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Budget cuts prompt new round of buyouts at University of North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—A segment of the University of North Dakota employees received a buyout invitation Wednesday to voluntarily resign their posts or "phase down" their workload.

The university announced a series of limited-time voluntary separation programs aimed at reducing staffing costs in light of expected state funding cuts for higher education. The window to submit an application for a buyout opened Jan. 18. Employees who meet eligibility criteria may now apply until Feb. 15.

Both faculty and staff members are included in the program offerings, all of which are described in UND informational guides as intended to reduce staffing costs such as salary, benefits and wages as well as to "redirect the allocation and appointment of positions" to better meet the needs of the university mission.

This won't be the first time UND has used buyout programs to reduce spending.

The university rolled out buyouts last year to help accommodate a 4 percent budget cut by former Gov. Jack Dalrymple for the 2015-17 biennium. By the time the application window closed, 15 percent of eligible staff members and 11 percent of eligible faculty had applied for a buyout.

Pat Hanson, UND director of human resources, said 52 staff members and 18 faculty ended up being granted and accepting buyouts in the first round of program offerings. The majority of those employees left their positions on June 30, though there were a few exceptions based on program needs.

Though much of the buyout structure is the same as it was then, this second round will target a broader section of the UND workforce.

The most basic qualifier for an applicant this time is the "Rule of 65," a number which must be met by the sum of an employee's age plus years of benefited employment in the North Dakota University System. For last year's buyouts, that magic number was 70.

"We dropped it five years," said Hanson of the rule, "just to get a bigger group that would be eligible and to give the employees the opportunity to take advantage of this program."

Benefited employees in good standing with UND who meet the numeric criteria may be excluded from eligibility on other grounds. That category would include rehired retirees, as well as workers who submitted notice of resignation prior to the buyout program announcement.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university didn't have any kind of benchmarks in mind for reducing the level of faculty and staff with the latest round of buyouts. Johnson did say the program format presented an option that is "good for the employees and the institution."

"It's one of the tools that's being used to sort through the budget scenarios," he said. "It feels like it's a logical tool, and it gives staff and faculty an opportunity to think through their situations a little bit."

As many buyouts as possible

In addition to cutting costs and redirecting resources, the buyouts are also described by program guidelines as intended to "minimize the scope and/or number of involuntary terminations."

UND "anticipates approving as many applications as possible," the guidelines state, though it will use discretion to limit approvals to maintain the integrity of programs and services, as well as financial resources.

Johnson said the factors that might lead to a rejected buyout application are specific to the individual areas on campus.

In many cases, he said it "boils down to the need to have a position continue" due to a specific employee's knowledge or skill set. In some instances, Johnson said, UND might have a contractual obligation to maintain certain staffing levels in a unit or department.

When an application for a buyout is delivered, it is first reviewed by UND's Office of Human Resources to verify adherence to the rule of 65. For each eligible application from faculty or staff, the office would then notify the respective department leaders and deans. Those leaders would then determine if the applicant's resignation through a buyout program would cause undue impact on their academic area.

Hanson said the process is overseen by vice presidents and department chairs to determine the actual cost savings and needs to reorganize that might be prompted by an employee departure.

If the application is approved, she said a buyout agreement would be written for the employee, who would then have 45 days to consider it before signing on. After signing, employees would have a full week to change their minds.

Beside the expansion of eligible participants, Hanson said the buyout program offerings are largely the same as they were last year. Tenured faculty could have a choice of one of two programs: the Tenured Faculty Phased Retirement Program and the Tenured Faculty Voluntary Separation Incentive Program. Nontenured staff members would have a single buyout called a Staff Voluntary Separation Incentive Program.

Phased retirements would allow employees to reduce their workload over a period as long as two academic years before voluntarily leaving their position entirely.

Hanson added that—at least so far—she hasn't heard a lot of questions about the programs from faculty and staff, who she said were familiar with the concept from last year.

"There's maybe a surprise we're doing it again," she said, "but the phone calls I've been getting, they're seeing if it's the same. There isn't a lot of anxiety about it this year like it was last year, because it was so new then."

Hanson anticipated more questions in the days to come, particularly from the expanded group of employees included by the eligibility shift to the rule of 65.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers county, health and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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