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Chop 20%-30% April 15, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university, University of Washington.

In the previous posts I mentioned the legislative atmosphere towards higher education and some general parameters in the ongoing budget discussions.

So, lets consider a 20%-30% budget cut. First of all, you can’t absorb that in straight staff cuts. As much as some professors would like to believe, the staff at the UW makes it run. Without them we’d never get to teach or do research or anything else.

What if you could slim things down a bit? Say you want to keep class sizes similar to what they are now (something that many legislators draw a red line in the sand over). How about doubling the teaching load for each professor? We professors are currently assigned a single course a quarter. This generally means between 3 and 4 hours of face time with the students (in the classrooms), some class preparation time, and some office hours, and some grading time. Class prep time varies depending on the course. An easy course might require only a single hour of prep time to teach one hour. The graduate level class I was teaching the last two quarters required about 5-8 hours of prep time for every hour of teaching. In the case of a heavy load you couldn’t double it – obviously – there aren’t enough hours in the week. But why not the light classes? I don’t know the legal basis of our agreement with the University, but most of us joined the University because we wanted to do both teaching and research. If a change like this happens it will change the balance of our research and teaching time. That will certainly drive a lot of the people currently at UW away – UW will no longer be one of the top ranked research universities in the USA, and will no longer get the largest amount of public funding for a public institution in the USA. All of this will mean the students that are attracted won’t be as good, we will have less students (less grant money to fund students), etc. UW will not be what it is today – it will become more like a teaching institution rather than a teaching and research institution. A game changer, as I said earlier.

What else could you do? How about attrition? Initially we were considering a 13% budget cut. My impression is that it would take 2-3 years for attrition to shrink the faculty to the correct size. That is 2-3 years of no hiring. I’m sure departments could survive, though they would be gritting their teeth at being unable to compete for some of the best people on the market (which many department at UW normally do). And that 2-3 years is well matched to the budget cycle in the state of Washington – we do it in 2 year cycles. But when you are talking 20-30% budget cuts now you are talking 4-6 years of attrition. Massive forward loans would have to be arranged. Perhaps you could use some of the federal stimulus money to help – but that is only around for two years. Attrition would have another side-effect: increased class sizes and longer times to graduate or fewer students to be admitted. UW is a state institution – one of the main charges is to educate the population of the state – so none of these options are very palatable to either the faculty, the university administration, or the legislature.

Ok. What’s next on the list? The tenure issue (at UW) can be gotten around by closing a full department. For example, decide you don’t need physics any longer – at that point my tenure no longer means anything. The university has committed to doing its best to find me a job, but, lets be serious – in these times? This is a pretty crude tool. I’m sure you could come up with some small departments on campus that aren’t nationally ranked and have very small numbers of students and aren’t considered vital to a liberal arts education – but I wonder if you could come up with enough of them to absorb a 20 or 30% cut. Any organization our size is bound to have some fat – but 25% fat? I doubt it.

Finally, another option is to raise tuition. Currently we are allowed to raise it 7% per year. If that was doubled to 14% per year, and done for two years in a row, the end result would be mitigating these 20-30% cuts to something more like 10%. A 10% cut the university can deal with without a fundamental change in its mission. This option is generating the most political heat right now. On the face of it, it looks pretty bad – raising tuition during hard economic times isn’t exactly smart. However, it turns out part of the federal budget increases and stimulus bill were a bunch of new money for financial aids for undergraduates. Some projections I’ve seen from the university say that if you are family making less than 160K you won’t notice the increase at all. So raising the tuition seems like a good way to transfer more federal money into the university’s accounts. There is one hiccup here, unfortunately: graduate students. Cuts in the budget that would happen due to 10% cuts would reduce the number of TA’s we could hire, which means graduate students would suddenly find themselves unemployed. Graduate students make almost nothing anyway – and now we have significantly upped how much they have to pay. Fortunately, relatively speaking, graduate students are a small fraction of the university student population – so solving that problem is much easier than solving the same problem for the undergraduate population.

In the end I’m sure it will be a combination of some the above. Whatever, I hope that the rhetoric calms down enough so people make a rational decision based on the minimal impact to students, research, the university mission, and still make sure that the state budget gets balanced. There is no way to escape cuts at this point, but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water.

There are probably other options that are out there that I’ve not thought of. Feel free to leave a comment!


1. Dave Bacon - April 16, 2009

It’s possible that there will be more RAs available due to the stimulus, so maybe that will at least keep the graduate students employed. On the other hand….less TAs means more work for profs!

2. Gordon Watts - April 16, 2009

Yeah — that would be good. We’ll need it. Our acceptance rate this year is higher than expected – so we have more TA’s that we’d really like to have. Now, if only the NSF would tell us what our grants were going to be…

3. Julianne - April 16, 2009

Astro’s acceptance rate was much higher too. I can’t tell whether it’s market forces or awesomeness.

4. Gordon Watts - April 17, 2009

The problem with small N samples… 🙂 I suspect it is both.

5. Robert Cudmore - April 19, 2009

Hi Gordon, I took a postdoc at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore (starting Aug 2009). You are scaring the begeezes out of me with these blog posts. In all your research on the topic, find anything on Johns Hopkins? I guess they are #1 in total grant money from both the NIH and the NSF, hope that helps.

6. Gordon Watts - April 19, 2009

Fear not – JH is doing very well when it comes to grant funding – so you’ll be fine in that respect. You may fine a few less grad students. For whatever reason things are _really_ bad here in Washington – the legislature seems out to get us in a way that no other state is.

7. Gordon Watts - April 19, 2009

And when do you get back to the USA?

8. Aleksie - April 22, 2009

I know with my undergraduate school, there is talks of shutting down one of the libraries and having it absorbed into the main library. Unfortunately, I believe that would mean the staff for specialty library (a performing arts library) would be laid off.

I know Brandeis was rumored to shut down their art museum and sell the works in it. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though.

I think the only positive thing I read about trimming budgets is that my undergrad school was looking at more environmentally friendly power options.

9. Gordon Watts - April 22, 2009

Yeah — our physics library might close. We are supposed to know exactly how bad it will be this week… Unfortunately, the only “good” outcome (10% cut) will be at the expense of a 14% increase in tuition for two years running. 😦 😦

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