Monday, June 22, 2009

Budget Cuts Cast Shadow Over Florida's Universities

By PAUL FAIN

Bad budgets are old news in the Sunshine State. While colleges across the nation are coping with the recession, public universities in Florida, a state with finances that resemble a Ponzi scheme, have spent years doing without.

Ask Paul Outka, an assistant professor in Florida State University's highly regarded English department. But don't call him on his office phone this fall. He won't have one anymore — it's among the latest victims of cost-cutting.

He says he prefers forced frugality to its alternatives.

"You get rid of the phone lines and you save some of my comrades," says Mr. Outka, who has had a ringside seat at one of the worst financial catastrophes in higher education today.

The recession hit Florida early, and in a big way. Without an income tax, state government has long depended on property and sales taxes. As real estate and tourism have tanked, however, the state's annual revenue has shed more than $12-billion from a 2006 peak of $74-billion. But Florida's conservative politicians have remained steadfast in refusing new taxes. They also fought to keep the university system's tuition at rock-bottom levels.

The result for the state's 11 public universities has been cutbacks in state money, which have led to gutted programs, faculty departures, low salaries for professors, and the nation's highest student-to-faculty ratio. University leaders say this is by far the worst chapter in a long history of chronic underfinancing.

Mr. Outka got there just in time for this round. Described as a rising star by colleagues, his hiring was a coup for the university, which lured him away from the University of Virginia in 2007, as the cuts were beginning. In addition to having his phone line removed, Mr. Outka has had to ration his copier paper and sits in a non-air-conditioned office on weekends. He has too many students to meet with any of them individually until at least their junior year, and he never teaches classes smaller than 35 students.

"They wanted us to take out a bulb from our fluorescent lights," he says during an interview in his spartan office. He points to two reams of paper on a shelf and says, "There's my stash."

Yet the anxiety and annoyances have yet to defeat Mr. Outka, who says he can still do his job, and even enjoy it.

His resolve is evidence that while Florida's universities have been battered by the cuts, they have yet to fall apart. A common refrain emerges during visits to Florida State, the University of Florida, and the University of Central Florida: While it may be a miracle, academic quality and student access remain largely intact — so far.

After all, public universities are remarkably resilient.

"It takes a long time for a university to make or lose a national reputation," says Terry L. Hickey, provost of the University of Central Florida.

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