UT's Impending Implosion

Upwards of 100 faculty positions may be on the chopping block

A beleaguered University of Tennessee is planning cuts in just about everything except the one thing that would relieve a resultant overload of its instructional capacity: namely, a reduction in the size of its student body.

While the magnitude of the cuts in state appropriations remains somewhat of a moving target, the Knoxville campus is presently bracing for a $25.6 million reduction in its budget, which totals $439.6 million this academic year. The biggest component of that is a $12.5 million cut in instructional expense, which basically means faculty.

A meeting with UT Provost Susan Martin isn't very enlightening as to how many of the Knoxville campus' 1,177 faculty positions will be eliminated, but well upwards of 100 would appear to be on the chopping block.

Because UT's 643 tenured professors can't be terminated and 286 others who are on what's called a tenure track are being protected as well, reductions in these categories can only be effected by an embargo on filling vacancies. According to Martin's count, there are 122 vacancies arising from retirements and departures, and she reckons that no more than 40 of them will be replaced.

Yet at an average salary of $60,000 (per Martin), savings from leaving some 80 positions unfilled only add up to $4.8 million. That means the brunt of the instructional cuts must fall on the 252 non-tenured instructors who mainly teach lower-level undergraduate courses. It would seemingly take the elimination of all of them at an average salary of $32,000 (again per Martin) to get to the $12.5 million in total budget cuts she's charged with making. Yet their loss in toto would cripple the university's capacity to provide courses such as freshman English composition and Western or World Civilization, which every undergraduate must take.

Martin claims she's not far enough along with her planning to say how many of these positions will have to go. "I don't want to pull a false number out that's not going to represent the reality once we've had a chance to fully analyze where that gets us," she allows. She also points to a reduction in graduate student stipends as another potential source of substantial savings. Yet these stipends go in large part for teaching assistantships, and these TA's play an important part in grading papers and exams of the 4,200 freshmen UT is presently admitting each year.

The party line is that tenure and tenure-track faculty will have to assume a larger role in lower-level undergraduate instruction. Yet their diversion from teaching upper-level courses at a time when their ranks are already depleted due to unfilled vacancies may just shift the instructional capacity shortfall and amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

UT President John Petersen has proclaimed that enlarged teaching loads and bigger class sizes will help compensate for any shortfalls. He's also been insistent that budget cuts will be "strategic" rather than across-the-board. But to many faculty members and departmental administrators, these buzzwords have a hollow ring. Indeed, the locus of faculty reductions seems more a matter of happenstance than any guiding hand.

Take the History Department for example. Its chairman, Thomas Burman, is facing the loss of four tenured faculty members, none of whom can be replaced. And "it seems clear we're going to lose a lot of lecturers as well," he says. The losses mean that many of the upper-level courses his 90 history majors need to graduate will be offered less frequently and be harder to get into. And the impact on lower-level survey courses (American History as well as Western and World Civ) may be even more severe. The 1,800 students per semester capacity of these courses is "already well short of demand." And Burman foresees that capacity being reduced by 300 or more due to the loss of lecturers and of TA's who conduct weekly discussion groups of 20 students each, grading their essays and exams.

"If you raise the size of these groups, discussion is impossible, and the TA's can't do justice to grading any more essays and exams," Burman says. "The thing that people most want out of a university is being able to write well and when you make that impossible you've defeated your purposes." He also laments a diversion of his remaining faculty from research and teaching graduate students because he considers the grooming of the next generation of history professors to be an important part of the department's mission.

Martin acknowledges that, "If we have to proceed along the lines that we've been told, there are going to be reductions in course offerings, fewer sections of courses, and I'm concerned we will have difficulty helping students get the courses they need to complete their programs."

So if this is a concern, why isn't the university considering a reduction in the number of students commensurate with the reduction in its instructional capacity? "That's a difficult question," Martin says. But then Denise Barlow, vice chancellor for finance and administration, interjects that, "If we reduce the number of students, we lose tuition revenues—then we've got to take another budget cut, and it's not just instructional, it's also housing and food service."

Perplexingly, the academic budget cuts are being planned based purely on assumed reductions in state appropriations without taking into account any revenue increases derived from raising tuition. According to UT budget documents, this past year's 6.5 percent increase, yielded $13 million. And a larger increase that could certainly be justified under this year's exigent circumstances could go much further toward offsetting the assumed $25.6 million appropriation cut.

UT officials from Petersen on down take pains to point out that UT's $3,100 per semester tuition is about 10 percent below the average of 10 southern state university peers. Moreover, even within Tennessee, universities in the separate Board of Regents system are instituting tuitions on a per credit hour rather than a per semester basis. Twelve hours is considered the standard load, but UT students actually carry an average 14 hours. So a prorated hourly charge would yield an 11.6 percent increase in tuition revenues.

But UT officials aren't about to propose any such increase until they commune with state legislators who tend to be resistant. And the painful process of planning for the deeper cuts now on the drawing boards could just be a stratagem for gaining ground in Nashville.