Winthrop's $50 fee less than anticipated, but more budget cuts likely

Krysten Sobus and Will Thompson, both sophomores from Charleston, work out in the weight room at the Lois Rhame West Center on Monday. The facility, below, has reduced its hours of operation because of state budget cuts.
Krysten Sobus and Will Thompson, both sophomores from Charleston, work out in the weight room at the Lois Rhame West Center on Monday. The facility, below, has reduced its hours of operation because of state budget cuts.

Like many of his classmates at Winthrop University, Chris Gibson was braced for bad news when an e-mail popped up on his computer screen last week.

But the message from President Anthony DiGiorgio turned out to be a relief. Though the school will cancel some elective courses, close buildings earlier and freeze some positions, the burden on students won't be as severe as many feared.

They'll have to pay a $50 fee for the spring semester to help Winthrop account for $3.4 million in state-mandated budget cuts.

"I'm not going to complain about a $50 tuition raise when they got their budget cut so significantly," said Gibson, a music education major from Fort Mill. "I figured it would be worse, for sure. Right now, $50, I'll live with it."

Taking a break from a game of ping-pong inside Dinkins Student Center, Gibson gave voice to a feeling shared by many. Interviews with more than a half-dozen students revealed a campus relieved to have escaped a major tuition hike -- but unsure of what's coming next.

After cutting $488 million last month, state lawmakers are expected to slice into the budget again in coming weeks. Budget experts project an additional $100 million shortfall.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, called it "very likely" that more cuts are on the way as the national economy sputters and tax revenues continue to decline.

"We haven't hit bottom yet," said Hayes, a member of the education committee. "I think furloughs and some very difficult things may have to be considered before we're through."

Some colleges already have resorted to furloughs. At Clemson University, every employee will have to take five unpaid days off between December and June. The furloughs apply to professors, coaches, deans and even President Jim Barker.

Winthrop found other ways to trim $3.4 million from its budget. The $50 fee accounts for 6 percent of that amount, with the remaining portion reached through internal changes. Among them closing some buildings earlier to save on utility costs. For instance, the Lois Rhame West Center gym and weight room will now close at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays.

The changes create new burdens for professors who will be asked to teach larger classes and give up nonclassroom time to take on extra duties. But there's a bit of relief for them, too: no layoffs or furloughs, a prospect that had worried faculty members in recent weeks.

"I'm not hearing a lot of complaining," said sociology professor Jennifer Solomon. "I think people understood it had to be done. And we're pretty satisfied with the way it's been handled."

Solomon added: "A lot of people are just glad they have jobs."

Using soda to spin fee

In presenting the fee to students, administrators sought to head off a backlash by spinning $50 as a "modest" amount. They termed it a "state appropriation reduction adjustment" that equals less than 48 cents a day for the semester.

"It's less than the price of a soda a day," DiGiorgio noted.

Soda prices aside, many students credited DiGiorgio for making it a point to keep them notified well before the cuts came down. The president sent out five lengthy e-mails over the course of the semester, each updating the budget situation.

"The impact on all of higher education is expected to be especially deep," he wrote in a recent message.

Given the urgency of DiGiorgio's missives, many students feared the tuition hike would reach at least $500.

"When you've been warned about paying $500 for two months and all of a sudden you find out it's $50, that's a huge relief," said freshman Eddie Szeman, a member of the Council of Student Leaders.

"I'm actually really happy with how it turned out."

In his most recent announcement, DiGiorgio warned the school could be forced to make more cuts. That means the toughest decisions might have yet to be made.

-- Matt Garfield

Winthrop will eliminate or scale back a range of areas in response to state-mandated budget cuts. They include:

• Limiting travel

• Canceling this spring's "Create Carolina" arts festival

• Canceling Winthrop's co-sponsorship of the annual "Shrinkdown" regional weight loss campaign

• Holding a number of staff and faculty vacancies open

• Increasing some class sizes to decrease the number of sections offered

• Closing some buildings earlier, including the Lois Rhame West Center

• Offering some elective and upper-level courses less frequently