UT Spending Squeeze: Departments Juggle Priorities

UT faculty attempt to do more with less

UT Spending Squeeze: Departments Juggle Priorities
Illustration by Jason Stout

The University of Texas is not only the state's flagship university but also one of Austin's biggest employers. Yet with a flatlining budget (see "Clouds Over Campus," May 21) and the recent decision by President Bill Powers to order academic departments to fund a 2% merit pay raise pool from their existing budgets, deans and department chairs are making tough choices about whom to hire and what they can afford to teach.

UT-Austin provost Steven Leslie oversees the academic budget and will spend the summer meeting with the college deans. While instruction remains a top spending priority, it's not the only one, with research, staff, and student support also requiring investment. "We work on how to use the resources to best prioritize and focus on [departmental] critical needs, and that's different for each one of them," said Leslie. In the face of "a very flat or perhaps even declining budget," he added, "we're going to have less money to support the nontenured track professionals, and we're going to have to make some hard decisions on lecturers, [teaching assistants, and assistant instructors]."

While he called the cuts "strategic," they are inevitable and will hit departments differently. For example, the School of Engineer­ing budgeted for 10 faculty researchers in the 2010-11 academic year. Before 2008 that figure was closer to 20 a year. Dean of Engin­eering Gregory L. Fenves explained that "continuing to hire faculty, replacement with modest growth, is my highest priority after budgeting for the 2% merit pool." And Engin­eer­ing has it easy compared to the Department of French and Italian: Next year it enters a complete hiring freeze, and, department Chair Daniela Bini said, "We don't know how long it will last."

The belt-tightening got more urgent May 8 when the administration announced cuts to current funding, spurred by a call from Gov. Rick Perry to reduce general revenue expenditure by 5%. The one bright spot for teaching staff is that most of the savings come from administrative spending, leaving them to reduce their current budget by only 0.2%. However, that's on top of the budgetary pressure of the 2% merit pay raise pool, and so serious revisions are being made to what is being taught and by whom. The Department of French and Italian, for example, currently breaks its lower division courses across two consecutive semesters: As of the new school year, they will all be crammed into one six-hour course. There will be fewer classes taught in English, and those that remain will have higher enrollment caps.

The cuts will impact tenured and tenure-track faculty; because there will be additional pressure on those instructors to teach students majoring in their subjects, Bini explained, they "will be teaching fewer classes outside of the department." That puts particular pressure on interdisciplinary courses such as humanities and comparative literature, which bring together experts from different academic backgrounds. Bini described that as "tragic, because those programs depend on many departments."

Knowing that her colleagues face remarkable budgetary pressures, Comparative Lit­er­a­ture Program Director Elizabeth Rich­mond-Garza praised Bini and the other department heads for being creative in ways to continue to help her program, such as providing teaching assistant positions for her graduate students. Because of that support, she said, "our mission isn't being compromised. We're just having to be incredibly thoughtful."

The idea that departments have to do more with what they have means fewer opportunities to build. Last session, legislators presumed that, as major state universities like the University of California faced financial ruin, many world-class researchers would be looking for new jobs. However, due to the ongoing squeeze, Richmond-Garza said that her department has had to downsize and pass on hiring "wonderful candidates ... who went to other places that had more funding." In fact, with a stagnating budget and an improving national economy, UT is no longer in a buyer's market. "The reality is that this has been a time of great opportunity," said Leslie, "but with where we're headed now, we're in it with the rest of them."

Hiring freezes and slowdowns will also have a serious impact on graduating doctoral students looking for their first lecturing positions. Before 2008, the School of Engineering was expanding by six to eight new positions a year; now those numbers have been halved. Even if hiring returns to previous levels in future years, that leaves a wave of highly qualified graduates who may have to look outside of academia for their first jobs. "A few years ago," said Richmond-Garza, "one might be concerned about any kind of discontinuity in one's professional record." As a member of the national Coalition on the Academic Workforce, she said, "one of the things we're trying to publicize is that people's career paths are going to be affected by the current economy, and that we need to keep that in mind for most people finishing Ph.D.s this year, next year, and the following year." She added, bleakly, "Let's just hope it's only that many."

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University of Texas, Bill Powers, Steven Leslie, Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, Rick Perry, UT spending cuts

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