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University of Arizona's budget crisis just got more controversial in Tucson

It wasn’t too long ago that the University of Arizona found itself in a tough spot: President Robert Robbins announced to the Board of Regents and the public late last year that the school was facing an unprecedented $240 million budget shortfall that he attributed to financial miscalculation. 

Then, six weeks later, Robbins announced a plan to address the crisis — including the resignation of the school’s chief financial officer, Lisa Rulney. It was a nod to accountability at the highest levels of the schools’ administration. 

But, it turns out, her “resignation” didn’t mean she was out of a job. In fact, Caitlin Schmidt found that she’s still on staff at the UA — just in a new role — making the same salary. 

Schmidt broke the story Tuesday in the Tucson Agenda. She joined The Show to tell us more.

Full interview

So I want to begin with what you found here about the university's chief financial officer, where has she been reassigned?

CAITLIN SCHMIDT: She is working right now as the senior advisor for business operations. The tip that we received about her employment suggested that that was a newly created position, but the university did not respond to our question about that.

So when this announcement about her resignation was made alongside many other changes that the university suggested in terms of addressing this financial crisis, was there any nuance in it? Was it pretty clear, it seemed to everyone that she was leaving?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, it really did sound like that to us, to our colleagues in local media, presumably to the regents. President Robbins wished her well, which isn't usually something you say to someone that's sticking around on campus.

So let's back up for just a moment. And have you kind of remind us how the university got here, how this financial miscalculation to the tune of $240 million happened?

SCHMIDT: Yes. So they said that it was a, it was a failure by the prediction model and the software that they were using didn't, didn't offer much more explanation than that. Said that there had been some overspending by departments, talked about loaning a lot of money to the athletics department, but they really shocked it up to that prediction model failing.

So what have they said they're doing about it? Give us some details about that plan that they released not long ago.

SCHMIDT: They started with compensation freezes and hiring freezes. So a lot of employees on campus were set to receive raises that they had been long overdue for. Those are now on hold. There have been layoffs, we were told by the United Campus Workers of Arizona, although those have been quiet. But I have been told by people that cover athletics that there have not been any layoffs in athletics which we were told in December would be coming.

So you also spoke with many University of Arizona staffers yesterday after this story came out about the news, what did they have to say? Like, what's the feeling on campus about about this, this new kind of revelation?

SCHMIDT: Not good. No one is feeling really happy about how this went down. The chair of the Faculty Senate, I spoke to, Leila Hudson, said that it was a collective outrage from the people that she had spoken to. She used the phrase a kick in the teeth a few times. She said that they had been working really hard actually since last May, when they issued a vote of no confidence in President Robbins to rebuild trust, to show that they were willing to do their part, to make this a relationship that works. And they really feel as if that trust has been broken in light of this recent incident.

Let's talk about that vote of no confidence in what happened then. There were some parallels made it sounds like to how the university dealt with another major scandal, when hydrology professor Thomas Meixner was shot and killed on campus and there was a lot of outrage about that, especially among faculty, I know. What, what did they have to say about that? The comparison there, the trust that they were trying to rebuild.

SCHMIDT: So after, after all of that happened, the university took the steps of removing or having their senior vice president and Provost Liesl Folks step down. They also changed the police chief, but we have since learned that Liesl Folks does still work on campus. Faculty Senate was aware of this. She was moved to another vice president position, vice president for semiconductor strategy, and never really resigned as folks thought that she did. So the parallels here are pretty strong.

Leila Hudson told me that this appears to be a pattern. She, she mentioned some other employees that this had happened with, although said that personnel records really made it hard to get details on these kinds of things.

Do we know what the Faculty Senate may do next, in this case? Are there, are there calls for President Robert Robbins to sort of answer for this?

SCHMIDT: Absolutely. They had already requested an outside audit of the university finances. When I, when I spoke to Leila yesterday, they had been back on campus for 24 hours after break. So hadn't had a chance to make other plans, but she said there will be conversations about this with administration.

And any other response from the university, from the president about your story yesterday and about some of this, you know, ongoing, you know, it sounds like unrest among the faculty and staff?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, we didn't hear back from the university again yesterday. I also reached out to the executive director of the Arizona Board of Regents, John Arnold, who is serving as the interim CFO at UA to see if the regents were aware that Rulney was staying on, or if at the very least he had been consulted about this in his position as CFO, and I didn't hear back from him. I, I expect that administration will be getting some pressure from the other campus groups.

The president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council I spoke to yesterday was all so very unhappy. They will be requesting an external audit. And the United Campus Workers have been very vocal since the start of this about how the line level workers are really the ones being impacted by this. They're the ones that are losing their jobs and not the people that are making six figures. So they've already started a new social media campaign on Instagram, putting pressure on the president and I expect that we'll see more of that in coming weeks.

Sort of comparing what one of their workers might make to what some of these top level administrators make?

SCHMIDT: Yes. That, that one was running over winter break, and it was quite staggering. The one that really stood out to me was that the annual salary for, food service cook is $21,840 versus President Robbins $945,000 salary. So, there's, you know, there's some big discrepancies there.

But today their campaign featured zero days since last press embarrassment so they've taken a different approach this time.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.