to cut between 8 percent and 10 percent.

“There is no way around it,” Cheng said. “Class sizes are likely to go up. They’ve already gone up. Academic workloads are going to increase.”

But she said the increases in class sizes will be marginal and described NAU’s student-to-faculty ratios as “extremely competitive.”

“I’m confident that faculty can adapt by using technology and pedagogies to accommodate larger classes,” she said.

Cheng also unveiled a list of spending cuts the university has already started implementing, as well as a list of longer-term solutions to shrink the budget. One thing that did not make the list was a mass layoff.

“We are working very diligently to minimize the number of reductions in force,” Cheng said.

Instead, NAU administrators have identified 60 jobs that will be permanently eliminated heading into the 2015-16 academic year. Of those eliminated positions, 50 are currently vacant and simply will not be filled. NAU Associate Vice President Bjorn Flugstad said 20 of those are in academic departments.

“When staff positions are vacated, we’re asking is there a different way to do the work and not fill the positions,” Cheng said.

The 10 employees whose contracts will not be renewed for next year came from a variety of departments all over campus.

Cheng later answered a faculty question regarding furloughs. She said although furloughs have not been taken off the table, she does not believe NAU will have to force any employees to take an unpaid leave of absence next year to close the budget gap.

“We believe that furloughs are temporary and we need long-term solutions,” Cheng said, addressing the NAU faculty and staff in the audience. “When we have 60 positions unfilled, it means that we’re asking you to do more, and asking you to take a furlough at the same time is difficult.”

NAU administrators have decided to close two policy and research institutes to save money. One is the IDEA Lab — short for Imaging, Design, Editing, and Administrative services — which has provided resources to NAU researchers university-wide since 1981. The other is the Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute.

The university has also postponed construction of the new Engineering Lab Building. That project, which carried an estimated price tag between $2.75 million  and $4.25 million, would have added laboratory space in the area south of the Walkup Skydome known as Emerald City. The university proposed the construction in 2014 to support its undergraduate engineering program, which has nearly tripled its enrollment since 2005.

“We will keep the engineering lab on our list of projects that we’d like,” Cheng said. “When we have the ability, financially, we will be able to move ahead with that, but not until then.”

Cheng also announced several initiatives that are in progress.

One way university officials hope to save money is by closing some of NAU’s more than 30 satellite campuses in communities outside Flagstaff. Cheng said that effort is largely motivated by the growing number of students who are opting for online courses rather than on-site instruction. The university now offers more than 80 degree programs that can be completed entirely online.

“It’s really about changing because the students are telling us that they have different preferences,” she said.

NAU officials are awaiting the return on investment studies for each satellite campus to determine which ones will get the ax.

Additionally, Cheng said she is trying to find a way to make NAU’s marketing more effective without spending more money.

“We have a lot of activity going on and from my outside eyes, I feel we could be more coordinated,” Cheng said. “Will that save money? Maybe not. But as we continue in this competitive environment, we need to be as edgy and as sharp as possible and we have no new resources to add so we need to look for the efficiency of what we have.”

She added that NAU’s Information Technology services will have to make changes, like standardizing  equipment in every classroom and purchasing computers in bulk rather than one at a time.

Cheng ended the meeting by telling the NAU faculty and staff they will get through the state funding cuts together.

“There will be belt-tightening,” Cheng said. “There obviously are 60 positions we’re not filling, ... but there are 4,500 positions on this campus so let’s make sure we leave this spring semester and go into our summer routines with that in mind.”

The reporter can be reached at mmcmanimon@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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