Colleges cut back on inaugural festivities

The installation of a new college president brings less pomp in these days of budget cuts

Mysteriously missing from the mailed invitation to the inaugural of Robert Bruininks as 15th president of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus was the stately gold-foil regents' seal.

And, if any amateur sleuths checked, they might also have noticed that the invitations were printed on lighter-weight paper and had fewer pages than in the past.

Then, too, there were the recycled decorations that popped up repeatedly during the inaugural celebrations.

Academic ceremonialists beware: State budget cuts are getting so tough that even the traditional pomp, circumstance, and filigree of installing a new university president - a key rite in the life of a university - is quickly morphing into a no-frills occasion.

At places like Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, Southwest Texas State University, and others among the seven public university presidents whose inaugurations the American Council on Education lists for this year, the grip on the inaugural budget is white-fisted.

In fact, it almost seems a badge of honor to hold a bare-bones inaugural these days.

To make sure that its cost-nipping nuances were not overlooked, the University of Minnesota website gives a financial breakdown of the cost of Mr. Bruininks' inauguration: $103,160 - cheaper than each of the three presidents before him and about $82,000 less than his predecessor in 1997.

That's quite a contrast to the unrestrained 1990s, when gilded-lily celebrations for incoming university presidents often featured week-long academic discussions with paid speakers flown in from around the country, sit-down dinners, and elaborate decorations and receptions.

Instead, the public college presidents of the 21st century are starting out on a modest note.

With hefty tuition hikes and budget cuts slamming public higher education, colleges seem acutely aware the climate is not good for flashy shindigs right now. Many have taken steps to ensure that their inaugurals remain relatively subdued affairs.

Consider one extreme: Western Oregon University, where new president Philip Conn agreed to nix his own inauguration. No speech. No reception. Nada.

Jim Adams, the university's director of public relations, notes that a combination of looming staff cuts, tuition hikes, and state budget cuts were a triple whammy.

"We just elected not to have one because the perception would not have been positive," Mr. Adams says. "Even if it had been funded entirely with private dollars, it still wouldn't have looked good."

While a few other public universities say they, too, flirted with dumping the inaugural celebrations, several instead resorted to cheap-chic alternatives - although "cheap" is not the word anyone is using publicly.

Consider the University of Michigan, where Mary Sue Coleman was recently inducted as the institution's 13th president. The school is facing a $36 million budget cut.

There was never any doubt about an inaugural, but there was concern about how it would be perceived - as well as its overall cost.

So instead of cut flowers, the potted gold-and-blue flowers on stage during the inaugural were moved from festivity to festivity this spring. The formal buffet dinner got the axe, in favor of a less costly chicken-and-rice luncheon buffet to feed visiting dignitaries.

At the luncheon, instead of a centerpiece of flowers, each table featured a dessert spread. Instead of a big reception after the inauguration, there was a modest personal reception for far fewer people back at Dr. Coleman's home. One university official estimates the cost at between $100,000 and $150,000.

"We wouldn't want anyone to characterize it as a ceremony on the cheap," says spokeswoman Julie Peterson. "It's a balance between wanting to have tradition and to appropriately honor the incoming president, and at the same time to be conscious of not wanting to be extravagant."

Judith McLaughlin, a Harvard expert on new presidents, agrees. She says the pageant of installing a new president is simply too important to the life of a public university to be dropped.

"For colleges and universities, presidential inaugurations serve both as rites of passage and pep rallies. They serve to bring constituencies together for celebration of the past and hopefulness for the future; they can be especially important occasions for institutions besieged by financial and political pressures."

Still, notes Ms. McLaughlin, the importance of the event doesn't necessarily align with the dollars spent. Inaugural ceremonies "don't need to be expensive or extravagant affairs to be meaningful for participants," she says.

Such were the sentiments at Rutgers University, which on April 13 inaugurated its 19th president, Richard McCormick. With budget cuts looming, he, too, entertained the idea of dropping his own inauguration. He was persuaded it was too important, though, and decided instead on a bare-bones inauguration, says spokesman Mark Maben.

The traditional sit-down dinner was dropped, along with a big community reception. But the ceremony itself was still full of pomp and colorful robes, as well as Dr. McCormick's speech laying out his vision for the university. Instead of commissioning music, a Rutgers professor wrote a piece, and instead of hiring outside talent, students performed. The décor was kept simple.

"Everyone at the inauguration got a small souvenir bag with a scarlet 'R' on it, cookies, and bottle of water," Mr. Maben says.

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