FARGO — North Dakota State University likely will face additional budget cuts in the upcoming school year as enrollment numbers continue to fall, but it’s unclear how deep those slashes will be or how much the coronavirus pandemic will impact finances.

President Dean Bresciani said Friday, April 17, in an email to the university community that the school’s financial position is sound, but five years of declining student enrollment has negatively impacted NDSU. Additional cuts to the budget are likely as the school moves into the fall semester, Bresciani wrote.

The email doesn't mention if the cuts could impact staffing and programs. When asked by The Forum if furloughs or layoffs were possible in the upcoming year, he said, "Anything is possible."

“The scope of those reductions will depend upon the success of our enrollment efforts,” he wrote.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

NDSU’s official fall enrollment count was 13,173 students, more than 600 less than in the 2018 fall semester. This is the fifth straight year the university’s student body has declined, and this year marks the lowest count since 2008.

University leaders anticipated a $5.5 million revenue shortfall this year because of the nearly 5% drop from the 2018-19 school year to 2019-20.

Staff will still get a 2.5% annual salary merit increase for fiscal year 2021, as is required by law, Bresciani said. Construction to replace Dunbar Hall with a $51 million science building, most of which came from the state Legislature, also will continue as planned, he said.

Bresciani also has instructed senior administrators to implement a hiring “chill” to “prepare for unanticipated developments,” the email said.

“This means that we are going to be thoughtful and cautious about creating and re-filling positions paid from appropriated resources,” he wrote. “Although I can’t rule out additional measures down the road, this is the only employment-based cost-saving measure we are currently taking.”

Coronavirus impacts

It’s unclear just how much the coronavirus will impact NDSU or its budget in the future, but university leadership intends to restart in-person classes this fall, University Police and Safety Office Director Mike Borr said in a Thursday, April 16, statement.

The school suspended in-person education last month, and online learning is expected to continue through the summer, Bresciani said. Most of the roughly 2,600 students who lived on campus moved out of their dormitories, though about 100 remained in residence halls, NDSU previously said.

Campus offices remained open, Bresciani said in his interview. Some worked remotely while others came to their offices, he said.

"We're trying to stay as close to normal as possible under these unusual circumstances so we are as ready as possible in the fall to get back up to full speed," he told The Forum.

The university gave students a prorated refund for housing and food services when they were encouraged not to return to campus after spring break. That resulted in about a $6 million loss, Bresciani said.

Still, he said felt the plan to handle university operations during the coronavirus pandemic went more smoothly than he expected.

"I don't kid myself that everything is perfect, but overall, because we were prepared and because we had a plan and we executed it well, I think we are in pretty good shape, all things considered," he said.

'New normal'

The University of North Dakota announced Friday it would reduce employee hours for staff "whose workload has been reduced due to COVID-19 or work is not mission-critical." The move is meant to correct UND’s budget shortfall after issuing refunds to students for housing and food services this year.

Minnesota State University Moorhead announced this week it planned to cut 10 majors and more than 60 jobs in anticipation of a $6 million budget shortfall forecast for fiscal year 2020.

At this time, NDSU is not considering such measures, Bresciani said. The school has developed a strong reserve policy, deals with issues as they come up and is cautious about how it spends money, he said.

"NDSU has always been very conservative about our financial management," he said when asked why it was financially prepared to handle possible shortfalls from the coronavirus.

NDSU expects operations to return to “at least the ‘new normal’” in the fall, Bresciani wrote. Students and parents want in-person education, and faculty and staff are eager to return to campus, he said.

“I have no doubt that some activities, services and interpersonal behavior will change, both on and off campus,” he said. “Whatever those changes are, we will adjust and continue keeping student and employee safety at the forefront.”

Noting the possible extended period of high unemployment, Bresciani said the school needs to prepare to assist those who want to improve their skills. He mentioned marketing to nontraditional students, he said.

“I want to challenge each of us, particularly our faculty, to plan how to academically serve this population, and to do so quickly,” he said. “Not only will this help our state and its people, but it will also help us maintain and improve our financial stability.”

It's hard to predict how the next three months could change projections, but Bresciani said he was optimistic about first-year numbers and enrollment overall in 2020.

“We have weathered numerous budget difficulties in the recent past, but we had the foresight and discipline to handle each shortfall when it occurred without burying them or deferring them to a later date,” Bresciani wrote. “As a result, we are currently in a manageable budget position.”