The University's sagging smile

The large public university where I teach, in the Washington D.C. area, has fallen on hard times because of budget difficulties. The local economy area is heavily dependent on tourism in the Capital, which has never recovered from the events of September 11th. The state's tax base has thus been seriously eroded. There is a huge budget deficit, and our new governor appears to be rather hostile to public education, vowing cuts. So the outlook overall has been subdued these months.

There have been hints and warnings from the administration for some time, but today, finally, we have a concrete list of budget-balancing measures from our Dean, handed down to us through our unit head. Here is what we are certain of at the moment:

  • No raises for anyone, faculty or staff, during the coming academic year. There were already no raises this year.
  • A tuition increase of 5%, effective immediately. A further increase next year is being debated, although it is considered politically difficult.
  • A 5% across-the-board budget cut has already been implemented, by draining the accounts that hold unspent grant money, money earned by departments from offering classes over summer or winter break, and so on.
  • This 5% cut will be made a permanent part of our budget next year, by eliminating money that is allocated to unfilled faculty positions and various non-teaching GA (general assistant) student positions.
  • The library's budget is being slashed, and many book orders and periodical subscriptions are being cut immediately.
  • We have been under a hiring freeze and a spending cutback for more than a year.
  • The cleaning staff has been "cut back" (meaning people have actually been fired), and offices are now being vacuumed and garbage taken out less frequently.
  • Shuttle buses for students, faculty, and staff who commute have been cut back.

Those are serious steps, but we as a community can live with them. However, even these cuts won't make up the full deficit. The next group of cuts that are being considered, and some of which will be implemented, include:

  • Closing down GA student positions.
  • Reducing services, such as xeroxing, postage, phone/fax privileges, etc.
  • No faculty searches (i.e., hiring) for next year.
  • One or more "furlough" days - meaning a pay cut masquerading as a "moratorium" on faculty salary.
  • Dismissing lecturers who do not have regular contracts.

This last proposal is the most dire. Of course, the unit head includes the requisite language, "I and the other members of the School administration are determined to do everything within our power to avoid any such reductions in staffing." But this is what we have all known was coming. It has subtly scented our dealings with each other for several months - the on-contract teacher vs. the off-contract teacher. Losing these people, apart from the element of humanity, will damage our language programs inordinately and make life much harder for those of us who remain.

There are eleven languages taught in normal college-level classes in our unit. Almost all of us either teach actual foreign language (although Spanish insists it is not foreign - the rest of us smile and say nothing) or literature in translation. We will probably lose Arabic and Korean immediately - so much for Donald Rumsfeld's two-war strategy. Over the longer term there will probably be gangrenous attrition in Italian, German, and Chinese so severe that those programs will fold. Chinese is already badly understaffed. Russian has had its Master's program killed without warning, and as of next year all its faculty will have to be deployed to keep just the First and Second Year courses open.

This term I am on leave, and I have been living in a state of stupid glee, doing only my own research day in and day out. I've enjoyed my time at this university, especially because the pressure has been low enough that I have been able to publish a lot and cultivate a number of very good undergraduates. I'm always cheerful around the Department, and being on leave has put me in a particularly good mood. Maybe too good. When I do come to school now (not often) I wander around , watching my colleagues bustle about trying to manage their courses at the beginning of the term, and I feel very pleased with myself because I don't have to do that again until next August. Oh, I feel like laughing at them for being so busy and serious. One of my colleagues is especially tense because she's covering an extra course for someone else, and I chirpily gave her some dense, dark chocolate I had been hoarding, with the advice that eating a tiny bit of it while preparing for classes would make everything go smoothly.

She phoned later to praise it as an efficacious medicine for the overworked teacher. But maybe these people are feeling more serious than I am because, being at school every day, they are more affected by the souring mood on campus. They're like a bunch of cucumbers left out in salt water for a week - getting pickled in spite of themselves. This week, both of our copy machines were out of order for several days, and a third machine that we were allowed to use as a backup failed yesterday. (Lack of proper access to copy machines depresses teachers terribly.) Today I found my daily commute substantially lengthened, because the shuttle bus I take has been cut without warning from twice an hour to once an hour - infrequent enough that I must begin to wait significant lengths of time to get home from school if I haven't planned well. The East Asia library has been asked to make an immediate and gigantic cut in its purchases and subscriptions.

This university has, in the past few years, made a great effort to improve its image and to raise its academic and support standards. Some of us think it's entirely hype, others are more willing to go along with the Administration and see where it all leads (and whether we can get some solid funding out of all these nice words). But any such "improvement", real or imaginary, costs money, and we are suddenly able to see that, with the utter ruin of the state budget, the University may also be forced to back to being what it has really been all along, a lackluster state school with a few above-average programs. And maybe that is what is really behind my colleagues' mood.

Perhaps I'm luckier than I realized to have this term to myself. It's not impossible that these cuts will lead to the elimination of the "Junior Faculty Research Leave" program that lets me have a full paid semester with no formal responsibilities this term.

If you're a student reading this, let me urge you to attack your schoolwork more soberly than ever. The prospects for getting a job in this economy must be intimidating, and no doubt your university is facing the same kinds of budget constraints that mine is. Maybe your tuition has already risen, or courses cut back. My advice: throw yourself more fully into your classes and other forms of learning. Make more friends, and make them with more varied kinds of people than you have before now. And take advantage of the greatest advantage of the university - the chance it gives you to educate and cultivate yourself, in the libraries, in the theatres, and in clubs. Preparation of this kind is the best way to get through times of enforced inactivity and seeming hopelessness. When the doors of the outside world do open up again, you'll be in a better position to take advantage of them if you've invested your time well during these difficult days.

last day-log entry: January 27, 2003 | next: February 1, 2003