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GMU's Financial Future At Stake

Budget cuts, higher education bond will affect Mason's long-term planning.

As George Mason University (GMU) draws closer to the end of the semester, the university, like its students, faces some examinations of its own.

On one hand, economics professor Vernon Smith was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. University officials say student caliber is growing stronger.

In the midst of these positive changes come several budgeting issues that could impact the long-term future of GMU. Recent state budget cuts will require university cuts in ground maintenance and academic support. The higher education bond could potentially give $80 million for building construction and renovation.

"The mood on the campus is a mixture of the best of times, the worst of times," said GMU president Alan Merten.

AT AN OCT. 24 MEETING, GMU's Board of Visitors discussed strategies to absorb the state budget cuts. The discussion centered on moving forward and prioritizing goals, without hurting school growth, academic quality and tuition affordability.

At the close of the meeting, the board decided to vote for a $192 surcharge for all students for the spring semester. It will create $2.5 million in revenue, with $350,000 of it going towards student financial aid. The remaining $1.1 million will go toward academic support.

"There's been a paradigm shift on how we fund higher education in Northern Virginia," said senior vice president Maurice Scherrens at the meeting.

The current total budget for GMU is $422 million. One-third of that money comes from the general fund, or money provided by the state. Of that $422 million, 51 percent or $214.1 million, goes toward salaries, library books, academic support and building and ground maintenance.

When the budget cuts take effect, GMU will receive a 10.1 percent cut for the remainder of the 2003 school year and a possible 12 percent cut for 2004. According to GMU officials, general fund contributions will drop from $103 million to $93 million for 2003 and drop to $83 million in 2004.

Scherrens said the budget for building and ground maintenance would get hit the hardest, with the budget for academic support services getting the next hardest hit and the budget for academics and research getting hit the least of the three.

What won't be cut are student housing, athletics and food services, which belong to a different fund.

"All the schools have had a significant decrease in general fund support over the past two years," Scherrens said.

ONE LIST at the meeting included proposed strategies to cut the academic support budget. Proposed hits included fewer full-time faculty positions, fewer course sections and larger class sizes, and a reduction in academic assistance for transfer students and students changing majors.

Scherrens and provost Peter Stearns would be responsible for initiating the strategies, which would occur at different times of the year.

After seeing this list of reductions, board visitor Richard Fink questioned whether all of these cuts were appropriate. He said he feared the reduction of academic quality.

"There are things in here, in my mind, that don't reflect our priorities," Fink said at the meeting.

GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch said the Board of Visitors will continue to discuss long-term priorities, as well as the best method to absorb the cuts, at future meetings.

"We're all concerned about compromising academic quality," Walsch said.

Although the cuts have yet to take effect, students say they are beginning to feel the pinch. Student body vice president Radhika Vora said that some students have told her about professors who say they can't give out handouts anymore because of the budget cuts.

Despite the inconveniences, Vora said that the students have been supportive of university decisions, although they worry about what classes will get the cut.

"Overall, they realize it could be a lot worse," Vora said.

University president Merten said that during the Oct. 18-20 Parents' Weekend, he was surprised by parents' reactions toward the surcharge for the spring semester.

"I can't believe the people who said I'm glad you did it, rather than cut back on the quality of my child's education," Merten said.

WHILE GMU will lose money with the budget cuts, it may gain money if the higher education bond item proposed for the Nov. 5 general election ballot passes. If the bond passes, the university is poised to receive $80 million to construct two classroom buildings, a research building and four renovation projects.

"From 2002 to 2010, there will be 40,000 more students eligible to attend college in Virginia," Merten said. "We got to have a place for them to go to school."

Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34), who served as the chief sponsor for the bond, said that support for the bond is overwhelming, with a few anti-tax groups against the measure.

"I think it's going to pass comfortably," Callahan said.

Callahan created the bond item because he had also heard that by 2010, there will be thousands more high-school graduates. The measure will support all public universities and colleges in Virginia. One half of the bond money will go towards the renovation of older buildings, while the other half will go towards the new classroom building construction.

"I've traveled every campus in the state and they're just bursting at the seams," Callahan said.

Even students have tried to encourage their classmates to vote, by having rallies and passing out flyers on the issue.

"Once we explain were the money is going to, they're for it," Vora said.

Student body president Shirene Rasheed also encouraged students to vote by registering students and supplying absentee ballots. Rasheed said that response for the bond item has been favorable among students.

"Students are interested because it does affect them. It may not affect them by the time they get out of here, but there's a personal connection to the university," Rasheed said.