After just two weeks at the helm of Utah Valley Community College, new President Kerry D. Romesburg already has the answer to the state's budgeting woes.
"Find oil!" said the former executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. But just in case there is no sudden discovery of more petroleum reserves, Romesburg added, Utahns had better think twice before voting this fall for three proposed tax-limitation initiatives.While head of Alaska's system of higher education, a post he held for 13 years, Romesburg saw higher education take a beating when 38 percent of its funding was cut over three years because of dropping oil prices. Dwindling education dollars cost the state some of its best senior faculty members, ravaged entire education departments and led to the closing of Alaska's 10 community colleges.
The skills he gained from having to weather Alaska's budget-cutting storm could come in handy should taxpayers approve tax limitation, Romesburg said.
But he hopes he won't have to draw on that experience.
"I have made those types of tough decisions before," said Romesburg, 43.
"But I hope I don't have to use the skills and experience gained in Alaska here in Utah."
While Alaskans had no control over the external forces that drastically reduced the state's budget, the fate of Utah's education system is in the hands of voters, Romesburg said.
Romesburg denies that Alaska's funding woes prompted him to seek another job or that he regrets accepting his new post in light of the impact tax cuts could have on his ability to lead UVCC. "I was not looking to leave."
Rather, he said, he wanted to return to the human side of education: working closely with students and faculty.
If the proposed tax initiatives pass, government revenue is projected to be reduced between 6 and 13 percent. That figure is but a fraction of Alaska's reduction, but "I don't think Utah will be much different than what happened with the 38 percent reduction in Alaska," Romesburg said.
In the wake of cuts in Alaska, he said, higher-education officials had to make many poor education choices that contributed to a 100 percent faculty turnover two consecutive years and will require at least a decade to mitigate.
If the tax initiatives pass, he said, Utahns could expect a massive exodus of faculty members, who already make 19.3 percent less than their Western peers.
Educational quality would suffer, he said, and the state's secondary-education students would be shortchanged.
Because enrollment would have to be curtailed, "We'd have to find a way to discriminate" against college applicants. Perhaps most disheartening to Romesburg would be his inability to move UVCC toward what he sees as its increasingly vital role in Utah's future.
"Progress would just come to a standstill, and everyone would just tread water," he said. "We would just be holding on."
Romesburg said one of his greatest challenges while at UVCC will be striking a balance between meeting students' general-education needs and preserving the college's primary mission of providing vocational-technical training. Because increasing numbers of UVCC students are interested only in general studies, the college could easily save money by cutting technical programs, he said.
"I won't do that," Romesburg pledged. Rather, he plans to place increased emphasis on vocational education and on working closely with local high schools and organizations like the Utah Valley Economic Development Association and the Commission for Economic Development in Orem.
"This (college) is a resource for the state," he said, because of its ability to train students for high-paying technical jobs available now and in the future. "We can play a vital . . . role in the economic development of this region."
UVCC, given the chance, can help prepare Utah Valley's work force for high-paying jobs and attract industries interested in trained workers, not cheap labor.
Romesburg said another challenge he faces is lessening UVCC's heavy reliance on part-time faculty. Part-time faculty members often are highly motivated and bring a fresh perspective to their classrooms, but they don't serve on faculty committees and don't have ample opportunities to provide needed input.
"I'm just delighted with the faculty we have. But how long we can hold onto them I don't know."
The solution to the challenges UVCC faces is increased funding, not decreased funding, Romesburg said. But even if the tax initiatives fail, UVCC still faces an uphill funding battle.
Any strategic planning the new president develops for the future, he said, "would go out the window" should the initiatives pass. Romesburg said his efforts to attract more vocational-education students would be frustrated because funding cuts would decrease UVCC's ability to train more students.
"I hope I have an opportunity to shape what this campus means to Utah Valley and the state," he said. "If the tax initiatives pass, all of this changes in terms of what we can and can't do because it becomes what we have to do in terms of survival."
Regardless of the battles that lie ahead, he said, serving as UVCC president "is going to accomplish for me what I want in life now."
Romesburg is pleased his new post has given him increased contact with students and educators. That interaction, he said, has helped him feel at home after only two weeks in Utah.
"This is just a wonderful place. The people are fantastic," he said. "It's a great place to live."
If Romesburg has his way, UVCC will play a bigger future role in making Utah an even better place to live.