Effective Immediately

Budget cuts at UT touch people and programs you know

Wednesday, Oct. 22. Noon. United Campus Workers and the Progressive Student Alliance have organized a rally protesting budget cuts at the University of Tennessee. Insult added to injury—after losing $11.1 million earlier in the year, UTK lost $6 million more this month, in funds that had already been allocated. (The entire UT system lost some $21 million earlier in the year, and $17 million earlier this month.) The pedestrian mall at the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Andy Holt is lively with between-class traffic during the rally. There is precious little orange and white to be seen. Some of the students stick to their cellphones and plow, head down, along the edges of the large crowd. Some idle attentively, curious, but perhaps not wishing to be considered part of the roused rabble.

As of yet, it has not been determined—or announced, at least—how the university will adjust to compensate for $6 million less. There is great speculation, and human nature leads everyone to imagine impending reductions among the programs or processes with which they are most familiar, or those they hold most dear. However, the speakers here remind that it's not at all necessary to wait and see what will happen. It's happening now.

From the podium, a student tells of hardship following a shoulder injury. Another, a senior, recalls her experience of returning to find that courses she'd signed up for in the spring had been eliminated, and spending her first month back on campus sprinting around begging to be added to already full classes.

Near the steps to Hodges Library, a sorority senior whispers that she'd been too busy to give much thought to the budget headlines and how they might affect this fourth year of her history program. But now that you mention it, "One of my teachers came to class this morning," she says. "She said she had intended to bring a handout, but she'd been told not to make copies."

The same student is taking French this semester. Not her greatest strength, she confesses. She had planned to make use of the "French lab," which in the past was open in the evening, but is no longer.

The "French lab" is, in fact, the Language Resource Center, which serves all of the modern foreign languages and literature department. A professor who asks not to be named (suffice it to say, his accent is not one typically associated with East Tennessee) explains that the LRC is no longer open in the evenings due to the loss of student workers, due in turn to reduced funding.

"The situation is appalling," says the professor. "It never ceases to amaze me that this country, which so often refers to itself as the greatest country in the world, puts such little emphasis on educating its citizens. The long-term impact of what's happening could be devastating far beyond the fact that the LRC is not open as late as it used to be."

The foreign-language professor says that he used to make LRC-dependent assignments on a Tuesday, with results expected on Thursday. Now, he says he is compelled to give his students a full week for their work if it involves those resources.

"Tennessee has given its undergraduates a truly amazing educational bargain," says Lou Gross in his Austin Peay office on the hill, "but in the process has not supplied the resources to allow us to live up to the standards which a quality education for our students demands."

Gross is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics. He's past president of the Faculty Senate and has served on the Faculty Senate's budget committee, and is well acquainted with the ever-present budget issue. He's also the long-time volunteer sound engineer at the Laurel Theater.

"The first thing they think of is football," says Gross. "Education has never been as important. That's not going to change anytime soon."

There is often a tendency toward "The Town and the Gown" thinking here. There's Knoxville. And then there's UT. But most of us who live our lives off-campus know and value, or perhaps rely on, elements of this community that exist here because of UT.

Gross walks on both sides of the line, and explains the situation well. His particular specialty—biological research and modeling—is not something many people have cause to make use of directly. But he's been here for 30 years, doing what UT pays him to do, and lots of things above and beyond. Too easily obscured by glare from an enormous football franchise, Gross's successful department—and many others similar—has a home on campus. But in terms of home economics, it brings substantial money to town that does not stay on campus, and employs a relatively large number of Knoxvillians-by-choice

"I tell people I run a small business," he says, referring to his department. "That small business has generated full-time jobs for 15 people for 20 years. Most of that money comes from out of state, external to the university. Since 1995, external money attracted to this department has totaled around $25 million. We bring in around $900,000 a year. We have been able to keep some very talented staff members here who would have gone otherwise. They're making less here than they could in Atlanta or California.

"One could argue that the music department generates just as much money, it's just not direct."

Less than 24 hours after the rally assembled, the Finance and Administration Committee of the Board of Trustees convenes on the opposite side of Volunteer Boulevard. In a lower-level auditorium of the palatial, apparently complete but not-yet-open James A. Haslam II Business Building, there is nervous laughter mixed with grimacing as speakers connect the dots between the tanking national economy, Tennessee, and the University of Tennessee. This is a good place to talk about money—where it's going, and where it's gone. The building cost roughly $46 million in state and private funds.

School colors are more prominent among the trustees, administrators, and staff collected here, made manifest largely in the form of bow ties and tasteful jewelry and accessories. Much is made of the recently formed Committee on Effectiveness and Efficiency for the Future. The committee endeavors to learn from successful examples at other campuses, and also make use of internally generated ideas toward saving money. If anyone in the room has suggestions, they're mum. Or perhaps they plan to use the confidential online submission form.

Gross explains that in the past, positions and programs have been shuffled between departments with the intention of saving money; he cites the transition of the computer science department from the College of Arts and Sciences to the College of Engineering. "Unless you're removing people," he says, "you're not saving money. The work still has to be done."

Outspoken faculty and students appear to be braced for increased tuition soon to come, though Gov. Bredesen has made it clear that his preference would be the elimination of programs. For many, perhaps everyone involved, that's a lose-lose proposition.

Ben Allen is in his third year toward a degree in biochemistry. He's also a student worker in the Office of Information Technology. He says he fully expects his tuition to go up about the same time his student job goes away.

"We shouldn't have to suffer the consequences just because they f--ked s--t up at the top," says Allen, referring to the state. He attended the rally and seems to have absorbed the message of the speakers pretty well. "The state offers all these loopholes to groups that lobby. Like the way boats sold to out-of-state customers aren't taxed. So now they're telling us there's no money, to give back money that was already given, and just take the scratch we leave you."

Some staff and faculty have mentioned an openness to what would be called "retirement buyouts," or "the golden handshake" as it's known in other industries. Gross calls those phased retirement, and says the university's structure does not allow for them. "Although in some departments it's done informally," he adds. "You negotiate for reduced responsibilities and reduced compensation."

An English professor who asks not to be named says that the atmosphere in that department is foreboding, with specifics yet to come. "Faculty are often the last to know," he says. "You don't know your course has been cut until you go to class the first day and there's no one there." It's common for under-enrolled courses to be cut from semester to semester. The fear now is that if some higher-level specialist course is cut once, it may never reappear in the catalog. "So if you need an upper-level course in Old English, for example, and it's cut during your fourth year because only 15 people signed up, what do you do?"

More jarring was that professor's experience as a parent, when his now-sophomore son attended freshman orientation at UTK in 2007. "Those new students were told point blank four or five times, by different speakers, not to expect to complete a degree in four years." (Administrators couch that people come in from all quarters during orientation to share information with freshman, including other students, some of whom may be involved in programs that run over four years by design.) All things considered, such as housing, meals, transportation, etc., that's the kind of asterisk that could move a degree beyond the reach of many current and prospective students and their families.

A perennial money-saving suggestion is voluntary salary reductions. Gross says not to hold your breath. Celebrity hires in departments such as business—soon to occupy the Haslam Building—collect disparately high figures. For them, a 1- or 2- or 3-percent loss would be an affront, and could even remove their cause for coming here. President John Petersen addressed the Finance and Administration Committee of the Board of Trustees from his seat. A staff-member circulated a graph with stats projecting continued declines in state appropriations through 2011, and the possibility that they would not return to near 2009 levels ($481,805,200, for the statewide UT system) until around 2014. Even Petersen acknowledged that UT staff and faculty salaries already "are not competitive regionally or nationally."

Tenured positions will be safe until financial exigency is declared.

State Rep. Mike Turner spoke at the outdoor rally. In reference to the state's rainy day fund of nearly a billion dollars, which the state refuses to tap in order to support the UT system, Turner compelled those within earshot to call Nashville and "tell them it's raining!"