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CEDAR CITY — Citing a cut to its upcoming budget related to Utah budget shortfalls, Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt informed the university’s faculty last week that he will forgo his salary for the next year in an effort to thwart dozens of potential layoffs.
His announcement to staff on May 8 came less than a month after he promised during a campus forum to cut his salary before any layoffs would happen. After learning that the university would lose at least $5 million of its budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, it became clear that the school would likely have to lay off employees, which account for about 87% of its budget.
The university was also embracing an additional 2-10% cut of state appropriations amid economic impacts from COVID-19; in all, the letter said the university would "be fortunate" to see nothing more than a 15% cut.
"I mentioned during our April 16th virtual forum that I would be the first layoff. Meaning, I will go without a salary if layoffs become necessary. They are now necessary and I am holding to that commitment," Wyatt wrote to staff in an email obtained by KSL.com on Friday. "I have had others reach out to me with offers to help with a temporary salary reduction, early retirement, or willingness to take on additional responsibilities. Everything will help."
Wyatt is the highest-paid employee at the university. KSL NewsRadio reported in 2018 that his base salary was $274,000 that year.
Wyatt told KSL.com on Friday that other members of SUU’s presidential cabinet and faculty with the ability to do so have also committed to pay reductions as well. He expected that his salary alone would be enough to save about three jobs. SUU leaders were still sifting through the school's 2021 fiscal year budget Friday and it’s unclear how many people may be laid off if layoffs do happen. The university is expecting good enrollment numbers in the fall, which may help lessen the blow, he added.
His letter came two days after state legislators were informed that Utah could experience a $2 billion revenue shortfall due to the pandemic, which may lead to a 10% budget cut before the fiscal year begins. Cutbacks and possibly even layoffs are something other state universities will likely have to look at as the Utah legislature makes cuts to higher education funding amid budget shortfalls, Wyatt said. He added that he believed state leaders were working well with SUU in securing the most funding possible.
The Deseret News reported Friday that other state higher education entities were preparing for losses in revenue related to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
“One of the things that we know will go along with these plans (to reopen) is our institutions are getting hit hard financially through this COVID-19. Obviously we did receive some CARES Act money, but it’s not going to be near enough to cover the expenses and the lost revenue from our institutions," Interim Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Woostenhulme told the newspaper. "As we start to ramp up testing on campuses and so forth, we will be asking ... the governor’s office for some resources to help provide that testing as well as the contact tracing on the campuses."
In SUU’s case, the university did receive $5.6 million from the federal CARES Act that was passed earlier this year; by law, at least 50% of that money will go toward students as determined by the federal government. University leaders said they didn't expect that funding to solve the budget situation. Wyatt is the first college president in the state to pledge to work without a salary to help budget problems.
With the risk of COVID-19 likely still in existence at the start of the 2020 fall semester, Wyatt said the university is hoping to make it so that students "wouldn’t even know" there was a budget shortfall caused by the pandemic. Among other plans, the university will add cameras in most classrooms for remote learning and have students who attend class in person sit with at least 6 feet of separation. It wasn't exactly clear what the budget cuts will mean for tuition.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Utah Summer Games also held at the campus were canceled earlier this week, which delivered a summer revenue blow. Wyatt explained that they tried to continue shows with fewer audience members who would sit 6 feet apart but couldn’t get the actors to come in for those shows.
SUU's athletics department suffered a blow because it receives a big check from the Big Sky Conference as a part of the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, which were both canceled in March, Wyatt said. As some schools have resorted to cutting programs, he added he’s expecting budget cuts in athletics but unclear what those would be.
While he will take a year without pay, Wyatt said he's grateful to be in a position where he can live without a year’s worth of salary, especially as the economic impact of the pandemic has hit his neighbors in Cedar City.
"The financial challenges we face today, along with so many other people and businesses in our community, and around the world, will be over within a year or two," he wrote staff members, adding that he had experience working through the 2008 recession. "We came out stronger then and will again."