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Murray State President on Homecoming, Diversity, Pensions, Budgeting

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Dr. Bob Davies, Murray State University
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Murray State University is gearing up for autumn Homecoming celebrations. Matt Markgraf speaks with President Bob Davies on Sounds Good about some of the highlights, planning for proposed pension reform and budgetary pressures, a recent lecture on diversity, health services considerations and faculty accomplishments.

Davies said some of the highlights for Homecoming include the parade, class reunions, Tent City, the Murray State News 90 year celebration and the ribbon-cutting for the new engineering and physics building. See the homecoming schedule.

Diversity

Of the recent diversity lecture with Dr. Damon Williams of the Boys and Girls Club of America, Davies said the drive to bring Williams to speak on campus was generated out of the 'marketplace of ideas' concept, put forth in part to address and contextualize how national issues affect Murray State's campus community. Davies outlined how the university is including diversity in decision-making - for instance in the hiring process of 27 current open positions. Davies said, referencing Williams' books, that diversity, inclusion and equity in higher education means not only protecting under-represented populations, but setting a standard for academic excellence by investing in preparing students to compete and communicate on the global market.

"And I took that phrase very seriously but I also added to it especially in light of the environment we are in now. Yes, we expect our graduates in our university to compete and communicate in the global marketplace -- at the same time we want to collaborate. So: compete, collaborate and communicate within the global marketplace. And if we are expecting our students to be able to do that upon graduation we ourselves must embrace and further our culture of equity, diversity and inclusion and ensure that the marketplace of ideas is open to everyone," Davies said.

While a new hire may not represent a "diverse nature," he said, the question is: "are they going to - through their research, through their teaching and through their service - advance a culture of equity diversity and inclusion? That's the key part."

Pension Announcement

Governor Matt Bevin and other state leaders unveiled highlights this week for proposed pension reform, an attempt to fix the states beleaguered pension systems. Davies said he appreciates the administration for taking on the difficult issue. He said while pensions are only one element of the budget, it is the "driving factor" of the budgeting process. He said the highlights put forward thus far offer some light, but doesn't answer all of the questions. He said as the bill comes out and is deliberated on in the legislature, the process may involve changes and clarifications. He said moving employees from defined benefit to defined contribution over time is in line with a trend across the country.

Budgetary Planning

In a recent letter to the campus community, Davies offered reassurance regarding pension reform planning and other budgetary issue. In it, he said the university is planning now for the next several fiscal years.

Davies said the university faces several cost drivers, not unlike other universities, including investing in new technologies (for example, keeping the engineering and physics laboratories up to date). One of the major cost-drivers now, he said, is the pension system - where 10 years ago a payment was roughly 12 cents for every dollar - it has since escalated to 49 cents of every dollar. Murray State's Board of Regents in June budgeted for the FY18 employer contribution to be an estimated $13.5 million. 

Davies said changes may depend on the outcome of the special session expected this fall, but considerations are being made for nearly 85 cents of every dollar being spent on pensions. This doesn't include health insurance benefits and other benefits associated with a wage-dollar. The pension increase, he said, would represent $4.7 million in additional expenditures for the university. He noted a past proposal in the state legislature for cuts to higher education and Murray State's portion was around $4.5 million. He said while this current change wouldn't necessarily be a "cut" it would amount to more than what was proposed then as a reduction.

Part of the planning process involves a review of academic and administrative programs with a rubric that includes of each program a brief history, enrollments, outcomes, internal and external demand and future prospects and other factors. "This is just one tool in the overall process," he stressed. For administrative programs, considerations include how the program recruits, retains and graduates students; whether the initial goals of the unit have met expectation; how the unit could be enhanced and whether it could be merged with others. Davies said this type of work should continue "even in good budgetary times" to ensure efforts remain relevant.

While an overview of the proposed pension plan has been unveiled, specific outcomes of a special session where the measure would be voted on are still unknown, as are outcomes of the regular session in January, which may further impact the budget. Given that Kentucky is expected to have a budget shortfall this year, Davies said he predicts there will be a decrease in the budget, but remains optimistic in the state's investment in higher ed.

"I'm very optimistic but at the same time I think just looking at and hearing everything that's going on that the decrease in budget is an operating funds for Murray State and all of the universities is highly likely," he said.

In preparation for this, he and colleagues from other universities are making a request to have a portion of, or all of, potential pension increases offset by an appropriation. This is followed by capital asset preservation. "We're not looking for a new building and we're not looking to renovate a building just to make it pretty or shinier, we're talking about basic needs." Davies has discussed in past conversations, as well as the Board of Regents, address infrastructure needs like the electrical grid and plumbing.

As for what lies ahead, Davies said he understands the ambiguity. "I live with it every day," he said. He stressed the importance of increasing enrollment -- increasing efforts to reach the surrounding 18-county region and beyond. He noted visiting classrooms and highlighting teachers who are often Murray State alums.

"We cannot control the fact that there is a declining number of students in our immediate 18 county region. We can control how we respond to that by not only being more aggressive and increasing our market share but also expanding the market, being more aggressive out of the state. We need to be thinking about some ways to enhance our online programs," he said, adding that not every decision is a matter of 'cost-cutting' but also a 'thinking outside of the box.'

Health Services

One of the considerations to streamline operations has been to outsource health services, which he said is not due to any issue with the quality of the current program, but an evaluation of what the university can offer given fiscal pressures. The program costs around $529,000 annually. Davies said many universities outsource this program, for instance Western Kentucky University, which offers services to community members (in addition to students, faculty and staff). He said the Health Services Committee put together a detailed RFP, but through responses and feedback determined that the RFP was too specific and will be re-issuing with fewer details. He noted health services costs never go down, so keeping the current allocation of $529,000 may result in fewer services, where outsourcing could offer an opportunity to enhance service.

Davies reflected on a recent conversation with a faculty member about various issues: "At the end, his eyes lit up and he said, 'you know it kind of reminds me of the old phrase that they had in England. It was Keep Calm and Carry On.' And I said, 'absolutely, but I would change one word. I would say, Keep Calm and Racer On.'"

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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