UT's Ear Pain

The university's claimed savings from ASP program cuts are a charade

One need only visit the quarters of the University of Tennessee's Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology (ASP) in the bowels of Neyland Stadium to realize it's a stepchild in the UT College of Arts and Sciences. Despite the fact the department is highly regarded in its field and also provides much-needed clinical services, it doesn't really fit or sit well in the college's academic scheme of things.

Thus, it should have come as no surprise that, when faced with having to make cutbacks due to an $11.5 million cut in UT-Knoxville state funding, Arts and Sciences Dean Bruce Bursten should single out the ASP department for termination. What's utterly astounding, though, is Bursten's inept handling of the matter.

There are so many flaws in Bursten's ill-informed and ill-advised decision, it's hard to know where to start in listing them.

Probably the most flagrant was his unawareness of a long-standing contract with the Tennessee Hearing and Speech Foundation that commits the university to continue operating hearing and speech clinics that are an integral part of the department. This commitment binds the university until 2057 "to continue to operate the Hearing and Speech Center at the same or greater level of services to the public."

If Bursten had consulted with the department's head, Ilsa Schwarz, before making his termination decision, as he certainly should have, his blunder would have been avoided. But the first Schwarz learned of the decision was 20 minutes before Bursten announced it. This peremptory announcement stands in sharp contrast to the way in which programs proposed for termination have been afforded hearings in the past.

It's true that UT was under pressure to act quickly to make cuts after Gov. Phil Bredesen imposed reductions in higher education funding for the coming year in May. UT President John Petersen had stipulated that these cuts be made "strategically" in the narrow rather than spreading them across the board in a way that would weaken the university as a whole.

But when faced with the commitment to the clinics and waves of protest from its users as well as other ASP stakeholders, Petersen backed off. On June 17, he announced postponement of programmatic cuts until October "to allow campus and system leadership additional time to seek faculty input and involvement."

Clinic commitments aside, if Bursten's claimed savings of $1,374,818 from termination of these programs were for real, they might be more telling at a time for hard decisions. But in fact, his claims are mostly a charade. In order to allow presently enrolled students to complete their degrees, only $182,431 in reductions would be realized in the first two years. The balance of the $1,374,818 would come from leaving 25 presently vacant faculty positions unfilled across the broad expanse of the Arts and Sciences Department—the very sort of across-the-board reductions that Petersen is seeking to avoid.

Even when the ASP programs are eliminated in subsequent years, the net savings to the university wouldn't amount to much. According to Schwarz, annual tuitions paid by ASP students totaling nearly $1.6 million exceed the claimed savings.

Interim Chancellor Jan Simek contends, "The tuition issue is disingenuous because all students pay tuitions, and the tuitions fund the whole operation, not specific departments." However, the ASP program is virtually self-contained; its 114 undergraduates and 111 graduate students take almost all of their courses and get their clinical training in the program and wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. Moreover, university bean counters claim that $2 million of the $11.5 million budget cut will come from tuition derived from increased student retention rates and enrollment, which is to say they count tuition revenues when it serves their purposes and disregard them when it doesn't.

The workings of the department and the clinics are intertwined. About half of the department's 25 faculty members are primarily engaged in running the clinics and supervising the graduate students who staff them as an important part of their training. "Keeping the clinics without the department would be like keeping a chemistry lab without any chemists," says Schwarz.

The cruelest cut of all is the deprivation that loss of the ASP programs would mean for East Tennesseans with hearing and speech impairments. The program's graduates staff hospitals, stroke-rehabilitation centers, and school systems in meeting the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Ironically, the proposed cuts come just as the state Legislature has enacted what's known as Claire's Law, which requires hearing-loss screening for every newborn in the state. This promises to add to one of the audiology clinic's most important roles, which is fitting infants with hearing aids and also counseling their parents and otherwise nurturing their development.

Simek says he would like to see the ASP program continued—just not as part of UT-Knoxville. And it may well be that the program could find a better and more valued home under the aegis of the university's Health Science Center. But it certainly needs to be sustained one way or another.