TAMPA — University of South Florida students sent a groggy but strong message to administrators Friday morning: Spending cuts may be a necessary evil, but don’t mess with our all-nighters.
About 75 students gathered outside the main library on the Tampa campus around midnight Thursday to protest a reduction in what had been around-the-clock hours at the main library. Many stayed the entire night, with blankets, laptops, power strips and study materials in what the organizer called a “sit-out.”
“I’m a 2 a.m. studier,” said Melissa Garzon, a sophomore sociology major who publicized the event largely through social media. “Not every day, but you are going to have those days when you’re at the library a little longer, or you’re going to have to study at night because there’s too many things to do during the day.”
The library had been open on what was called a “24/5” schedule – around the clock Monday through Friday. This semester, the hours were reduced to 7:30 a.m. to midnight.
The cuts are part of a USF strategy to catch up its reserves after years of budget-cutting by the state Legislature. The university took a particularly severe hit in 2012, when lawmakers slashed $300 million from state universities, including $40 million at USF.
Administrators are reigning in cash spending — money not allocated for a specific purpose. It has reduced travel, marketing, and non-critical maintenance, while asking faculty to carry a heavier teaching load to save the money spent on adjunct instructors.
In a July letter to the USF community, President Judy Genshaft put a hold on all faculty and staff vacancies, with rare exceptions.
“There are some very serious cuts under way,” said Thomas Miller, USF’s interim vice president for student affairs. “I don’t think we’re in a position where there’s a lot of fat in this (USF) budget. Some of the reductions we’re going to have to take are going to be noticed.”
USF’s reserves pot reached as much as $216 million in 2011. But the fund now stands at $125 million, and that puts the university’s excellent bond rating in jeopardy.
Moody’s Investor Service, one of the top ratings agencies, gave USF a coveted Aa2 rating in 2011. That rank is up for reconsideration in 2014. In January, Moody’s announced that its 2013 outlook “for the entire U.S. higher education sector is negative, including the market-leading, research-driven colleges and universities.”
That has USF scrambling to rebuild the reserve pot. It needs a strong bond rating to handle major construction projects affordably. The school has spent $1 billion on construction in the last decade.
The library move will save $135,000 a year, the university said.
The savings comes at a cost in study habits. Some 500 to 600 students use the library after midnight every night, with those ranks swelling to more than 1,000 during mid-term and final exams. In just days, protesters gathered more than 1,400 signatures on a petition to maintain the hours.
One potential solution would be to tap into student activities and services fees to cover the cost of staffing the building around the clock. USF’s student government, which sits on the $14 million pot the student-paid fees support, objects to using that money for core academic purposes it believes the university should be funding.
But the library has only been an around-the-clock operation for a little over two years, and Miller said that move was made because of student demand.
Miller and student body president William Warmke have been discussing ways to settle the dilemma. The USF administrator offered an optimistic take on the talks, saying he expected an “agreement in spirit” soon.
Warmke, however, pointed out that the university’s Education and General fund stands at about $200 million, while his Activities and Services budget is $14 million. He wants to see a detailed accounting of university spending.
“It’s ironic that they’re coming for a smaller pot when that much funding is there,” Warmke said Friday.