By Kevin Loker, C2M Executive Editor

Thanks to a safety net of savings, George Mason University can worry a little less when it comes to the immediate impact of the state’s financial crisis on university operations, and the resulting monetary blows to its students and faculty.

A little less, and only for now.

Senior Vice President Morrie Scherrens told a packed room of faculty and administrators at a budget forum last week that rather than furlough Mason employees for one day — a move that seemed more than likely at last month’s forum — the university instead planned to absorb the $900,000 blow of the state-imposed furlough.

“Oh, very good,” said one faculty member as the room, not expecting the announcement, burst into applause.

Despite the $5.6 million hit the university took at the end of the legislative session, units and departments will not receive any additional budget cuts this fiscal year, and the cost of the move will be covered by a level of savings that Scherrens says the university had hoped to use if matters had gotten better later in the fiscal year.

“We positioned ourselves so if the budget did not deteriorate beyond our projections, we could provide some additional funding to our highest unfunded priorities,” said Scherrens in an e-mail correspondence after the forum. “It was our decision to defer making these departmental allocations this year and to treat avoidance of the furlough as our highest priority.”

Money will come, however, from cuts to the equipment trust fund eminent scholar fund, earned interest and maintenance reserve.

“I’m sure we’ve made the right decision . . . but it’s a tradeoff,” said Scherrens at the forum, maintaining that the absorption of the furlough meant positions may stay unfilled, class sizes may be larger and that some of the largest projects across campus may temporarily go unaddressed.

“The message is it’s not because we had it laying around . . . It’s important to understand it was a difficult choice,” said Scherrens.

Out-of-state students dodged a bullet as well. The final legislation from the General Assembly had imposed a $5 per-credit-hour fee on out-of-state students, and in a move similar to the furlough decision, the university decided to additionally treat the $600,000 cost of the charge as another budget cut.

But students will still feel a pinch. While originally projected to be higher, summer tuition will rise 8 percent for in-state students and 6 percent for out-of-state students, an increase that Scherrens said would likely “be very consistent” with the increases for the fall.

Most concerns, however, lay beyond fiscal year 2010.

“The worst single piece of news out of the budget for 2011 is that the state is not providing any additional contribution for student financial aid,” said Provost Peter Stearns, who led the forum alongside Scherrens.

Stearns said the administration regrets the lack of state funding for students with financial need, and emphasized the importance of philanthropically based giving in the university’s future.

“Although we can’t [currently] resolve [the state’s lack of contribution to financial aid ], we do want to recognize it,” said Stearns.

State contribution to the operating budget has declined to about 28 percent. In fiscal year 2012, more state funds will be cut, and $19 million in federal stimulus funds will disappear.

“Our highest priority in the interim is student financial aid,” said Stearns. “Don’t like the fall, [but] it looks worse for [fiscal year 20]12.”