“Failure of leadership.” “Financial mismanagement.” “How dare you?”

Anger and mistrust filled the room as furious faculty, students and staff addressed the Arizona Board of Regents Thursday, calling for accountability and oversight amid a financial crisis so deep that University of Arizona President Robert Robbins has warned of “draconian” cuts.

Speakers at the regularly scheduled regents meeting in Tucson asked why they hadn’t fired UA executives responsible for sideswiping the community with little notice that the university is nearly a quarter billion dollars short of financial projections. They asked why students and faculty should pay the price for mismanagement — slashing financial aid, hiring and pay freezes, raiding scholarship funds and other deep cuts.

About 150 people filled the room during the meeting, which was open to the public.

Robbins, wearing a dotted red tie and sitting next to regents, faced the crowd looking somber. He delivered a presentation at the meeting — the fiscal year 2024 State of the University.

In his speech, Robbins spoke about advancing student achievement, research and diversity. Investments in those areas “came at a price,” he said.

However, he did not directly address the university’s current financial crisis or cuts. And despite widespread demands for oversight, the regents did not ask any questions of Robbins about the problems at UA.

After the speech, Regent Larry Penley told Robbins he hopes investments will pay off in economic development for Arizonans.

Sara Kandel, the administrative vice president of the UA student government association, said Arizona is watching a “failure of leadership” at the highest ranks unfold at the university. “We demand a thorough explanation,” she added.

Theodore Downing is a research professor of social development and a faculty senate member. Downing said he was speaking for accountability as a former state legislator.

“Should the Board of Regents of Arizona be elected?” he demanded.

ASUA President Alyssa Sanchez speaks to the Board of Regents at their meeting on the University of Arizona campus on Nov. 16, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Alyssa Sanchez, UA’s first Latina student body president lambasted university leadership: “How is a team of people able to make a $240 million mistake and stay employed?”

Sanchez said financial stress significantly affects minority groups disproportionately and that outlandish spending on new construction comes with operations costs.

While one student spoke, a chant grew throughout the room: “How dare you?”

Phyllis Brodsky is a professor of practice at the University Center for Assessment, Teaching and Technology. She scanned the regents and Robbins sitting before the public and told them to pay attention.

“I am giving you all a minute just to make sure you’re looking up here, not on phones. As I would for a student,” she said, raising her eyebrows and adding that she was speaking on behalf of herself and other UA employees who are planning retirement after working and saving for decades.

“Your decisions won’t affect us for the next year or two. It will literally affect us for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Robbins only briefly addressed UA financial woes before starting his speech.

“Obviously, we’ve heard a lot about our financial challenges … I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of our shared governance partners — faculty, staff and students — who have been working with us over the last three weeks, seemingly every day all day, to address a plan going forward that is due to you on Dec. 15,” he said.

Robbins did not address a wave of questions about misspending from the public in recent weeks and at the meeting.

“So this is not the time for me to go through and describe all the issues with our financial challenges, but I thought I would look at where we’ve made investments,” he said.

Robbins geared his presentation towards highlighting the school’s achievements in reaching its “strategic investment” goals. Money for these expenditures, he said, often came from the strategic investment fund, which is from the university’s reserves, the source of the current financial shortfall of cash on-hand.

Miranda Lopez, Southern Arizona regional director of the Arizona Students’ Association, holds a sign at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting in Tucson on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

In early November, UA officials told the Board of Regents that they had significantly less in their reserves than the regent-mandated minimum of 140 days worth of cash on hand. The shortage equated to $240 million — over three times the more than $79 million the school made in 2023.

That shortfall has left the UA with only 97 days of cash on hand, versus the 156 days that had been projected and far from the regents’ requirement of at least 140 days.

Though quiet about the UA’s dire financial outlook, the board unanimously passed an initiative that would eliminate course fees and reduce the number of mandatory program fees for UA graduate and undergraduate students.

Arizona Luminaria asked Fred DuVal, Board of Regents chair, for a comment following the meeting. He directed the reporter to call his office. DuVal is a member of the board’s audit and risk management committee.

Miranda Lopez, Southern Arizona regional director of the Arizona Students’ ‘Association, held a sign at a rally in the back of the room. In all caps and black and red ink her message scorned UA leaders’ recently-revealed budget shortfall: “Please return if found — Missing: $250 million.”

Gov. Katie Hobbs has recently criticized the board and called for more information about how UA leadership allowed a financial crisis with little notice for state workers and students. However, she has not responded to questions about whether Robbins should be fired.

“I’m certainly concerned about this coming to light now and the potential lack of oversight by ABOR,” Hobbs said at an event on Monday, according to reports by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. “It’s something that we’re looking into. This is a problem, and it certainly should have come to light sooner.”

She warned against UA leadership placing the burden of financial problems on students.

“I think it’s important that we make college as accessible as possible for Arizonans,” she said.  “I don’t think (cutting) financial aid should be the answer.”

Hobbs and Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, are ex-officio regents members, each serving while they hold office. Hobbs did not attend Thursday’s meeting. Horne did.

Tom Horne, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction listens to a member of the public during the call to the audience potion of the board of regents meeting in Tucson on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

UA faculty: Road to financial crisis paved with mismanagement

Outraged faculty members who have analyzed and spoken publicly about UA misspending told Arizona Luminaria on Tuesday that they are now weighing whether an outside auditor should investigate financial mismanagement.

Arizona Luminaria has asked the Board of Regents about their auditing process and the Audit and Risk Management Committee’s responsibilities, and were only told that the state conducts yearly audits on the university. However, there is a regents committee that focuses on “oversight of financial reporting, internal controls and compliance, risk assessments, and internal and external audits,” according to the board’s website.

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Faculty members have criticized financial misspending that includes university administration diverting money from what is essentially the school’s reserves to pay for expenses that were destined to fail — like loaning an estimated $54 million to the school’s athletics department at the height of the pandemic.

Critics also have raised questions about UA leaders purchasing Ashford University, a for-profit online college that has come under fire from the U.S. Department of Education, against the advice of the UA’s own business college.

Gary Rhoades, the director of the Educational Leadership and Policy Program at the UA and a member of the United Campus Workers of Arizona, told Arizona Luminaria on Tuesday that the university’s administration is making staff, faculty and students pay for their financial missteps.

Rhoades is part of a new seven-person action group called the General Faculty Financial Recalibration Committee, which seeks to restructure the university’s spending.

“Essentially, they’ve had a blank check. And they’ve overspent,” Rhoades said. Still, he believes this is a wake-up call and there is a way forward.

“I think this kind of inflection point makes it possible that we can, like this committee is named, recalibrate,” he said.

Dianna Náñez and Irene McKisson contributed to this article.

Editor’s note: Arizona Luminaria’s team includes University of Arizona student journalism interns and adjuncts. One Arizona Luminaria contributor is a UA employee.

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Carolina Cuellar is a bilingual journalist based in Tucson covering South Arizona. Previously she reported on border and immigration issues in the Rio Grande Valley for Texas Public Radio. She has an M.S....

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.