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California… off a cliff June 22, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

Well… I used to think it Washington was the worst. It still is, but California is doing is best to take the crown. I’m talking about the budget of course.

Washington state legislature cut support for University of Washington 26%. That would have been the end of UW as I know it – and I guess the state legislature knew it too. To prevent that they allowed us to raise tuition on undergraduates by 30% over the course of two years (30%!!!). Which we will do. This is old news now – the reality came down at the end of April. Final budgets are being drawn up and they are every bit as bad as we were worried at the time. But the institution will survive.

Most states escaped such dramatic changes. I think only Nevada was going to be hurt as badly as we were. California was bad when I wrote that post – about 10%. What I didn’t realize was the 10% depended on a bunch of initiatives being passed that would raise various taxes. Apparently the complete political establishment (and a lot of people I know, including me) fooled themselves into thinking this was going to pass. Ops! I think the only budget related initiative that passed was one making sure the legislature didn’t give themselves a raise!

The upshot is going to be nasty. Berkeley’s chancellor just laid it on the line:

…the campus now facing a budget shortfall of around $145 million — "a shocking number," he said, more than twice the size of the deficit expected just six weeks ago…

…Birgeneau said all campus units will be asked to cut their budgets by an average of 20 percent over two years, instead of the 8 percent cuts expected as recently as mid-May. Staff who survive these contractions — and, the chancellor emphasized, "there will be eliminations of staff positions" — will see their paychecks shrink.

"We can all collectively expect wage reductions in the neighborhood of 8 percent," reported Birgeneau, adding that the formula could include some combination of furloughs and actual pay cuts.

Wow – 8% pay cut? That sucks. I’ve got a lot of friends in the Ca system. If only UW had some extra cash I’d say we should be off hunting there!! Too bad we will also have a multi-year hiring freeze.

To be fair, the Ca budget isn’t final yet. And it could be some of this is a warning shot at the legislature. But if it is anything like the Washington legislature, all the Ca university system will get back is a big ***ger. 🙂


It’s about the work, dummy June 18, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

I read this in an article on ars technica. First the setting:

When San Jose State University student Kyle Brady published the source code of his completed homework assignments after finishing a computer science class, his professor vigorously objected. The professor insisted that publication of the source code constituted a violation of the school’s academic integrity policy because it would enable future students to cheat. Brady stood his ground as the confrontation escalated to the school’s judicial affairs office, which sided with the student and affirmed that professors at the university cannot prohibit students from posting source code.

And second, the thing that made me decide to write this post:

Cory Doctorow shared his thoughts about the issue on Thursday in a blog post on BoingBoing. Doctorow suggests that assignments are ultimately more valuable to the students when the work that they produce can have broader purpose than merely fulfilling academic requirements. He also rightly points out that peer review of source code and studying existing implementations are both common practices in the real world of professional software development.

These are both compelling points and they illustrate how traditional academic sensibilities can be detrimental to the intellectual development of students.

Give me a break. This has nothing to do with any high end ideals. It has to do with work. In lower division courses there are only so many types of homework problems you can write without making something really complex, and in upper division courses creating a good problem that is hard, solvable, and interesting takes an immense amount of time. The professor of the course just wants to be able to re-use the homework problems – and cut/pasting the answer from the web is something he/she wants to make as hard as possible.

I wrote a bunch of problems for my graduate course this last year – they took a lot of work – I spent hours on them. I’d very much like to be able to reuse them – or reuse the core of the problem. If the solutions were widely available then that means I have that much more work I need to do next year.

I think, on its own, the answer to the question about a student posting their source code is clear: they should be allowed to do it. But the issue isn’t black and white when you get right down to it – that solution is a product of both the students and the professor’s sweat. Finally, actually saying that you can’t post code is totally unenforceable in this day and age (e.g. RIAA). There is also the basic fact that a student that decides to cheat is only cheating themselves… boy, that sounds kind-a lame, doesn’t it? 🙂

I don’t have an opinion in this particular instance. But I think the overly simplistic view that is taken is a bit sensationalist. Cory Doctorow wrote a much more nuanced bit:

But the convenience of profs must be secondary to the pedagogical value of the university experience — especially now, with universities ratcheting up their tuition fees and trying to justify an education that can put students into debt for the majority of their working lives. Students work harder when the work is meaningful, when it has value other than as a yardstick for measuring their comprehension.

I disagree. It isn’t just about convenience of the profs – it is about having a good course for the next student. It is about the professor learning what worked to teach the students this time and refining it next time – these things have to be factored in. Both the students and the professors, it seems to me, have a shared responsibility here.

Though a bit later on he seems to go off the rails (no pun intended):

I’ve always thought it was miserable that we take the supposed best and brightest in society, charge them up to $60,000 a year in fees, then put them to work for four years on producing busywork that no one — not them, not their profs, not other scholars — actually wants to read.

Well, gee. When you start learning something you have to start with the basics. You can’t start with Quantum physics – you need to understand a bit about mechanics, E&M, and other things – after all, quantum had better devolve to those in the macroscopic world! You can start out students on cutting edge research – we all do it when we take on undergraduate researchers – but they have to learn the basics too. It is, sadly, a fact of life. 😦 If you don’t know how to start a program, how can you learn how to write cool code!?!?


BTW, if you read down, you can find a response from the student involved in this case.

Bad Bad Bad, but not the disaster I was worried about April 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.
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This email arrived last night in my inbox from Emmert, the president of the University of Washington:

For the University of Washington, the resulting budget decisions are dramatic. The bad news is that the Legislature decided to reduce state funding to the six public four-year college and universities more than any other sector in state government. The University of Washington received the highest percentage cut in all of higher education-26 percent. This is a stark and sobering number. Beginning July 1, one quarter of our funding from the state will no longer exist. It is unprecedented in state history, and as far as we know, it is by far the largest reduction in state support to a flagship university by any state in the nation. It takes our state funding level back to where it was more than a decade ago and drops the portion of the state budget dedicated to four-year higher education to an all-time low.

That is impressive, isn’t it? 26%. States worse off than us have cut their big universities by far less. I don’t know what folks were thinking.

They threw us a pill to try to mitigate the pain. But the pill is rather bitter. Essentially the state transferred a large part of the funding they used to take care of onto the backs of our students. If you are going to cut by 26% then something has to be done in order to mitigate the cuts. The university does not survive as one of the premiere ones in the USA if you don’t. In the end the cuts end up being 12%.

I’m curious to see what happens to individual departments. I also hope the university tracks (and makes public) how many people they loose because of this. I suspect a lot of people are looking for jobs elsewhere now.

I wish my lectures looked like this April 28, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in Teaching, university.
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A typical lecture prepared and given by John Wheeler:

024 (2)

Apparently he would fill the lecture board with these amazing figures and very neat writing before lecture, and then work his way through the the board, moving from one end of the room to the next. Wow, eh? Think of that – every seminar he would give he would have to write it from scratch. No reusing power point slides!!

When the age of transparencies hit I remember seeing several people who would give talks that were art and science combined – just as above. Half the joy of watching the talk was their slides and how they told a story with their amazing pictures. The other half was the science, of course.

Then there is me. For lectures I use something called OneNote. I basically use it like a very long transparency roll, only it is better since it is on a very large projected computer screen (hey – no more transparency pen rubbing off on my left hand!). I like it because it has axes pre-drawn – and straight lines! But that doesn’t change a basic fact: my lectures are a jumble of bad writing, bad pictures, and squiggly lines.

I wonder how much time and effort I’ve have to put into things to make them look like above!? Perhaps there is some program that will automatically draw what I mean and not the tortured path my pen actually draws out?

Finally, Getting A Spine April 20, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university, University of Washington.
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The problem with politics is that even when you are mad you have to bite your tongue. These 20-30% cuts I’ve been talking about are, however, going to be a disaster for us. Our president has decided that it is time to apply a bit more public pressure. This scares me – this means all the private tools and backroom access he has available have failed. From a Seattle PI article:

Emmert said he was "offended" by the funding proposals coming out of Olympia. Across the nation — including hard-off states such as California and Michigan — no states are proposing such drastic cuts to higher education funding, he said.

Nationwide, Washington is ranked 30th in state funding for four-year institutions, Arkans said. After the proposed budget cuts — using either the House’s or Senate’s budget proposals — Washington would drop to a rank of 42nd.

"We’re running out of adjectives and adverbs," Emmert said. "It’s unprecedented in the state’s history. What’s happening in the Senate and the House may be unprecedented in the States — the United States — in the post-war era."

This was in the middle of a discussion he was having on layoffs that will hit the U by the end of this April.

BTW, I mentioned several times that we were #1 public university when it came to federal funding. I don’t think that is true any longer. New statistics I just say indicate that NIH funding levels dropped us to #5 overall, and #3 for public institutions. NIH funding is the largest part of our funding, so that means our total funding rank has probably also dropped.

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!

How Big A Cut? April 13, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university, University of Washington.
1 comment so far

A 20% or 30% cut in the university budget is a game changer – the University of Washington would not be the same institution it is today if it is cut 20%-30%.

Last post I mentioned that Washington higher education state funding was facing something between a 20% and 30% cut. It is important to know what is actually being cut. It turns out the university gets its funding from three sources, roughly equal: state funds, grants, and endowment. The endowment money is colored: when it was gifted to the university it was gifted for a particular purpose – and often that can’t be used to hire people. I believe UW’s endowment is down about 25% or so right now. Grants are the research grants that people at the university get – for example, my NSF grant. The university skims off 20%-30% of the money from each grant and puts it towards operating expenses. Stimulus funding and increased budgets at the federal level mean that the grant income is about the same or even a bit better – as long as we don’t loose the people applying for those grants.

The final bit, the state funds, are what pays for most of the people here at UW – graduate student’s TA’s, staff, and, of course, the professors. When we talk about cutting 20% or 30% here, we are talking about cutting only the state portion of the budget. If we were to do this across the board this would mean a 20%-30% cut in the number of people (professors, TA’s, administrators, etc.). This is complicated by the concept of tenure. You can’t fire a tenured professor as long as they are doing their basic job (teaching, participating in the department administration at an acceptable level, etc.). You can layoff a tenured faculty if you close down their whole department, however.

The final bit of information is about the UW itself. We are a major research university. This means our mission is not just teaching, but also research. Students (undergraduate and, obviously, graduate) are fully expected to participate in this research. We are one of the largest public universities in the USA. We are the largest research university – that is, we receive more money in grants than any other public university. I think we are second only to Johns Hopkins (which is not a public university). Of course, our ability to get those grants has a lot to do with the people applying for them and the fantastic facilities here which means the federal research dollars are well spent.

Next I’ll talk about some of the cut scenarios.

Why do they hate us so? April 10, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university, University of Washington.

Check out this picture:


Sorry if it gets cut off – click on it and look at the 2nd page of the PDF that comes up. Those numbers are the size of proposed cuts to higher education state-by-state – smaller is better!! Washington is highlighted. You’ll note Washington has the largest number. I’ve heard that Nevada is the one state that is worse. If you look at other state universities that are similar in size and stature to UW you’ll find they are getting 6%-8% cuts.

Our state is particularly bad off – but not the worst in the nation. I believe, for example, Florida is worse – they are planning on cutting their higher education program by 1% or 2%. Arizona – the only other university of similar size (though I think we are better ranked then they are) is planning on a 30% tuition increase to counter their cuts. A friend of mine, who is a professor there, commented “I wonder if there will be a physics department when I get back?”

So, what is going on in Washington?

Frankly, I don’t really understand what is going on. 🙂 Higher education here is getting cut harder than other programs in the state. The talk that is coming from some of our state politicians is so factually incorrect that it makes one wonder if facts are being stretched to make a point motivated by other forces (that I’m not aware of). I should also state that I see cuts to our budget as inevitable. There is just no way to avoid them – the whole state is going to suffer and everyone is going to have to bear some of the pain.

But these cuts will be painful!

Wu-ki Tung April 2, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, university.

Wu-Ki Tung just passed away.


Wu-Ki is famous for his work on parton distribution functions (PDFs). I’ve known of him for years – but after retiring from MSU he moved to Seattle to be near his kids. Once here he joined the department of physics as an affiliate. That was when I got to know him personally. He attended many of our joint theory-experiment meetings. He helped me out a bit when I was teaching my graduate particle physics course (he wrote a book related to the topic). He smart and knowledgeable and always helpful. He will be missed.

I stole the picture from his retirement symposium page.

Spring Break!! March 19, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in university.
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CIMG1604I made it!! I never thought the words “Padre Island” would sound so good in my ears again. Well, replace Padre with Prague… I thought I was done with that spring break stuff! Guess not… [Ok, that isn’t a picture from sunny south Texas… that is Jekyll Island in Florida, sunny, but hazy.

The last two quarters I taught graduate level particle physics. Not well, mind you. But I did teach it. It was a lot of fun – I’d not looked carefully at a lot of that material since I was a graduate student. And when I was a graduate student I never did symmetry breaking in my courses – or motivated anything using group theory. The flip side was the price I paid over the last two quarters. I think on average for each hour I was standing in front of students I was probably preparing for about 5 or 6 hours. I teach the course again next year, too. But it will be much better (I hope); I now know my way all the way to the end. Right now I want to redo everything – especially the first quarter which I really don’t like now. And I think it will take me a lot less time to prepare too [one of those lies we tell ourselves].

And now spring break starts. One advantage of teaching a graduate course is I don’t give a final exam. My grades are already done! Woo hoo! I’m off to Prague for a small conference. It would be a lot of fun if I didn’t actually have to have my posters and talks ready!

Next quarter – which starts in a little more than 2 weeks – I’ll be teaching again. But the class will be a very different animal. This quarter I had 3 students in my class and 1-2 others that would drop by to listen. Taught in a small room, all of us sitting around a table with my projecting my Tablet PC’s output onto a projector. Next quarter I will have about 500 students! Talk about shifting gears! But it is an introductory lab course, so it will take less intellectual effort and, thank goodness, I’ll have a small army of TA’s. And that will give me some time to get back to my research – something I’ve been ignoring way to much for the last six months.