KU to lift pandemic-induced hiring freeze; administrators offer more positive financial outlook

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For one of the first times since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the University of Kansas campus and upended higher education, KU leaders on Wednesday were able to offer promising — if still reserved — news about the university’s financial outlook.

Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, CFO Jeff DeWitt and Vice Provost for Finance Jason Hornberger announced in a campus message that budget cuts undertaken in recent years and some one-time state and federal funding related to the pandemic will allow KU to lift a strategic hiring freeze it implemented in April 2020.

The three leaders also said there wouldn’t be a need to lean on departmental reserve dollars — known in higher education as carryforward funds — in Fiscal Year 2022, a move which it had to take during the early days of the pandemic that were more financially tenuous.

KU, the leaders said, will use the lifted hiring freeze to “strategically reinvest in our faculty and staff” and would soon share more details with campus departments. Though the message didn’t detail exact specifics on any budget shortfalls moving forward, Bichelmeyer, DeWitt and Hornberger said they see a “clearer path toward a stronger KU and a more stable financial future.”

“We are committed to merit-based salary increases, competitive compensation and other activities that help each of us succeed in our work, feel more valued and further our shared institutional goals,” the message said. “We will create opportunities for campus leaders to provide incentives and a development-focused environment for our employees.”

The university is also undergoing a space utilization study to determine how to reduce the need for its off-campus leased spaces, as well as revamping its travel policies to continue planning for a more fiscally stable future. Enrollment trends for the fall semester, the message said, are currently holding flat from the fall 2020 semester — when enrollment dropped roughly 3% from pre-pandemic totals.

“If the enrollment, state appropriations and federal support assumptions upon which we’ve based our financial projections continue to hold, we have until June 30, 2023 to grow our revenues and decrease expenses to attain a structurally balanced budget,” Bichelmeyer, DeWitt and Hornberger said.

The message also asked KU community members for input and suggestions on ways to either reduce expenses or grow the university.

“Even if you are doing something on your own to improve processes, reduce expenses or create opportunities, document it on the form so it can be shared with others,” it said. “It may be the start of something bigger.”

Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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