Bruce Benson
Bruce Benson

DENVER –

It’s fair to question expenditures at the University of Colorado in these challenging economic times, as Jessica Peck Corry did in her recent opinion piece in the Colorado Daily (“Independent Ideas: Is CU the AIG of higher ed?”).

However, it would have been nice had she done so without resorting to outlandish claims (comparing CU salaries to AIG bonuses), suggesting that our budget approach should be “fire, ready, aim,” presenting data without context and getting facts wrong.

Corry claims “CU has shown no desire to or ability to responsibly cut spending.” In the same sentence she writes that we must cut $14 million over the next 15 months.

We have demonstrated ability with budget cuts, having had to cut some $70 million in the previous recession. We have been planning and making cuts for months in anticipation of sagging state revenues.

But it is prudent to know what we are up against before slashing away.

We believe we should proceed deliberately, looking at our budget over three months (the first wave of cuts), 15 months (the second wave) and 27 months. The state budget picture changes almost daily.

Just this week, it has changed three times. Higher education’s share of budget cuts almost doubled, and then we learned federal stimulus money may backfill a portion.

However, the stimulus money is one-time help. The $60 million estimated to be cut from all higher education reduces our base funding, ratcheting down the starting point for future budgets. Wherever the cuts end up, our guiding principle is to protect our academic and research enterprises, quality and access.

Corry claims “CU already receives nearly a billion dollars a year in taxpayer compensation” and writes that our budget is “nearly $3 billion today.”

Our taxpayer compensation (state appropriation) this year was $209 million, plus $18 million from the state’s tobacco settlement dedicated to health sciences programs, $70 million in capital construction money and about $21 million in financial aid (which passes through directly to our students), for a total of $318 million, not $1 billion.

CU’s total budget is $2.4 billion, not $3 billion. She is off by $682 million and $600 million, respectively, in one sentence.

She is correct about salaries, but her assertion that they are unreasonable lacks context.

While true that more than 2,000 of CU’s 15,000 full-time employees (we have 24,000 total) earn six-figure salaries, she fails to mention that more than half of those (1,133 of 2,088) are physicians, dentists and pharmacists who also teach at our Anschutz Medical Campus, many of whom earn far less than they could in private practice.

Further, only 5.4 percent (815) of the total are salaries funded by state appropriation (the rest are funded through research activity, private funding or clinical revenue).

Salaries at CU, from professor to president, consistently rank below those of national peers. Our administrative costs are nearly 25 percent below national averages. Tuition at each of CU’s campuses is also below national peer averages.

Additionally, CU commits more than $80 million in internally generated financial aid to ensure access for low-income Coloradans.

Corry writes that “at the Independence Institute, we requested to CU President Bruce Benson that the university consider implementation of salary cuts and freezes for its most highly paid employees. We eagerly await the university’s response.”

She may have forgotten that she already has my response. I answered her query twice in the past week (before her column ran), telling her that everything is on the table as we consider budget cuts, including salaries.

CU has frozen and cut positions, reduced travel and frozen salaries. We will continue cuts as we learn specifics of our budget situation.

But we will do so in a measured way, not by knee-jerk reactions.

P.S. — In the time it took to prepare this, the state budget picture has changed yet again.

Bruce D. Benson is president of the University of Colorado.