UC-Davis cuts worsen

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Dec 01, 2009

Davis, Calif.— Already grappling with the loss of $7 million in state funding over the last two years and another $3.5 million next year, the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (UC-Davis) now is trying to head off an attempt by the state to privatize the veterinary medicine program.

The suggestion to privatize came from the state department of finance in the governor's office, says UC-Davis Dean Bennie Osburn, and would not only affect the veterinary college. There are rumblings at high levels of state government that California leaders would like to privatize all of the 15 health science schools in the University of California (UC) system.

"If that happens, it's going to have a huge negative impact, and we're at the point right now that just this year, they're saying we need to eliminate 15 state-funded faculty positions," he says.

University of California budgets have been reduced as a whole by $1.4 billion over the last two years, adds Osburn, explaining that there is very little discretionary income available for higher education in California, which is in the midst of an economic crisis.

The university's human medicine schools would not be hurt so much by privatization, even though they get about 65 percent of their budget from the state, because they also generate $600 million to $800 million in income, Osburn says. Additionally, third parties, like health-insurance companies, could supplement their revenue.

Lawmakers may believe new pet health-insurance businesses could do the same for the veterinary college, but that's not the case, Osburn says.

"They might think that may be a possibility, but we're not anywhere close to having the multiple health-care systems and support that the human medicine side has," he says.

UC-Davis has a $153 million budget and gets about $32 million per year from the state. Privatization would halt all state funding.

Back in 1992, the school eliminated 18 positions due to state cuts. Another 15 will present new challenges. More staff and program cuts, temporary pay cuts and administrative restructuring all are possibilities to deal with the funding loss. The university also has ordered 10 to 26 mandatory furlough days for employees, including seven campus closure days. The veterinary college consolidated personnel, reduced animal colonies, lowered supply expenses, held off on filling 12 vacant positions, raised student tuition and fees, closed its Pet Loss Support Hotline, eliminated the Veterinary Graduate Academic Program and merged Graduate Group Administration to help reduce costs, but more will have to be done.

"We're going to have to generate revenue from other sources like research programs and grants, endowed chairs and service-related activism and other services," says Osburn, who has proposed new income through equine stem cell treatment services and a possible nutrition surveillance program called Center For Pet Care, in partnership with Mars Inc.

"I think it's also going to require restructuring in the way funding comes to a university," Osburn says.

The veterinary school now charges about $26,000 per year in student tuition, but most of that goes to the university system, which puts the money back into non-veterinary undergraduate programs, Osburn says. Only about 12 percent of veterinary schools' tuition comes back to the program, he adds.

Though the suggestion of privatization has not been made public by state leaders, Osburn says he knows the threat is real and went to the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) for help.

"I haven't seen it come out publicly, but we don't want it to come out without having our voice in there," says CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker.

CVMA has issued an action alert to its members, asking them to send letters to their representatives against the idea of privatization.

"I don't know the details, but we don't think any privatization would be a good idea," Fenstermaker says. "It is the only vet school in the UC system and needs the state to support it. Aside from privatization, the funding levels could not continue to drop like this."

The CVMA asked veterinarians to send copies of the letters they are mailing to representatives, and Fenstermaker says many letters are coming in each day.

"We work closely with CVMA, and they've been very supportive, and we're really appreciative of all their efforts on our behalf," Osburn says.