The President Says

Robert Shelton discusses budget challenges, SB 1070 and UA growth

The state Legislature reacted to the Great Recession by taking a hatchet to health-care and education programs. As a result, the University of Arizona experienced more than $100 million in cuts over the last two years.

President Robert Shelton directed Meredith Hay, the university's executive vice president and provost, to launch a transformation plan that merged some programs and colleges—and closed others.

While the moves have been sometimes painful and always controversial, even Shelton's biggest critics give him credit for successfully steering the university through two historically challenging years and for dealing with a Legislature that seems bent on destroying public education—and Arizona's image, by passing laws like SB 1070.

On Monday, Aug. 9, before Shelton walked across campus to welcome a group of new international students, he sat down with the Tucson Weekly for a 20-minute conversation on topics including state lawmakers, SB 1070 and being a good neighbor.

How would you describe the previous two years?

They have been challenging, but that's not unique to Arizona. We have been particularly hard-hit financially, mostly because the state has been particularly hard-hit financially. Candidly, the financial part, we're figuring out. We're making hard decisions. We've taken cuts. People have been hurt. We've raised tuition, and that's painful, but the real concern I have is long-term, because I think the state's economy will turn around.

The real concern I have is what seems to be the prevailing mindset of some leaders in the Legislature that education is not important—that if you want an education, you can fund it yourself. When important leaders in the House and the Senate tell you that their goal is to eliminate all state funding for higher education, that's the worrisome part, because that's a priority that just doesn't make sense to me. We can't attract business here, we can't attract talent here, unless we have good K-12, good higher education.

Has that made it difficult to retain faculty and staff?

Sure, we're losing faculty. People say, "Well, everyone is having financial problems. How can you lose faculty?" And I say, "Yeah, but there are different attitudes (in other states and at other universities), and if they want to get that key person, they will go after them with quite an offer." (Many of these offers) are coming out of California, Washington and the Ivies, of course. And that's something else that people don't recognize: That's the level at which we compete. We compete for talent, for students and for faculty.

Despite the problems with the Legislature, there seem to be UA successes, such as the new medical school development in Phoenix; changes locally with the medical school; and ongoing construction.

We are having some success, and the reason we are is that I have a whole lot of good people who work with me. Attracting Meredith Hay here as (executive vice president and provost), Bill Crist as vice president for health affairs—they relate directly to our success. Consolidating academic health-care activities in Tucson ... that's a huge step that's being consummated now.

In Phoenix, (we've experienced success with) the growth of the biomedical campus, (and) we finally got permission through the (Joint Committee on Capital Review) to build the health science education building. And that's a good example: The state has given us $12 million in operating funds for a medical campus, and as grateful as I am for $12 million, that number is a joke when you look around the country and see what academic medical centers take. Part of me says, "Well, maybe people don't understand what it takes to build a world-class center that will return billions of dollars in economic growth." Or maybe they just don't care.

I don't know, but we are moving ahead anyway, and part of it is that we have good partners, and ... a lot of investors recognize that health care is the wave of the future. So, there are successes. They are always built around attracting people. ... If you can't attract great people, you're not going to be successful.

How do you feel the transformation plans are going?

Well, we had a few glitches about a year ago, and people were upset ... but by and large, the implementation continues and saved us a lot of money, and now we are looking at a budget redesign ... that I think will incentivize units to provide more seats for teaching and to reward appropriately those scholars who are really performing at a high level.

There's been criticism of the transformation process—that while it's important to you to attract quality faculty, you may have lost many minority faculty members, especially women.

This is a major concern. If you look at the numbers, you find that minority faculty percentages held basically constant the last 10 years. The numbers have gone up overall, but the percentage has held constant—and that is really unacceptable, particularly where we are in the Southwest. If we were in northern Minnesota, it might be harder to attract a diverse population, but we have a diverse population (here)—so what are we doing right, and what are we doing wrong? Part of it is paying competitive salaries. These are incredibly talented people, and they go wherever they want. So when Harvard trots out an offer, or UT-Austin, or one of the California schools, it's very hard to compete if we are paying 75 to 80 percent of that salary.

You say, "Well, just pay them that same salary," but that destroys the salary structure in that department, which is already too low. Part of it, too, is aggregating a critical mass of scholars, so people feel they have kindred spirits they can work with, and that's really a key. So, we are looking at a lot of these issues. I'm in total agreement that we need to do a lot more. It's an interesting contrast to the diversity of the student body; we've been highly successful in that regard.

An unexpected challenge has been the passage of SB 1070.

Oh, yes, and it will continue to be.

There is a student/faculty group that is disappointed that you haven't taken a stronger stand to reject it outright and help them create a sanctuary campus.

I'm a child of the late '60s, in college when the Vietnam War was going on, and I saw the effects both positive and negative of the massive demonstrations—people who protested violently, and people who protested in an appropriate way, willing to stand up and in some cases go to jail for their convictions. The student body president of my school (Stanford University), Dave Harris, was married to Joan Baez for a number of years; he was a good example of this.

So when it comes to SB 1070, we've taken the tact of working with legislators and the governor behind the scenes. I have issued a number of statements pointing out that this institution will comply with the law. Some people don't like my saying that, but we will do so in a way that continues to make this university welcoming and hospitable to international students of all backgrounds, because that's the lifeblood of any great research institution.

As you can see in the courts, there are different ways of handling it, so we are going to be living with this for quite a while. Really, in addition to whatever parts of 1070 are finally found to be legal, the real damage is to the state of Arizona: A number of conferences have cancelled, (and) a number of universities in Mexico have broken liaisons with us. Some faculty have even given that as the excuse for pulling out of recruitment and going elsewhere, so it's the image that is going to have a long effect on us in the end.

About the push of focusing on the UA as a research center: How do you feel about grumblings that this effort deters from undergraduate education?

Well, I think people set up a false premise: That you can either do research, or you can teach, but you can't do both. What you find overwhelmingly at this university and the universities where I've been is that the very best researchers are very often superb teachers. It doesn't mean they are the only superb teachers. ... You're bringing in new knowledge, and they are bringing it into the classroom.

We have an obligation as a public land-grant university to do the highest level of research scholarship on topics that are important to the people of Arizona, the people of the Southwest, the people of the country, hemisphere and so forth. ... That's a different obligation than, say, a four-year liberal-arts college. ... Higher education may be one U.S. entity that is still admired worldwide, and part of the reason is that there are so many different options.

Some people will flourish in a small school that has 300 kids per class—freshman, sophomore, junior, senior class—but has limited opportunities. Some will flourish in a big university that has all these opportunities: No matter how far they go as undergraduates, (students) are not going to outstrip what is available to them here, but they have to be sure they can navigate their way in a big university. So our job, and I think we've been doing a very good job of this—not me, but others—is to create living learning groups, to create special organizations ... where students of any kind of interest get involved in smaller groups and feed those passions.

Now, the challenges we have right now in terms of quality education are two-fold. One is making sure the classes don't grow too big. Some things, you can teach in large classes, and some things, you can't. You can't teach introductory French, Spanish or Italian in a class of 80. You can't teach writing or composition, but some big lectures work. ... Secondly, we have to offer enough classes so students can graduate, and they don't get frustrated and fall behind in their major. We're doing better at that, but there still are some bottlenecks. Last year, I'm fond of noting, last fall and spring semester, students enrolled in more credit hours per student than ever before.

Do you think UA employees may have to go through furloughs again this year or next year?

We don't anticipate having furloughs beyond the ones we (already) implemented this year, and the only reason we implemented them this year was the (Arizona Board of) Regents said we had to take a one-time, temporary 2.75 percent reduction in the component of our state budget that goes to salaries and benefits.

My view of furloughs is that they don't solve your core problem: Your reoccurring dollars are out of sync with your reoccurring costs. Furloughs are a one-time, temporary help. You have to make hard decisions to get your recurring budgets in line, and we've done that. The reason we went to furloughs this time is because (furloughs) matched this one-time mandate by the regents. I don't like furloughs. I think it's almost a form of punishment to people who are working really hard. The only good thing we can say about the furlough plan is that once the whole year was planned, (furloughed employees) could take one hour per pay period and spread it out, and we kept (furloughs) pretty low.

The start of the new school year reminds a lot of your neighbors that student housing is an issue. How do you address being a good neighbor?

This class should be a little bit larger than the previous class by a few points, but our growth is going to be very slow. We are looking at close to 38,000 students this fall, but we are looking at—I wouldn't use the word cap, but we're looking at approaching some kind of limit of 40,000 students on this campus, or just a little bit over.

Then we are working to absorb additional growth as demand occurs through this alternative pathways plan that Mike Proctor (dean of the UA Outreach College) is leading, where we're having more and more courses online, and we're having classes offered in Chandler in engineering; in Yuma ... and we are growing UA South with Cochise Community College, and (pursuing) other areas of growth that do not burden the central campus—because we are land-locked.

We need to be good neighbors. Like I tell people, even if we have differences or get frustrated, every morning when we wake up, we're all still there, so we'd better figure this out.

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