The spring 2021 semester is coming to a close, and Murray State University President Bob Jackson said lifting the outdoor mask mandate on campus is the first of many benchmarks in working toward a more ‘normal’ campus life for Fall 2021. During an interview with WKMS News, Jackson also detailed considerations for the potential tuition increase recently approved by the Murray State Board of Regents.
Jackson said the Murray State Board of Regents will discuss in detail the next fiscal year’s budget, and the tuition/fees increase. The board approved an up-to-1% increase.
Jackson noted there’s no recommended increase in housing fees. He said the increase in dining fees are contractually set by Sodexo who manages Racer Dining, and attributed that partnership with MSU’s ability to provide “nationally-branded restaurants” such as Starbucks, Steak N Shake and Chick-fil-A on campus. He noted those offerings contribute to recruitment and retention efforts.
Regarding allocation of funds, Jackson said the university has many needs including deferred maintenance and asset preservation projects. He noted the ongoing project at Lovett Auditorium, which he said “is one of the most important buildings on the Murray State University campus.” He said the building, which is more than 90 years old, is typically used daily by multiple departments as part of the educational mission and welcomed nationally- and internationally-recognized speakers.
Jackson also noted the need for maintenance at “arguably the most important building to our students and prospective students”: the Curris Center.
“From a recruiting and retention standpoint, when a new student comes to visit Murray State University, they arrive there. It’s the first place they walk into and it’s the last place they see when they’re leaving,” he said.
One more major area for investment, Jackson said, is the university’s employees. He said the budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes a cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase which will benefit the lower-paid faculty and staff more than those who receive higher pay. He noted the current fiscal year budget (which ends June 30) didn’t allow for a COLA, and the year before allowed for a 1% increase. He also noted there’s been no benefits cost increases passed along to employees.
“You’ll see a COLA recommendation of raises to investing in our people, somewhere between 1.25% all the way up to about 3.5%, as well,” he explained. “So we’re investing in people, we’re investing in teaching and learning, and we’re investing in our assets that we’re entrusted with.”
Looking down the road at the next 30 years of budgets will require thoughtfulness, Jackson said, as the university manages increasing pension contributions and simultaneously navigates inflationary increases such as building supplies during ongoing maintenance and renovation projects. He noted the recently-passed House Bill 8 (HB8) allows the university one more year to prepare for increased rates.
Jackson explained the university’s contribution will increase from about 49% to about 99%, which equates to an increase from $4 million annually to $8 million annually. But HB8 only calls for the university to pay half of that additional contribution to the state pension system for years two through five—which results in an additional $2 million annually for those years.
“Our overall budget is about $140 million. Obviously, in an environment where there’s no new revenue, or very little new revenue, $2 million is a lot. And that’s on top of all the other costs and inflationary increases that we have to nimbly work through,” he said. “Crafting a budget in the middle of a pandemic, and now toward the end of a pandemic is not easy. So we’re looking at the impact of enrollments of our students and prospective students, that creates about a 71% impact on our budget. That’s important.”
Jackson said crafting budgets with the plethora of considerations is “not easy.”
“It’s a credit to Vice President [of Finance and Administrative Services] Jackie Dudley and the budget staff of this university and many of our deans, our chairs, our faculty, our staff, Provost Tim Todd, I could go on and on. But the administrators of this institution fully understand the importance of what we’re dealing with and have helped us work through this in a very careful manner,” he added.
In a move toward a more “normal” campus life, MSU is just a week away hosting its first in-person commencement ceremonies since 2019.
“We have a lot of happy graduates,” Jackson said. “We’re going to have four different commencement ceremonies, the first on Friday night for masters and doctoral level students. And on Saturday, we have three commencement ceremonies in order to keep capacity down, crowds down so we adhere to guidelines, state and national. Everyone’s looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to it. Virtual commencements are just not the same.”
Looking forward into the summer semester and upcoming fall semester, Jackson said the university is “making great progress” in working toward the benchmarks which relieve COVID-19 restrictions. He noted the university is able to do so, in great part, because of the campus community’s adherence to the Racer Safe and Healthy Guidelines. He said as the positive case counts continue to decline and more people get vaccinated in working toward herd immunity, the university will be able to lift restrictions in line with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and state government lifting health mandates.
“When you look at Murray State University compared to our peers, we’ve done quite well and I’m proud of that. A lot of people have worked very, very hard to make that a reality,” he said. “I think the fall will look a whole lot like fall 2019, and not anything like fall 2020.”