The State Board of Regents began Friday the painful task of finding ways to stamp what one regent called "smaller but better" on Utah's system of higher education.

But in comments made during breaks in the meeting, several only half-heartedly joked that a more appropriate description might be funerary.Fiscal analysts predict that higher-education revenues in the next 6 years will fall short of expenditures by about $85.7 million or $12-13 million annually - even if the tax-limitation measures fail. In an effort to face the financial crisis before it overwhelms higher education, the regents are looking for what they call "creative responses" to the gloomy financial future.

Possibilities mentioned at Friday's meeting held at Utah State University suggest that creativity could translate into dramatic changes for the Utah college student of the 1990s.

Suggestions included a new building freeze at Utah's nine colleges and universities; more afternoon and evening classes and increased emphasis on summer school; tuition pricing so the students in more expensive programs such as engineering would pay more for their education; the merger of one or more of the system's smaller colleges; larger class sizes; elimination or reduction of intercollegiate athletics; restriction of course offerings so that programs at some schools might be cut; and the elimination of the duplication between courses offered at the area vocational centers and in higher education.

Summing up how the regents must balance the cuts in the financial forecast, regent Ian Cummings said, "We have to put a size 12 foot into a size 10 shoe."

Cummings said the result would be to shrink the statewide system. He hopes, however, the outcome will be the same access and quality so that higher education is "smaller but better."

University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson stressed that the results of the changes should not be misconstrued as savings for any reason, or the result of existing fat in the system now. "These (cuts) will be a dilution of services for the protection of more important services. The state will have less."

No action was taken on the suggestions, but the regents directed its staff and the college presidents to explore the possibilities and bring them back for discussion at future meetings.

Again and again, the regents, staff and college presidents stressed that these proposed cuts are necessary to meet the revenue shortfalls in the long-term financial picture, and they're not related to the tax-rollback issue. Passage of the tax-limitation initiative would heap an additional $34 million on top of the $87.5 million shortfall.

"We'd be faced with more than double the disaster," said regent chairman W. Eugene Hansen.

Peterson expressed concern that the public might confuse the two financial issues. "It would be like saying you've got four hostages and you're going to shoot them, but if the tax rollback passes, you're going to shoot six. I'm not sure that the (public) reaction would be any different."

In throwing out possible suggestions, regent Cummings suggested lining up course offerings and eliminating duplication between schools. "Somehow we have to find the statesman to look and see if there are any savings in there. My feeling is there are tremendous savings."

Peterson said he doesn't believe the college presidents would be against concentrating course offerings beyond a core curriculum at the school that excelled in that area. He said it would be especially appealing if the institution could pour the savings into other needed areas.

Utah State University President Stanford Cazier agreed. "It was done in 1969, and it can be done again," he said.

He also suggested increasing building use by adding more evening, afternoon and summer classes, while Cummings recommended an absolute freeze on the construction of any new buildings.

Regent Elva Barnes talked about having larger class sizes as is occurring in public education, but said she is worried about any move that would limit access to higher education.

On tuition and fees, Cummings questioned if they should be uniform for students on all levels. He said perhaps students in more expensive programs should be paying more.

Calling it "tremendously wasteful," Cummings also questioned the duplication of services between the area vocational centers that are operated in the realm of public education by the state Board of Education and the system of higher education.

College of Eastern Utah President Michael Petersen wanted the list to include whether intercollegiate athletics should be subsidized at the expense of academics.

Commissioner of Higher Education Wm. Rolfe Kerr said of the $12 million that is budgeted for intercollegiate athletics, $3 million comes from state appropriations.

Saying no one even dares suggest the closing of a school, Cummings said he wants to explore the merger of some schools. He suggested Southern Utah State College and Dixie College could merge, as could Snow College and the College of Eastern Utah.

"OK, if you're going to suggest that, let's look at Weber and Logan, it's the same distance," said Dixie President Douglas Alder.

Richard L. White, Snow College academic vice president, said that reducing colleges in rural Utah would create serious access problems for many of the state's rural residents.