Monday, June 22, 2009

In Hard Times, Colleges Search for Ways to Trim the Faculty

Why Certain Departments Fall Under the Budget Ax
By ROBIN WILSON

The Jones Theatre at Washington State University is getting a $500,000 face-lift this summer. A construction crew has already ripped out its 500 orange and blue seats and is replacing them with new ones covered in a wine-colored fabric. The theater's walls are being painted a light beige, and a new set of black velour curtains will grace the stage.

But some professors are worried that the theater will remain dark. That's because the department of theater and dance is one of three academic programs slated for elimination because of budget cuts at Washington State. Officials say they must slash a total of $54-million from the university's budget over the next two years. The 11 tenured and tenure-track professors who work in the three programs are also on the chopping block.

Administrators are calling the eliminations "vertical cuts." Instead of slicing costs equally across the board as many other colleges have done, the administration singled out a few that it said were not crucial to the university's mission and attracted few students or little outside research money.

As the economy slumped this year, institutions in other states adopted similar strategies. The Louisiana Board of Regents cut the philosophy major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for instance, and colleges in Idaho, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin are also planning to eliminate programs and departments.

That has typically happened after broader austerity measures have failed to stanch enough red ink. "You can bleed to death from a thousand cuts," says Warwick M. Bayly, provost at Washington State. "We felt we had to prioritize."

But selective cuts have their own price. Faculty morale is hurt, and professors worry that the damage extends to the overall reputation of the institution. Terry J. Converse, a professor of theater who has been at Washington State for 18 years, is angry that his department is scheduled to be wiped out completely while others remain largely intact. "It's unconscionable," says Mr. Converse. "It's just not fair to knock off a very functional department that is critical to the liberal arts when it clearly could have been completely avoided."

Justifying the Cuts

As colleges and universities struggle through the nation's economic downturn, most are trying to preserve both academic programs and tenured faculty jobs. When it comes to saving money, universities are laying off staff members, freezing future faculty hiring, imposing furloughs, and trimming operating expenses. Some are merging academic departments, but few are eliminating them outright.

Besides theater and dance, Washington State also wants to get rid of the German major and the department of community and rural sociology. It figures the cuts will save $3.6-million over the next two years. In documents justifying the cuts, officials said professors in theater have too little time for research and that those in community and rural sociology bring in little money for research. Rural sociology has no undergraduate majors, and German awarded only four degrees in 2008. The theater program, administrators said, lacks "visibility and impact."

Other universities that have sliced specific programs include the University of Idaho, which has cut 18 degrees, including master's of arts in the teaching of Spanish, French, German, history, chemistry, and earth science. Administrators at Florida Atlantic University want to suspend the master's program in women's studies. And the political-science major was eliminated this year at Wisconsin Lutheran College after the college laid off the two faculty members who taught in the discipline.

On some campuses, the cuts have become a rallying point for faculty members, students, and alumni. At Louisiana's Lafayette campus, where the philosophy major was cut, a dozen students and alumni boarded a school bus near the campus in late May to attend a Board of Regents meeting in Baton Rouge. They wore white T-shirts with black lettering that said, "Let My People Think." Their mission: to persuade the board to reinstate philosophy. "How can you have a university without a philosophy program?" asks István S.N. Berkeley, an associate professor in the program who traveled to Baton Rouge.

While the regents said they were sympathetic, they did not change their minds. The board had decided in April to cut the philosophy major along with dozens of other "low completer" programs at Louisiana's public colleges. In the last five years, the philosophy program at Lafayette has graduated fewer than four students per year. In documents on the program cuts, the regents said that "philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students."

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