From the head down: UA's Robbins' fishy budget talk saves own keister — for now

The University of Arizona’s new finance guy provoked more questions than he answered this week during a lackluster effort to explain the school’s budget problems.

And if you don’t understand, it’s my fault because I’m left still wondering if there is a problem at all.

Frankly, I’m having a hard time believing a word that comes out of the mouths of Arizona Board of Regents Chair Fred DuVal, UA President Robert Robbins and John Arnold, the interim vice president of business affairs and chief financial officer.

They all seem to be practicing disinformation as a way to gripe about misinformation.

In fact, Arnold complained “there has been sooo much misinformation in the public and in the media ” about the budget mess. Robbins said the same thing back in December.

This wasn’t long after Robbins sent UA spokesman Nick Prevenas to clarify that the media mistakenly reported former UA Vice President for Business Affairs and CFO Lisa Rulney had resigned her post and then was rehired as a senior advisor at her same salary. None of that is true, see? She was resigned her position and then was hired as senior advisor. That’s a tacky little parsing of the prefix “re.” If she resigned her position, she ended her employment. When they then named her as an advisor, they hired her for the job.

Any confusion could have been helped if the Robbins announced her new position when he said she was leaving her old one. Also, in the statement he made about the switch, he said “we wish her well” as if she was heading to a farm upstate to play with the other CFO’s.

Did she even change desks?

But they’re all set to blame the media for the confusion that UA honchos are creating about their own budget mess.

I suppose it’s also our fault that we at the Tucson Sentinel have been waiting nearly 18 months for a reply to a public records request relating to the on-campus shooting death of Prof. Thomas Meixner back in 2022.

This is their “transparency” in the age of Robbins, and he blames us for the information we provide when he won’t lift a finger to provide clarity or transparency.

So let me put this plain as you call me the problem: “Fluff off! Frank you! (and the magic spreadsheet you rode in on)” Better yet. Ride out how ever you choose. Let Spirit Airlines move Robbins right back to Texas.

The Board of Regents will hold a special meeting Thursday, where they will meet behind closed doors to discuss the Robbins “assignment.” Perhaps they will provide him those travel tickets and the UA will get a new top guy. Or maybe he’ll get a raise.

Either way, he can save his indignation over misinformation when doing next-to-nothing to answer the most basic questions about this so-called budget crisis. All anyone knows for certain is that it’s bad enough for Robbins to fire Rulney and UA Athletic Director Dave Heeke but not so bad (yet) for the Arizona Board of Regents to fire him. 

I have been trying for months to get anyone at the UA to answer a single question about the budget and it’s been crickets. Other reporters have the same complaint.

The plan looks a lot like the intention is to create and exploit confusion.

So now I’m forced to wonder: What are they hiding?

How about the seven deadliest words in today’s culture? “What don’t they want you to know?”

We do know this “crisis” is leading to a rollback of academic freedom that leads to the kind of inquiry making the human race smarter. It appears the leadership is pushing for a more “entrepreneurial” style of budgeting where the rich get richer and the poor get squeezed. That can work out great for the world-leading Astronomy Department because it generates a ton of grants. The Math Department doesn’t so it can suffer.

Without math, there’s really no point to astronomy, now, is there?

Please, explain how I’m wrong. I’m begging you (I’m at [email protected], university folks). UA leadership says they are being transparent but they’re being the opposite.

A 15-minute mini-press avail isn’t enough time to explain what the hell is going on at the university. Good God, it’s taken Arnold 3 months to figure it out and he still says he wants another half-year. How are we supposed to be brought up to speed in 15 minutes after an hour of the same-old same-old?

Robbins and Arnold seems to be OK with “screwing the press” when it suits them but they are actually screwing the readers and viewers (along with students and staff and taxpayers and the foundations that provide so many grants). In the absence of contrary information, my readers give more credit to what I tell them.

So away we go…

Simple questions

I have questions and not eight-seconds-in-a-press-conference-style questions. They require detail and follow-up.

I’ll throw out a couple easy ones: The UA must carry a 140-day cash reserve. Is that on restricted dollars or unrestricted dollars? Why it matters: Restricted funds are grants from places like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. These grants add up to about a billion dollars.

Good work on the faculty for going out and getting those grants. However, if $1 billion in grants requires $380 million in cash reserves, that’s a problem. The grant can’t be held in a university-wide reserve like tuition can. So for every dollar in outside grants the UA raises, it must find 38 cents in reserves from other money meant to pay for philosophy courses and air conditioning in dorm rooms.

That makes absolutely no sense but, apparently, it’s ABOR policy.

Is this the case? The sound of crickets rubbing their wings together…

Here’s another one.

At first, the UA had enough for 128 days of cash reserves and that was all hands on deck. Then a couple weeks later it was a $240 million deficit with 105 days of cash on hand. Now, the deficit is down to $177 million and the cash on hand has shrunk to 70 days.

How?

Hear the hoot owl?

Neither of these should be hard questions or be confused with confrontation. Help. Us. Understand.

Clearly, our confusion works for Robbins, Arnold and even DuVal.

Deficits: More than a state of mind

A quick recap: UA higher-ups accuse departments that are spending more than they take in of running deficits. Except it isn’t.

Splurging from a savings account may mean that someone’s annual spending is more than their income. It doesn’t mean they are in deficit if they aren’t tying themselves to new long-term obligations they can’t afford.

But here comes a big reorg and more power to the UA president anyway.

In November, the UA admitted to spending down reserves right after Robbins arrived in 2017 and the UA had 172 days cash on hand. After Robbins wrote some big checks, the reserve was down to 132 days in 2020 – eight below the magic threshold set by the regents. Funny. No crisis then.

The reserve jumped back to 173 days.

When Robbins arrived, he immediately started spending down those cash reserves on his grand vision and strategic plan. Cash on hand fell three straight years. That wasn’t a deficit? No. It wasn’t. That’s why they had a strategic reserve.

People save money so that when they need a new clutch, they can pay for it. It’s not part of their regular budget.

Arnold went through the spending in a bit more detail during a faculty leadership meeting on Monday but but even that was totally fuzzy.

Of the 81 campus budget units (academic departments, divisions, athletics and other morsels that spend money), 61 spent more then they took in. That doesn’t tell anyone anything under the administration’s definition of red ink.

For the umpteenth time, it is not necessarily a problem that academic units have their own reserves. Reserves exist so more can be spent than is taken in.

And Arnold said basically, “my God, I wish I had another six months to dig into the numbers.” If he needs six months to figure out the numbers, how do we know they aren’t going to move again?

Why would it take six months to figure that stuff out? Why has it taken six weeks?

The UA budget people know they don’t need to FOIA their employees, right? They don’t have to send a records request to their lawyers. The bossmen and women can just say “sit your keister in my office at 7:45 in the morning and bring your ledger with you.”

I’ve been over budget line items. It doesn’t take that long.

They could knock out 100 departments in two weeks at 10 a day, an hour apiece if they use GrubHub.

“OK, Gus doesn’t get to go to Davos next year. You’re in the black.” OR “Yeah, you are going to have to fire Olga, Jay and Hisham. Your department doesn’t have the money to pay them.”

If they can’t detail that in a month, then they all need to go.

What’s more, Robbins backed Rulney in November when she described the UA’s money problem as something administrators always knew was going to happen. The UA invested heavily in a strategic plan, which is another way of saying they needed to make the school more attractive for research dollars. That cost money. They spent it. 

Now it’s a giant cluster-what-have-you and we’re supposed to believe that because they say so, while providing no supporting documents.

No way does the Tucson City Council or the Pima County Board of Supervisors allow such a lack of granular detail about blown budget. Nope. Republican Supervisor Steve Christy would be spitting nails. Hell, Councilmember Steve Kozachik can’t shut up about the UA’s mess and he hasn’t worked there in years.

Oversight has never really been the Board of Regents’ thing. They’ve always been more into the drinks and dinner afterward the meeting and congratulating the presidents on how awesome they are, which is another way of saying the regents are doing a great job because the presidents work for them.

Both look like year kings (or queens) flung into a volcano so the “great leader” can buy some time after a couple lousy harvests. If Robbins makes a show of firing other people he is less likely to be fired himself.

Model of failure

Arnold appeared to blame Rulney for using different accounting models. There was an “incremental model,” a “Resource Centered Management” model and a “Activity Based” model. All are standard university accounting models. In fact, D.C.-area consultant Hanover Research suggests universities might want to try a mix. 

No, Mr. Arnold, it’s not necessarily as convoluted as you insinuate that multiple models were used. Robbins himself suggested getting rid of the Resource model after being told to do so by Arizona State University President Michael Crow. So if Rulney lost her job, why does Robbins still have one?

I got one for you Mr. Arnold: Seems when you ran Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget office, you left the state with a $1.5 billion deficit, forcing draconian cuts.

Yet you got a promotion of sorts to run the Arizona Board of Regents and a salary of $275,000 per year plus bonuses. How did he get that gig and how does he get Rulney’s? What’s the difference between John Arnold and Lisa Rulney? And why are we listening to the former and putting the latter into exile?

‘Deep state’ rules

I need to step in for a second in defense of the Deep State.

Every president would love to have their campus departments respond to every directive with an eager “yes sir/ma’am.”

However, since Crow took over ASU, the UA has had five presidents eager to make their mark by pretending the previous incumbent was stupid. A new direction averaging every four years would give the campus community a nasty case of whiplash.

Academic units plodding along in this environment do so as a matter of survival, which involves ignoring the whimsical barks of Big Dog.

Dirty old men

Now, I am going to be fantastically gracious when I just want to keep mocking them for another 1,000 words. 

Higher education appears to be three exits beyond those dreaded buzz words “an inflection point.”

People don’t think college is important anymore. Arnold made that point and it’s kind of true. The Internet has allowed a lot of people to do their own research and that has lead us to a panoply of weird places. Pop stars rig Super Bowls, vaccines are tools for genocide, Tom Hanks is a lizard…

On the other hand, there are ways to learn online, which is why the UA bought Ashford University to provide classes through webinars.

Everything is changing in the modern workplace and technology is opening up all sorts of new opportunities, while old best practices are the ways of dinosaurs and columnists. 

An education has to be seen as worth the money (and worth the monthly loan payments) to continue to attract students.

Change comes slowly when the classic university model allows for maximum academic freedom, which can frustrate administrators tasked with being more nimble in the new world. Screw with the model too much and you can destroy everything a university experience has been.

It was Niccolo Machiavelli who said “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Robbins and Arnold are not.

The way to do this is to invite the media in with the budget people and go over the financial problems, answering questions. Then have Robbins pop in and say “We got a cash crunch, see. These are the units overspending. These are the units that aren’t. Here are the numbers. We’ll have a green eye-shade person standing by to answer questions.”

Then, if we get it wrong it’s on us. That’s almost certainly what the UA comms team told Robbins because it’s like telling a child to move away from a burner. It’s Crisis Management 101. Transparency turns a crisis into a challenge.

Some changes are likely warranted and that is a worthy endeavor. Just be up-front about it. There’s a difference between helping the community understand and acting like that’s the plan. Arnold and Robbins haven’t mastered that yet.

That’s the generous interpretation. The cynic in me wonders if they aren’t coming clean because something’s dirty, someplace.