Cutting At Universities March 10, 2009Posted by gordonwatts in politics, university.
The economy keeps getting worse. State governments are talking about huge cuts to Universities – 20% in one year, something I don’t think any large, healthy, university has had to absorb in the history of the USA. State governments are calling for the elimination of tenure – so they can fire tenured faculty. It is already getting crazy and it will only get worse until the economy finds a bottom – part of the panic that policy makers see is that they have no idea where it will fall to.
The American Physical Society produces a small rag which has a neat article by the father, Soren Sorensen of one of my former graduate students. He is chair of the physics department at Tennessee. They have a great deal of research funding there, similar to what we have here at UW, and also teach large introductory courses. The article is long – but if you are interested in this sort of thing he has a catalog of things they have tried to do to help their department.
So how do these budget cuts influence our physics department here at University of Tennessee? Profoundly! We now have 25.5 Full Time Equivalent faculty members in our department. This is two less than just a year ago, since we lost two positions as a result of the budget cuts in June. We have to go all the way back to around 1960 to find fewer faculty members in our department.
He goes on to list a few other things that have changed at their department and then notes:
This high efficiency, however, is coming at a cost. There is no more “slack” in the system in the form of professors who can teach more courses. If we have to implement additional budget cuts, we will have to cancel classes. This will result in much higher student dissatisfaction and, more importantly, longer graduation times for our majors, since many students will not be able to schedule the needed 15 credit hours each semester.
This is between a rock and a very hard place. This is because state legislatures get extremely angry when this sort of thing happens (reducing # of students admitted, etc.). Something is going to have to give. In a nice touch, Soren finishes up that bit of the article noting that is where they are now – the recent falls in the economy mean that things are actually going to get a fair amount worse. And, as he correctly points out, there are no contingency plans in place for these sorts of cuts. No one at a major university has ever faced something like this before. We can’t look to another university and see how they dealt with it, there aren’t books titled “how to cut a university by 20%”. This is complicated by the fact that the state isn’t the only source of funding – donations and endowments make up something like 60% of UW’s budget, the state is less than 40%. Those two revenue streams work in concert to make the university run, and they are being cut at different rates (sadly, the money from those two revenue streams has different colors – you can’t use one to make up for the other).
One option that has been floated in our state is to cut the amount of research we do and replace it with teaching. Apparently, Tennessee has (or is) being faced with similar suggestions:
… and 2/3 of our total budget consists of external research grants and contracts. So for a physics department it is vital also to maintain the emphasis on excellence in research and graduate education, and that is not an easy task in the current climate. Letters to the editor of our local newspapers or online comments to articles about our university give the impression that a large segment of the public (and therefore maybe also the politicians) considers research a nice hobby for the faculty, but nothing that should have any priority during a financial crisis.
Let me put it this way. Lets say my group get 1 million a year from the NSF to do research here at UW on particle physics. The university skims more than 400,000 off the top of that. So that 1 million is worth only 600,000 to me. This is called overhead (I’m making up the exact numbers, I have no idea what the average overhead is at large universities). So, if we are busy doing teaching and less research, we will get less money, which means the university has less of that 400,000 to play with – which is another budget cut. So increasing teaching isn’t a win-win game. Not to mention the fact this will drive many of the best people away.
There is no easy way out. Whatever happens it is going to hurt. Everyone is going to see it – students, graduate students, post-docs, lecturers, professors, staff. And, of course, the rate of science output. Good thing the country is already leading in innovation – we can coast for a few years. Oh, wait… Right. Back to work.