Bennett asks for $5 million funding bump for USI | POLL

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— The University of Southern Indiana is asking for an extra $5 million in funding for each of the next two years – and state lawmakers sound willing to listen.


University president Linda Bennett delivered a 40-minute presentation on Thursday to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will take the leading role in drafting Indiana’s next two-year budget.


She told the panel that among Indiana’s four-year universities, USI has the lowest tuition rates and gets the least state funding per student.


As a result, she said, it is “quite frankly is facing very serious challenges in moving ahead” without more financial support than the $42.2 million that the General Assembly sent the university as general operating revenue in 2011 and 2012.


“The spirit is good, but the strain is showing,” Bennett said.


Republicans on the panel said they would like to give Bennett what she asked them for.


“The state has seen a need to increase your funding,” said Rep. Tom Dermody of LaPorte, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee’s higher education subcommittee.


“We are recognizing that an adjustment needs to be made,” Dermody said. “It’s time for an increase.”


Now that the state has weathered the worst of the recession, lawmakers are preparing to draft a new budget with extra cash to spend. Many are pointing to K-12 and higher education as areas that could see increased funding.


Teresa Lubbers, the state’s higher education commissioner, said in a speech Wednesday night that lawmakers should loosen the purse strings for universities.


In 2011 and 2012, lawmakers handed Indiana’s four-year universities an average of $7,562 per full-time student. However, USI got $4,586 per student – the least in the state, and the reason Bennett said it’s time for an “equity adjustment.”


She said USI was Indiana’s only university in that group that could not give faculty members a raise this year, and that without extra money, the university can’t recruit the full-time professors necessary to keep students on campus through graduation.


Bennett said the university hired advisers to help guide students through their courses for two of its four colleges this year, and plans to do the same for the remaining two colleges this fall – if lawmakers provide the funding she requested.


And, she said, USI’s professors carry a teaching load of about 12 credit hours per semester, or four three-hour courses. That, she said, is more than their peers at other universities.


“The combined impact of our lower tuition with the level of funding is that we were the only public university in the state of Indiana that could not offer a permanent salary increase to our employees for this year,” Bennett said.


“You add that to the overload on teaching and the strain, and you really do have a challenge for our institution. I have to say, it concerns us in terms of retention and it concerns us in recruitment.”


USI is also asking for $18 million to upgrade three buildings on campus and another $2.7 million for general repair costs. Those projects have the backing of the Commission for Higher Education.

Firm answers likely won’t come until April, when lawmakers receive an updated projection of how many tax dollars Indiana is likely to collect over the next two years, and then finalize their new budget before adjourning by the month’s end.

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