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Costs daunt UNT libraries

Profile image for By Jenna Duncan / Staff Writer
By Jenna Duncan / Staff Writer

The University of North Texas libraries — potentially facing new budgetary hits of $1.7 million in staff benefit costs — have been struggling with budget problems for the past three years because of rising costs of materials and other resources and a fluctuation in funding, according to university documents.

UNT now has one of the worst-funded libraries among peer universities outside Texas and ranks second from the bottom in per-student funding for libraries, according to information compiled by the Association of College & Research Libraries based on data from 2011, the most recent available for the comparison.

Other universities in Texas, however, are facing similar funding issues.

UNT President Neal Smatresk, who started work last week, said he will begin to look into the library budget this week as well as other university budgetary issues.

“The library budget is simply part of a broader series of challenges we’re facing in budgeting that I will be looking at, and I’ll be looking at the library in context of how we budget to achieve our strategic goals going forward,” Smatresk said. “This situation might not be unique to the libraries, and I’m going to be devoting significant amounts of time digging into the budget over the next two weeks as we prepare for the legislative session.”

The staff funding problems sparked a “save the library” campaign in November, with students, faculty and staff urging support for the libraries as a key component in UNT’s drive to raise its profile as a research institution.

A Facebook page, website and petition quickly drew widespread support for the libraries from faculty, students and alumni, and students protested on campus against library budget cuts.

The campaign began after library officials were notified that they would have to cover the costs of staff benefits from the library budget — a move that was quickly withdrawn after school executives said it had not been authorized, documents show. Currently, staff benefits are paid from a separate account with general university funds.

A request from the UNT libraries last year for an increase in the student fee to help cover the rising costs was rejected by university administrators without taking the request to the Board of Regents, according to documents and copies of e-mails obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle under Texas open records laws.

“I think the concern is the overall cost of education,” Library Dean Martin Halbert said recently. “As the state investment in higher ed has declined, it lands squarely on the back of the students with tuition and fee increases, and I think that’s the big concern of the administration to not increase that to the extent we can. It’s a real issue and something we need to look at, but libraries make a huge difference in students’ lives.”

University Provost Warren Burggren said administrators are working to address the increased costs in staff benefits, and will be looking at ways to increase library funding in the coming year outside of student fee increases.

“As we’ve seen, we’ve had a couple of trends in downturn in enrollment, and that leaves the university vulnerable,” he said. “We’re going to be putting a lot of time and effort in the coming year to look at ways to stabilize and potentially increase the library funding over time, and as I said, there are multiple mechanisms for doing that; the fee is just one. So to not increase the library fee does not automatically transfer into a lack of support by the administration for the library.”

Rising costs

The financial problems facing the UNT libraries go deeper than covering the costs of staff benefits, records show.

Rising costs for scholarly periodicals and other library resources have been an ongoing problem for the university for the past three years as student enrollment and fees have remained flat.

Halbert urged administrators to bridge the funding gap in a May 7 report to then-President Lane Rawlins, Burggren and Jean Bush, senior associate vice president for finance.

“The needs articulated here are urgent, and we hope that a course of action to address the problem can be taken soon,” Halbert wrote in an e-mail he sent to the three administrators with the report. “Please accept my sincere thanks for this opportunity to confront a longstanding UNT problem.”

Administrators agree the library needs to see moderate funding increases instead of losses, but how to do that has not yet been determined, even as library officials begin to budget for the upcoming year.

“The business that we’re in, at this university and almost any university, is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and the library is central in that process because they are basically the holders of knowledge,” Burggren said. “Students need the library. ... They need that central repository for knowledge. It’s really central to what we do.”

Funding in limbo

While the transfer of $1.7 million in staff benefit costs to the library system seemed imminent in November, it is now surrounded by uncertainty.

Initially, a budget director with the university spoke with the administrative coordinator for the library, explaining that it would have to pay for staff benefits and that those costs would begin in December, according to internal e-mails obtained by the Record-Chronicle.

Halbert asked for clarification on the issue, and Bush told him in an e-mail that the costs must be paid from designated library funds rather than from a general university account with state funding.

Halbert then told his staff and the Faculty Senate, and sent a widely circulated e-mail that stated the library would freeze funds immediately and figure out how to make up for the perceived $1.7 million in additional costs.

The movement spiraled from there as a faculty member created a blog, petition and Facebook page to “Save the UNT Library.” The movement was quickly quelled the next day when Burggren sent an e-mail to the community saying these measures were premature and that he was the only person who could decide when and if the libraries would have to absorb the additional costs.

The funding of those costs is now in limbo. When, how and where the money will come from to cover the benefits has still not been determined, but Burggren said it will not become an unfunded mandate for the library.

“What we have committed to do is to keep the library whole, and we will look at various ways of appropriately expending the many types of revenues that we have to make good on that commitment,” Burggren said. “What I can’t do is tell you at the beginning that the library is central to everything we do and then say, ‘Gee, I don’t know if we’re going to fund it or not.’ We just have to do it. It’s key to what we do.”

Pleas for funding

The funding problems began in 2008 with a major push to expand collections and the availability of journals as the university began to aspire to becoming a top-tier research university, Halbert said.

With enrollment on the rise, and the library supported almost entirely by the student fee, the library was able to fund the growth. However, the increasing costs of scholarly publications and journals began to outpace the increased revenue from the student fee.

“We were really rapidly accelerating the pace of acquiring new journals, and we were hoping honestly there would be new funding to support that. That did not materialize,” Halbert said. “It was just inevitable with escalations of 8 to 20 percent a year, we were going to have to cut back.”

The library is almost entirely funded by a student fee of $16.50 per credit hour, and the rate has not changed since it was introduced in 2004. This worked for a while, Burggren said, but has become a problem as enrollment has flattened in recent years.

From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, library expenditures dropped from $17.7 million to $17 million. The library was able to make cuts by reducing book purchases to meet the downturn, Halbert said. But the trend of cutting had to continue for fiscal year 2013, even though budgeted expenditures increased to $17.6 million, according to documents.

The cuts are expected to continue, Halbert said, as the cost just to maintain current subscriptions is expected to increase by $480,000 a year. Additional cuts must be made from materials to cover expenditures that are increasing, such as computer hardware and software upgrades and maintenance on the Willis Library, which has not had any major renovations since it was built in 1970.

“The materials budget is the one thing we can cut fairly rapidly,” Halbert said.

These issues were outlined in an open letter from Halbert to the UNT community last April, in which he asks faculty, staff and students to advocate for a change in the funding model as he prepared to give his annual budget presentation to the administration.

It was the third time in recent years Halbert sent an open letter about the funding crisis, and like the other two letters, the request did not sway top administrators to make a change.

In his annual report this year about the budget, Halbert outlined six options to increase the library funding, including an increase to the student fee. The request was not formally considered by the Board of Regents, and alternative funding methods weren’t allocated to the library, according to documents.

How UNT compares

UNT is one of the only public schools in the state with a library system that is almost completely supported by a student fee, according to the Texas Council of Academic Libraries.

Texas Tech University is the most comparable institution, with much of its library costs supported by a student fee, according to the documents and the annual report Halbert presented to the administration.

While the two universities have different enrollments, the figures broken down by expenditures per student show Texas Tech invests more than twice as much per capita in its library than UNT.

Over the past decade, the average funding gap per capita between UNT and Texas Tech was $352 per student, and was $470 in 2011.

Comparisons to Texas Tech are one of several that show UNT is significantly underfunded, according to the documents.

However, other public universites in Texas are worse off per capita or in similar situations to UNT, despite having more diverse funding sources, the Record-Chronicle found.

At Texas State University, the funding per student in 2011 was $349, which is $40 less than the average at UNT. Texas State’s funding levels decreased per student in 2012 despite an additional $300,000 in the budget, making spending per capita $345 that year.

The library budget at the University of Texas at Arlington was also significantly less than UNT, at $11.46 million in fiscal year 2011, or an average of $252 per student. While UTA’s library funding has gradually increased since then, now up to $11.65 million for fiscal year 2013, the per-student funding has, like Texas State, made slight drops.

All three schools are included in UNT’s newest in-state peer group, called “Emerging Research Universities,” which was adopted last summer by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

But in a group of 14 institutions the state board identified as “aspirational peers,” UNT was the second worst-funded library when broken down by expenditures per capita, according to the library association.

UNT spent $389 per capita in 2011, while the peer group average was $681. This group can be revised in collaboration with and at the request of the public university in question, said Kelly Carper Polden of the state board.

Additionally, overall, UNT’s 2011 library budget was $6 million less than the out-of-state peer group average.

Looking ahead

Smatresk said discussions on the budget are about to begin.

There is not yet a plan for how and when the libraries will absorb the staff benefit costs, and the budget planning process at the libraries for next fiscal year is already underway. Uncertainty over enrollment and thus the revenues persist, Halbert said.

Sometime this coming semester the library staff will have to make decisions about what will be cut and make several contingency plans, Halbert said. The costs will continue to be removed from the materials budget.

“Probably the last thing we’ll cut back on is services to students, but if we have to cut back somewhere, we have to take it out of the things that are escalating uncontrollably — at least that’s our feeling,” he said. “But that’s really impacting our university and our ambitions for top-tier research status, and I don’t want to do that.”

He remains hopeful the funding crunch will stop soon.

“UNT has a remarkable library,” Halbert said. “It’s not just the most-used physical space on the campus, but it’s probably the single most-used digital space on the campus as well. I think the library is the core of the academic enterprise. ... If you don’t have a library, you’re not going to have a great university, and I’m still optimistic that we will figure out these issues in the coming year.”

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.