Can UT halt its academic erosion as it experiences an ongoing budget squeeze?

Earlier this year, well-publicized layoffs in UTK's computer-support staff resulted in slowing down some of the university's support systems. Not surprisingly, it's easy to find stories of computers down and unrepaired for weeks.

But those layoff casualty figures are only the most publicly visible tip of a budget iceberg at the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus--which, some are concerned, is already endangering the university's ability to serve its students and has the potential to wreck UTK's hard-earned academic reputation.

Other vivid stories have been making the rounds, some of them incredible, all of them true: of canceled subscriptions to important academic journals, of outmoded and decrepit lab equipment, of a copy machine removed from a business college office unable to maintain the lease, of faculty members disallowed to make long-distance calls, of canceled trips to important academic conferences, of three-legged desks and absent overhead projectors, of positions unfilled, of promises unkept.

For the next year or two, at least, it's likely to get only worse.

Perhaps the biggest losses to the university are some 40 faculty positions left unfilled, decreasing the university's faculty body by about 3 percent.

Those 40 were not necessarily the 40 most expendable. Attrition is without question the most humane way to downsize. It's also, arguably, the most threatening to the school's academics.

Through attrition, UTK's Geology Department has lost specialists in sedimentology--oil detection--one of geology's most practical applications. Department head Harold McSween says UTK's geology curriculum is "greatly weakened" by the loss. "Our inability to train students for the oil industry is real serious to us," he says.

Chemistry was once proud of its nationally prominent chemical analysis program. However, in the last year, one nationally known expert in that field has died; another has retired. Due to budget shortfalls, neither has been replaced (an associate professor will be hired by next year).

By the end of this year, the Department of English will have lost six full-time staffers through resignation or retirement. They'll be replaced with only two. Lost is Norman Sanders, UTK's only Shakespearean scholar, not to be replaced. The attrition "cuts down on the size of the faculty and its competency," says department head Allen Carroll. There are other similar stories throughout the campus, but especially in the College of Arts and Sciences, UT's oldest curriculum.

"Faculty members are not interchangeable parts," says former dean Larry Ratner. "If you lose an American colonial history or medieval history specialist, there's no one else to teach upper-level and graduate courses in these areas."

Losses of such nationally prominent scholars can start a vicious circle that undercuts a college's reputation and decreases its graduate student enrollment, which, via the dreaded formula, will bring further cuts in the budget.

That ominous word comes up, over and over, in every rank of UTK, from president to adjunct professor, all of whom hold it in awe. Most fear it; few know it well. You might get the impression that it's a spy novel euphemism. The formula actually is a complex algebraic equation established by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission that determines just how much funding UT Knoxville and other state-supported campuses deserve in a given year. Lots of variables are fed into the equation; among the most frightening is g, the number of graduate students.

Via the formula, grad students are worth a lot more state money than undergrads. Graduate students are attracted to schools with strong specialty programs. As these programs are undercut by retiring faculty members who aren't replaced with professors of equal stature, they attract fewer graduate students. The school gets less money. And its reputation edges downward.

That descent appears to be showing up already. UTK failed to meet its early '90s goal of 7,000 graduate students. In fact, the number has been dwindling for each of the last three years, from 6,790 in 1994 down to 6,443 in 1995, to 6,229 this year. There's no reason to think that trend has hit bottom.

Perplexed UT officials offer various explanations for the graduate enrollment decline. The strong economy is pulling graduates into the job market sooner; national demand for entry-level faculty members is weak, especially in the arts and sciences; and UTK's pay scale for teaching assistants is much lower than at many other schools. Meanwhile, at some UTK schools, the downward cycle of reputation/student-population/funding/reputation continues.

Several faculty members observe that faculty at the University of Georgia, ordinarily considered a peer of UTK, are paid better than UTK professors. Indeed, in department after department, position after position, UTK professors earn significantly less than the average salaries of professors at Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and the other universities UTK considers members of its peer group.

UTK's nationally respected College of Business is widely regarded as one of the university's best, but full professors in each of its departments make several thousands less than the regional peer group average. In the field of marketing, that disparity amounts to more than $24,000.

UTK has been proud of its College of Engineering for more than a century; but even in that field, a full professor of industrial engineering at UTK makes $12,240 less than the peer group average. Electrical and civil engineering profs don't fare much better.

Don't send any care packages; most UTK profs do plenty well enough to get by, of course. But the disparity's important because comparatively lower income also makes recruiting and retaining top-notch talent very difficult.

"Because of salary disparities, we're tending to lose our best and brightest younger faculty," says Ratner. Recently retired, the former Arts and Sciences dean may speak more frankly than some incumbents. "If you can't replace them, this both creates holes in the curriculum and hurts your ability to attract research grants.

"Our worst single problem is lack of competitive salaries," says Business College dean Warren Neel. "And the biggest hurt doesn't come when you lose someone but when someone stays who feels he's not compensated fairly. When your best and brightest don't feel engaged, they start taking more consulting and holidays."

"It's terribly worrisome to see this happening," Ratner adds. "Last January, we were in the midst of recruiting to fill 30 faculty vacancies. Then the budget cuts came, and we had to institute a hiring freeze. We thought we had a great opportunity to rebuild our faculty, take a leap forward--and now we've lost it."

This year, state funding to UTK is already $4.6 million short of what the formula allows it; that's what left 40 faculty positions unfilled, as well as the travel cutbacks and other recent shortages. But it gets worse. The state's finance director, John Ferguson, projects that the receipts in the current fiscal year will fall $80 million to $100 million short of budget. Some of this shortfall will certainly come out of UTK's hide.

That's the source of another well-founded anxiety: the impoundment, better known to some professors as the giveback. Anticipating further cuts, the university's bracing for a 3 percent impoundment of funds already appropriated--a reduction totaling $4.5 million--expected to hit in January. "There are no further layoffs planned, other than adjunct professors," Chancellor Bill Snyder says. "But it's going to mean not filling positions, cutting back on operating expenses, and backing away from commitments to things like lab equipment."

Among other measures already instituted to minimize impact of the cuts is cutting back or eliminating faculty travel plans. More than just a perk, travel to various national conferences has become an important part of professors' continuing education. John Peters, vice chancellor for academic affairs, understands the importance of what's being lost. "We need money for faculty renewal, to learn new technologies, to go to professional meetings and hear the latest research," he says. "These things invigorate their teaching."

Increasing class size has been another stopgap measure to cope with the crisis. Adding three or four students to an average class size seems an innocuous short-term solution to some administrators who advocate it.

The English Department in particular is feeling the impact of this doctrine. Teaching the ability to express ideas clearly in writing is among the most important duties any college performs for students bound for almost any profession. Though some freshman-level classes number in the hundreds, the legendary freshman comp, is traditionally a small class, fewer than 25 students to an instructor, preferably fewer than 20. Raising class sizes from about 20, where they were a few years ago, to 25 or 26, where they are now, may seem an obvious solution.

But experienced freshman comp professors at UTK and other colleges insist that 20 should be the maximum class size in a course requiring so much individual attention. Grading each student's paper for grammar, spelling, syntax, and clarity typically calls for half an hour of the professor's time. Beyond 20 students in a class, they say, the professor's effectiveness drops sharply.

Department Chairman Allen Carroll calls the 26-student maximum an "invidious consequence" of the cuts. "For years we had the cap at 22 [students per class], and worked hard to realize that," he says. "Now it's 25, in some cases 26. That size makes the class unwieldy. It diminishes the chances it will be successful."

Professors at other universities agree. National guidelines for freshman composition, in fact, recommend a maximum of 15 students per class.

The threat of major cuts for the 1997-98 academic year appears to be even worse. Vice Chancellor Peters admits that "while reallocation can be invigorating, I don't know how we can sustain more cuts without some very, very hard choices." UTK's been operating at a disadvantage for some time, but it's clear that the worst is yet to come.

UTK's administration is gamely taking measures to take this bull by its horns. Snyder is establishing an academic program evaluation committee (APEC) which will, with the advice of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, the Council of Deans, and five faculty task forces, make some of those very hard choices. "We have to be more focused on priorities and efficiencies," Snyder says. "This process is essential for both retrenchment and enhancement."

APEC will rate programs in light of how well they serve the mission of higher education in Tennessee. A draft of APEC's guidelines sounds severe: "Resource allocations to programs with low ratings, other than those central to the mission, should be reduced, with a view to reorganizing, restructuring, or eliminating them."

The administration is taking some of these steps based on models of what other comparable universities have done in recent years, especially Syracuse and the University of Iowa. Among Iowa's cutbacks was the elimination of the School of Home Economics. That institution, which some see as obsolete, survives at UTK as part of the College of Human Ecology.

Concurrent with these cutbacks and rumors of cutbacks is some understandable hostility toward UT's administration. Some are suspicious that the many offices in Andy Holt Tower, some of which govern the statewide university system, are bloated and not suffering to the same extent the rest of the campus is. Some faculty members perceive UT administrators as incompetents. "They have no better an idea of how to run a great public institution than someone living under the Gay Street Bridge," declared one science professor in a recent faculty forum--echoing, more colorfully, Governor Don Sundquist's recent harsh criticisms of UT's "bureaucracies."

There may well be fat and gristle in Andy Holt Tower. However, some gauges indicate that UTK is one of the cleanest-burning academic engines around. For years, U.S. News & World Report has published a widely respected inventory of the best college buys in America, finding the universities that combine low tuition with high academic achievement. A school that somehow does both, one might assume, uses its resources very well. In the category of national universities, UTK consistently ranks extremely high for per-dollar value: #7 in America in '94, #8 last year, #12 this year. (In academic reputation, UTK is placed in the second of four tiers among American colleges and universities, still ahead of UK and Auburn, far ahead of Alabama and Ole Miss.) In addition, average college-entrance exam scores have risen, suggesting UTK's current student body may be a tad smarter than those of former years.

Many see Dean Neel's Business College as the jewel in UTK's crown, ranked among the better business schools nationally, regardless of tuition. "It's incumbent upon universities to say we use the money as effectively as we can," says Neel. "We think that with UT, the state gets a big bang for its buck."

There's plenty of room for improvement, but it's hard to look at dollar figures and argue with that statement, or with the likelihood that the largest part of the problem is outside of Circle Park: about 180 miles outside, to be specific, in Nashville, where, some note ruefully, the legislature is no longer dominated by UT grads. Its age, size, and superior reputation within the state aside, UTK still has to compete for state dollars with many other state-funded campuses. And higher education, in turn, now has to compete with other new, ambitious state programs like TennCare, Families First, and the urgent effort of bringing rural K-12 schools up to snuff.

Many faculty members wring their hands in frustration with the legislature and what they see as its complacency about UTK's plight. Some suggest their biggest problem is their failure to educate politicians; if they only understood how important the university is to the state's reputation and welfare, they say, they'd fix the problem. Chancellor Snyder has a more sober perspective. He sees no evidence that UTK is unfairly discriminated against in state budget allocations. "Given the resources we have in this state," he says, "we simply cannot meet all our needs as well as we'd like."

Even the almighty formula is impotent without one variable--the variable $. The formula has not, in fact, been fully funded by the state since 1989. This year, UTK is getting $151 million from the state--more than half its total operating budget of $248 million, with most of the balance--$76 million--coming from tuition. In some respects, UTK's problems reflect higher education's nationwide crisis, as the demand for high-tech equipment makes education more expensive and the federal sources of funding for it are now being picked over as sources of budget cuts. However, UT--which is, unfortunately, dependent on the State of Tennessee--has its own distinct revenue problems.

Now one of a tiny minority of states with neither an income tax nor a lottery, Tennessee's revenue depends almost entirely on sales tax. "The state of Georgia has a lottery system, with a large percentage of the revenue earmarked for higher education," remarks Jim Wansley, director of UTK's School of Finance, whose office has been forced to depend on private money for basic supplies. "Other states have an income tax. Without lotteries, which we have been unwilling to even let people vote on--or an income tax--there's just not much flexibility."

If statewide retail sales are disappointing, as they have been this year, higher education is on the butcher's block. In Tennessee, a bum Christmas season can bring big slices out of its state-funded universities. It's those Christmas sales tax figures that have everyone worried about the likelihood of unplugging the phones at UTK in '97.

Some of the most conspicuous shortcomings are the results not of recent cutbacks but of flat budgets that haven't kept up with inflation.

This fall, Oscar Franzese, an Oak Ridge Ph.D. in engineering, made the mistake of visiting UTK to look something up in recent issues of transportation journals he assumed any engineering library would have on hand. He was startled to discover that UTK's library had none of those he was seeking; the latest issues of each journal he sought were dated 1993.

On campus, similar stories abound in almost every field. Brian Griffin, a novelist who's an adjunct professor of writing at UTK, was taken aback to learn that the library didn't subscribe to several influential literary journals, including Story, one of America's most-respected fiction magazines. "We have a strong creative writing community, with a real interest in these publications, but they're not there. I'm really disappointed--to the point I don't even go to the library anymore."

To meet the demands of the budget crunch, the UTK library has surrendered a net total of 629 periodical subscriptions this year alone. Those deficits are only distantly related to the current rounds of cutbacks. Publishing costs have skyrocketed in recent years, and so have subscription rates, but the library's budget has not kept up with subscription rates, which have sometimes doubled in recent years. Though the library budget is allegedly safer from the current round of cutbacks than most other departments, its once-respectable catalogue of current academic journals has been dwindling for years, and continues to.

Many departments are also contending with the consequences of years of underfunded equipment budgets.

In this era of electronic mail and CD-ROM, students learning radio technology in UTK's School of Broadcasting are learning their trade using 17-year-old equipment that predates the digital age. Not only is it outmoded; some professors suggest some of these machines are so decrepit, they're even dangerous to use. "We are in a severe bind," says Professor Norman Swan. "We don't really have an equipment-maintenance or equipment-replacement budget. Radio is moving toward the digital world. In order to prepare students for the future, we need to teach them about it. But we're still working with outdated equipment."

The School of Civil Engineering has found it possible to rely more on outside nonstate sources of revenue--corporate grants and contracts--than some schools have; the budget they get from UT proper doesn't quite cover salaries alone. "We're asked by the crediting agencies to expose students to the latest testing methods," says chairman Greg Reed. "But we've had no equipment budget in eight years."

Is most of their equipment more than eight years old, then? It's a naive question. "Most of it's well over eight years old. Some of it's more than 20 years old! We're still patching it together, to keep it going." He says the THEC formula, when it's fully funded, allows for the replacement of 5 percent of the department's equipment yearly, which means equipment has to last an average of 20 years. In the fast-changing world of high technology, that's not nearly enough. "So much today is computer-integrated," he says. "Computers don't last for 20 years, that's for sure. Friends and alumni donate some--but not enough to keep pace with our peers." That is, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Auburn.

The administration admits the urgency of the problem. "We desperately need more infrastructure--equipment and operating money," says Peters. "We don't even have an equipment budget line anymore." The equipment shortage is a campus-wide crisis, part of which is now being addressed by a new $100 per student, per semester technology fee, earmarked for computer support.

The efforts of Snyder and APEC may make the best of a very painful situation, the magnitude of which we won't know until Sundquist's budget is unveiled next month. Things may be somewhat better by the '98-'99 year, when some of the other strains on the state's budget are predicted to have run their course. In the meantime, in the face of that ominous impoundment and certain future cuts, UTK's faculty, students, and alumni can only watch for it, knowing there's going to be much damage, praying it won't be the catastrophe they dread.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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