jump to navigation

Cutting At Universities March 10, 2009

Posted 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.



1. Andy - March 10, 2009

Recessions are like forest fires. They’re ugly and painful, but they clear out all the dead wood, all the old boring trees, and make for a rich soil. When we do come out of this recession, there’ll be a hiring BOOM – and only the best and brightest will be hired. In 10 (20?) years, universities (the strong ones which survive at least) will be stronger than they used to be. That goes for the rest of the economy and industry too. But it’s not fun.

2. Dave Bacon - March 10, 2009

I looked up the funding sources for UW because I wasn’t sure about your numbers 🙂 From http://www.washington.edu/admin/pb/home/opb-briefs.htm the funding for UW breaks down as

Educ Sales & Services 3%
Auxiliaries 4%
Gifts 5%
State Operating Funds 10%
Tuition Revenue 12%
Investment Income 13%
Patient Revenue 23%
Grants & Contracts 26%
State Capital Funding 2%
Other 2%

Patient Revenue looks to be balanced by medical expenses, so taking this out and renormalizing I get

Educ Sales & Services 4%
Auxiliaries 5%
Gifts 6%
State Operating Funds 13%
Tuition Revenue 16%
Investment Income 17%
Grants & Contracts 34%
State Capital Funding 3%
Other 3%

3. Aleksie - March 10, 2009

I hope that schools can weather the recession, but I’m not optimistic. From the rumor mill, it sounds like grad schools have no idea what to do with admissions, and they were really hit hard with applications this year.

I read an article recently re. undergrads; it sounds like admissions with them are just as crazy.

4. Gordon Watts - March 10, 2009

Andy – Some of that is true. It clearly isn’t toally true otherwise the recovery from a recession would be organic. Instead you usually seen a bounce – as you will for this one when it happens, i’m sure. The fact that there is enough fuel left to make things bounce means the recession was lower than it needed to be.

And you always loose some good people on the way down. The baby & bathwater argument. A recession is rather indiscriminent. For example, a top notch university — one of the good ones — made a mistake with its endowment. It’s endowment management doesn’t have a whole lot to do with its ability to do research or teach – but it won’t have anything to fall back on. You’ll loose something good. I could agrue it backwards and you keep something bad. Recession survival isn’t the right “figure of merit” for optimizing universities. IMHO. 🙂

5. Gordon Watts - March 10, 2009

Admissions are definately crazy. At UW we let almost no one in for this spring quarter because the state asked for a bunch of cash back. If the legislature doesn’t allow us to do that next year and tells us to cut faculty — well, who knows how we are going to make it work?

Dave — thanks. That Grants & Contracts is directly helped by the stimulus bill — everyone suspects it will remain about the same or go up a bit. Amazing that 13% (renormalized) is causing so much trouble!!

6. chimpanzee - March 12, 2009

Harvard’s fund managers go as endowment shrinks

“Harvard is not the only US institution suffering dramatic losses because of the crisis. Brandeis University in Massachusetts has been forced to sell the family silver by closing its museum of modern art and selling the contents, including works by Andy Warhol.”

More details about Harvard & Brandeis

Caltech to Lay Off 100

“”These reductions are an effort to counteract the effects the institute is feeling from the current economic crisis,” Jean-Lou Chameau, Caltech’s president, wrote in a news release. “We feel it’s prudent to take these steps now to limit future effects we may see if this ongoing financial situation continues.”

The university declined further comment.

Caltech, one of the nation’s top scientific research universities, employs about 3,600 people, including the 100 scheduled to be laid off.

The school did not specify when the layoffs would take place, nor which departments would be effected. But the wording of its news release suggested that no professors would lose their jobs.

The university gets about 30 percent of its funding from its endowment and alumni contributions. Schools’ endowment, tied to market investments, tend to suffer in recessions, and alumni, feeling the pinch themselves, typically give less.

But in most recessions, schools are able to weather the storm, said Jack Kyser, the chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

“This is a very definite indicator of the seriousness
of the recession,” said Kyser, noting that both USC and Stanford University have imposed hiring freezes and halted new construction projects to save money.
Brandeis University in Massachusetts, he added, has started auctioning off its art collection.

Check out the SCATHING comments (incl Caltech alum) here

“By the way, alum donations also go way down if students don’t have a meaningful and awesome experience. Unhappy students = unhappy alums. Get rid of deadbeat professors who do nothing for the students. Keep the staff who take care of the students.”
— caltechalum

“Caltech has one of the richest endowments in the nation for a school of its size. This is despicable. As an alum, I think I will redirect my charitable donations this year to something else. No doubt professors (some of whom are horrible and have no business teaching or being at Caltech) will be spared while the people who truly work and make sure that the students are taken care of will be affected the most. I truly question whether this new president values anything other than “name” professors. He certainly doesn’t care about the students’ experience and the people that take care of the students. The students are the raison d’etre of the University and he seems to have forgotten that.”
— caltechalum

“As a former Caltech student, I can tell you that ‘family’ atmosphere is gone. It is run like a business. This change is noted with sorrow by many current and former students. It began when they lost so much money in the stock market after the dot com bust and the 9/11 attacks. When money rules, people suffer.

When Caltech’s student body threatened to boycott dining services to protest pricing and availability changes, the administration said they would fire employees to compensate for the lost income.

Professors don’t care about mentoring students as much as they care about consulting for industry and making $$$. My graduate adviser prevented me from moving forward with an idea because it would have conflicted with his private company’s financial interests.

Currently, they’re cutting loose and graduating many graduate students because they can’t afford to keep them on, even as cheap labor.

They take $$$ from the NIH and NSA, and who knows how they spend it? How many hours do you think Caltech professors and students spend looking at internet pornography?

Hint: there are about 4 men per 1 woman on campus.

It’s pathetic to see this institution go through these changes.”
— Former Caltech student

Hmmm..the above comments imply an additional problem _on top_ of market downturn: INCOMPETENCE.

7. gordonwatts - March 12, 2009

Wow — some of those are pretty scathing! And it is certianly true that infinite money can hide lots of other problems (or make them “tolerable”). Loose the money and suddently everything comes to light. The same is happening here at UW. There are initiatives on campus that people didn’t like – but tolerated because there was enough $$ to go around – now, however, not so much.

As far as incompetence – there is always some of that; you can’t avoid it in an organization as large as UW or Caltech. The other thing to remember is that professors optimize on two things – research and teaching (see David’s comments above about where the university gets its $$ from). There are certianly some star researchers who pull in the $$ but aren’t so good at the teaching. It isn’t a rule, but it does happen. Vice versa too. I’ve certianly pissed off my share of students – but I also don’t have time for students that want to be spoon fed research. I love students who are willing to work and will spend quite a bit of time with them. Most professors I know are the same.

As far as spending NIH/NSA/etc. $$ – all I can say is… give me a break. 🙂 The auditing requirements are ridiculous – they can find out how every peny is spent if they take some time (ok, perhaps not the NSA grants – but the NSA knows). We have to employ extra people to satisfy these auditing requirements. And the audits aren’t just threats – they happen regularly. We are used to most of them now – they get worse every year – but we still grumble because of the extra time it takes out of our lives. 🙂

At any rate, becareful about generalizing. 🙂

8. Anonymous - March 12, 2009

As one who did his postdoc at Caltech, I can actually echo much of what dear Mr. chimpanzee wrote above. Caltech used to have one of the world’s top high energy physics groups, with Feynman, Gell-Mann, and an excellent experimental team, and currently they are left with half the faculty they used to have, and who are frankly not especially productive. They have not hired a high-energy experimentalist in 20 years — that’s right — 20 years, count them. The place is literally a disaster in every area of physics except astronomy and astrophysics (which they still do very well in). And the faculty there are riven with old grudges against one another and do not get along.

9. Kevin - March 14, 2009

not completey true Anonymous – Caltech hired a high energy experimentalist this year

10. Gordon Watts - March 14, 2009

Kevin — who was it? The HEP rumor mill doesn’t have it listed yet. You!? 😉

11. Kevin - March 14, 2009

no – unfortunately not. Maria S.

12. Gordon Watts - March 14, 2009

Wait – from CERN? Really? Wow – congrats to her!

13. Gordon Watts - March 14, 2009

And sorry, Kevin! Though that would have been half way across the country! Still…

14. Anonymous - March 14, 2009

Indeed. Congratulations to Caltech, and my sympathies to Maria, she deserves far better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: