The UConn Board of Trustees adopted the budget without discussion in public and after reviewing it behind closed doors for 90 minutes. Last month, the university’s Financial Affairs Committee also met for 5 ½ hours in private to craft the budget.
“That’s how it’s always been done,” UConn President Susan Herbst told reporters after the vote when asked about the closed-door meetings. The governing board for the state’s other public college system — the Board of Regents — rarely meets in private and held public meetings over three days to discuss their budgets. The Regents system includes the four regional Connecticut State Universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak College.
The lawyer for UConn justified the trustees’ private meetings by pointing to state law that exempts drafts of public records and discussion of them from disclosure if an agency determines that the public interest is better served by withholding them.
“The budget is a draft until the Board acts on it,” said Richard F. Orr, the school’s general counsel. “UConn made the determination that the public interest in withholding outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
Open government advocates disagree.
“To discuss the budget of the state’s premier public university in executive session is outrageous,” said James H. Smith, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and longtime journalist at several daily newspapers in the state. “They should be discussing their budget in public. It is a public university. The taxpayers pay for the university. Why are they hiding how they want to spend their money?”
The university received $355.7 million from the state this fiscal year and is slated to receive almost $400 million in the fiscal year that begins next week.
Thomas Hennick, education officer with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, said state law gives public agencies a lot of leeway in determining what they consider a draft.
“One person’s draft is another person’s final copy,” said Hennick, whose state agency acts as a watchdog to determine whether public bodies are adhering to the state’s public disclosure laws. “Most budgets I see are put together in public.”
The university’s budget chief, Scott Jordan, said after the meeting that since so much of the university’s budget is spent on staffing, and cuts that are being considered so often could impact personnel, it’s appropriate for the board to discuss their options privately.
The adopted budget relies on having some faculty teach more courses and laying off 40 to 50 non-instructional staff.
Jordon gave a six-minute public presentation on the budget, followed by the trustees’ unanimous adoption without discussion.
“It would be easy to cut budgets across the board,” Jordan said in his presentation, “but that is not what we want to do. We want to move full speed ahead.”
The board separately adopted a $1 billion budget for the UConn Health Center, and also without public discussion.
To pay for the increased spending at the university, students who are Connecticut residents will have to pay $670 more to attend the university next year — a 5.2 percent increase — which will generate $34.4 million in revenue. Another $6 million will come from the tuition UConn will collect by enrolling 250 more students next school year.
The budget assumes UConn will maintain its current faculty levels.
“We will be hiring about as many faculty as will be leaving,” Mun Choi, the university’s provost, told reporters after the meeting.
When UConn officials approved a four-year tuition schedule that increases the cost to attend the school by nearly 30 percent, the school said it would use much of that additional revenue to hire 290 additional faculty so students could get the courses they need to graduate on time. Now heading into the last year of that schedule, UConn has added 177 faculty.
The state budget covers nearly half of UConn’s increased spending by providing the university with an additional $48 million next year, a 14 percent boost. While grateful, UConn President Susan Herbst told her Board of Trustees Wednesday it is still less than what was needed to continue offering existing programs and services.
“It could have been much worse,” Herbst said, referring to the governor’s initial budget proposal, which would have cut state support for the school. “We are relieved and grateful for every penny.”
Much of the university’s increased spending is outside its control, Jordan said after the meeting. The average 6 percent pay raises the school is obligated to give unionized employees will cost $59.8 million. The governor’s budget office negotiated that increase as part of a state employee concessions package that followed two years of wage freezes with three years of raises averaging 6 percent.
“We have no control of those costs, which has put a lot of pressure on us,” said Jordan.
Other increases include $4.2 million for financial aid for students, $4.1 million to hire the staff needed to accommodate the 250 additional students and $16.9 million for inflation on services such as dining and custodial services.