Lawmakers question UConn’s spending $3.9 million to cut costs

Some state lawmakers are questioning why the University of Connecticut needs to spend almost $4 million on a consulting firm to tell it where to cut costs.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester and co-chairwoman of the state’s Higher Education Committee, said she will urge Governor-elect Dan Malloy to suspend the study.

“I think as soon as he gets into office he should do everything he can to stop this. It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Handley said there are lower-cost alternatives, including UConn’s own budget office and possibly its public administration or business schools. The university also could wait for the results of a study of its finances planned by the Program Review and Investigations Committee, expected to begin at the start of next year.

The UConn Board of Trustee voted last week to hire McKinsey and Company of Washington, D.C. to help reduce the school’s $1.03 billion budget. UConn officials said they anticipate major cuts in state funding as lawmakers work to close a multi-billion dollar deficit. UConn is expected to receive $332 million from the state for the current fiscal year.

“Maybe [UConn] can start saving by not spending $3.9 million on this. They are spending money with no guarantee they will save that much,” Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, said Monday.

But Lawrence D. McHugh, president of the UConn Board of Trustees, said the $3.9 million is going to be spent well. UConn officials are expecting McKinsey to identify $50 million in potential savings.

“You have to bring in outside people in to do an A to Z look. … There’s too many people that want to protect what they have now,” he said.

Michael Kirk, a spokesman for UConn, echoed that sentiment.

“When it comes down to it, thoroughly reviewing everything is a huge undertaking,” Kirk said. “Even if it were possible for us to take this on, it would leave time for nothing else.”

Kirk said universities around the country have had similar reviews done by outside firms.

“This is not unusual,” he said.

UConn faculty, administration and trustees did study ways to cut costs in 2008. Their recommendations, which Kirk said were eventually implemented, will save UConn $10 million over two years. Some of those savings are one-time and other will be recurring, Kirk said.

“We have to save a lot more than that the way our finances might look,” McHugh said.

Kirk also said asking UConn business or public administration school faculty to take on the task is unreasonable.

“Their expertise doesn’t match what the university needs here,” he said, adding they may not be “willing or able” to complete such a review.

Jonathan Pelto, a Mansfield political consultant and former strategist for the Connecticut Democratic Party, isn’t buying that argument.

“UConn has experts in this field,” he said. “UConn used to be the one universities would hire for this type of work… UConn has a world renowned school of business.”

Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford and co-chairwoman of the PRI committee, said recently staff from her committee will review potential savings in UConn’s budget early in 2011. The committee staff is currently reviewing Connecticut State University for potential savings.

Not all lawmakers object to UConn’s decision to hire McKinsey. Rep. Pam Z. Sawyer, R-Bolton and the ranking minority leading on the Higher Education Committee, said the move seems expensive but could pay off.

“The cost is a little surprising. But by hiring an outside firm, you take the politics out where UConn probably should be making cuts,” she said. “Someone coming in and evaluating your system can be very beneficial.”

Sawyer said waiting PRI staff to undertake its study is not an acceptable alternative, nor one that will take the politics out of cutting UConn’s budget.

“The state moves at a snail’s pace, she said. “It’s good to have outside eyes look at this.”

But Pelto said just because UConn administrators may not have the political courage to suggest major cuts, doesn’t justify this expense.

“It’s inconceivable to me that they can’t come up with ways to be more efficient,” he said. “I think the administrators are dropping their responsibilities on someone else. They need to show they have the willingness to do this.