Hearing Impaired

As UT postpones its decision to cut its audiology department, faculty and students wonder if they still have a future

When the news hit Tuesday that the Board of Trustees at the University of Tennessee would be postponing a decision on some major program cuts, including the highly-regarded, 225-student, 44-faculty-member Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, you would think that ASP Professor and Associate Department Head Dr. Ashley Harkrider would be relieved. Delaying the decision until the board's October meeting, after all, means that she and the rest of the department have another four months, rather than a few days, to make their case to the university.

On the other hand, though, it could just be another four months of worry.

"It feels like winning the battle but not the war," she says. "It was made very clear from the announcement that they are still supporting these vertical cuts and that our department is one of the ones that they are considering very strongly."

On Tuesday, UT President John Petersen released a statement saying that the college deans, Chancellor Jan Simek, and himself have chosen to eliminate full programs rather than cutting across several departments because across-the-board cuts weaken the entire university.

But that they've chosen ASP in particular is confusing to a lot of people. The program is ranked among the top 25 in the country, according to US News and World Report, and, according to Dr. Ilsa Schwartz, head of the department, it has a nearly 100 percent post-graduate employment rate.

When the announcement came on Wednesday, June 4, that UT was considering cutting ASP, the faculty and students mounted a public awareness campaign, culminating last Friday in a 125-person protest outside Neyland Stadium, where the department is located.

In an email sent to the College of Arts and Sciences staff two days after the announcement, though, Dean Bruce Bursten says that it was selected because it's the only A&S department that doesn't teach general education courses, is not affiliated with any other major entities like ORNL or the UT Medical School, and because the state is well-served by other, similar programs, like Vanderbilt's, the number one ranked ASP program in the country. The departmental budget, about $1.4 million per year, is also nearly equal to what's been cut out of the College of A&S budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year: $1.37 million.

Meanwhile, UT still has a responsibility to balance its budget. And as a result of a massive state deficit in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the Tennessee higher education budget was slashed by $56 million; $21 million of that comes from the UT system, and $11 million of that comes from the Knoxville campus. Because of the delay on the program cuts—along with the fact that program closure is spaced out over two to three years—the university will have to temporarily divert unused funds from other departments.

"Lengthening the process will ensure that we can work closely with Faculty Senate to ensure that we have dealt directly and effectively with all concerns that have been raised during this very difficult process," writes UT spokeswoman Karen Collins in an e-mail for UT Chancellor Dr. Jan Simek. Simek was unavailable for comment by press time.

That the campaign was, at least temporarily, successful comes as a relief to students and faculty. The reason goes beyond the protest. The original time-frame between the June 4 announcement of the proposal and the June 20 Board Meeting was only 16 days, hardly enough to defend the existence of an entire department, says second-year ASP graduate student Erin Carini.

"The dean and the president and the chancellor all said that it was long thought-out and that they had been in communication with our department," Carini says. "However, they told us Monday afternoon, two days prior to the press release. And the department heads didn't know about it either."

Had the vote gone ahead as originally planned, it would have been against the policies of the South's primary accreditation body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

"A decision to close an educational program, branch campus, or the entire institution requires thoughtful planning and careful consultation with all affected constituencies," reads the first line of the SACS Policy Statement on program closures.

"They didn't consult me or Ilsa," says Harkrider. "Certainly we're affected constituencies."

And ASP has quite a few affected constituencies. For starters, there are the 269 faculty, staff, and students. But then there are the 2,500 patients who come to its four clinics for speech and hearing therapy.

One of them is three-year-old Aiden Maret, who's been coming to the department's Hearing and Speech Center in Neyland for therapy four times a week for two years. Aiden has a Cochlear implant—an amplification device given to people with severe hearing impairments—in each ear.

The therapy seems well-suited to a child Aiden's age. It kind of looks like he's playing with blocks, actually.

"Whenever he hears a sound, he shows me by putting one of these blocks into a tub," says Emily Noss, an employee at the clinic who works with Aiden.

Aiden's mother, Heather Maret, says that the clinic has been essential in tracking his deafness, teaching him to speak, even improving his behavior.

"There's a lot of teaching him to take turns and to share," Maret says, watching her son's session through a window in an adjoining room. "He's done a complete 180. He went from not wanting to sit at therapy—he wouldn't sit for any length of time. Now he'll sit for an entire hour of individual therapy."

Maret says she's "panicked" at the thought that the department could soon close. Even though UT has pledged to keep the Hearing and Speech Center open—it's actually obligated to until 2057 pursuant to an agreement made in 1966—she fears that without ASP backing, those services are bound to diminish.

"It's difficult for us to tell what they're talking about," says Harkrider. "The agreement itself talks about the Hearing and Speech Center."

The Hearing and Speech Center, however, refers to all four of the on-campus clinics. The university has only pledged to continue to offer clinical services but has not indicated at what levels or whether all four clinics will remain.

A lot of the work done in the clinics is done by ASP students. Without them, UT would probably have to bring in a private practice.

"If the students are no longer present, they're going to have to hire people and pay them salaries to provide the same services that the students are providing," says Harkrider. "The students, they do this work for free. Better than that, actually, they pay tuition to work here."

She says she worries that without the students there, many of the 2,500 clients that come to the Hearing and Speech Center would be priced out. About 40 percent of the clinics' patients pay with TennCare, says Harkrider.

"Most of the privatized practices in town will tell you they're not able to accept TennCare. They pay out $7 to $11 for a service that in a private practice you'd need to pay $80 or $90 for," Harkrider says.

But according to Collins, the university is taking that into consideration.

"We recognize that the department has four clinics that provide a variety of services, and that each is valuable and appreciated by many people," Collins writes. "President Petersen will be appointing a group to study all of the options and those decisions will be made with people who are close to the program involved."

Harkrider worries that in October, when the decision has to be made, the Board of Trustees will be forced to vote for closure, since she hasn't heard any alternate plans to cut the $1.4 million that ASP costs the university annually out of the budget.

"All the deans were supposed to come up with two options," she says. "As for us, I haven't heard the other one. I know we're Plan A. I have no idea if there's a Plan B."