Saturday, December 20, 2008

Atypical? in higher education

Is this an atypical scenario? No, I don't think so. University department's funding is shrnking for the most part and comfortably staffed and supplied departments are feeling the pinch. I suspect that times of "fat" are being relaced by "lean" times and I don't think that university departments will disappear but focus on strteamling of functions.

"Tough times for UT Physics Dept."

Soren Sorensen, head of the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, wrote a wonderfully informative column in the current issue of "Cross Sections" -- the department's newsletter. He discusses the economic situation in the context of his department, but the insights apply to the state of Tennessee, the University of Tennessee and science education in general.

With his permission, I'm sharing a copy of the column, titled, appropriately enough, "Tough Times."


Frank Munger

December 19th, 2008

Atomic City Underground

These are tough times. The stock market has plummeted, stores and factories are closing, and many people are losing their jobs. Here in Tennessee the tax revenues have been decreasing for the past 12 months and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. As a direct consequence of these decreasing revenues, state funding for the University of Tennessee was cut by 5% for this fiscal year, and during the recent budget hearings in Nashville Governor Bredesen predicted budget cuts for higher education at the 10-15% level for next fiscal year.

So how do these budget cuts influence our department? Profoundly! We now have 25.5 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) faculty members in our department. This is two less than just a year ago, since we lost two positions as a result of the budget cuts in June. We have to go all the way back to around 1960 to find fewer faculty members in our department. We have partly compensated for this loss in FTEs by having more Joint Faculty positions with ORNL, so the 25.5 FTE correspond to 33 actual living beings!

Our department used to have a large group of lecturers and adjunct teaching staff, who would be responsible for many of our large service courses and general education courses. Over the past several years we have lost many of them and have not had any funds to replace them, so we are now down to only 3 lecturers. This has placed a strong teaching responsibility on our faculty and they have responded extremely well. Our physics faculty is now teaching more student credit hours than any other department at the university, because our faculty members have been willing and have had the skills to teach general education astronomy and physics for biologists, engineers, and architects. In many other departments the students do not meet a real professor before classes at the 200 or 300 level!

This high efficiency, however, is coming at a cost. There is no more "slack" in the system in the form of professors that can teach more courses. If we have to implement additional budget cuts, we will have to cancel classes. This will result in much higher student dissatisfaction and, more importantly, longer graduation times for our majors, since many students will not be able to schedule 15 credit hours each semester.

We have also had to reduce our staff in the department. We are now operating our Electronics Workshop with only two people instead of three, and our Mechanical Workshop will now be run by only four people after the untimely death of our workshop supervisor, Jodie Millward, since we do not have any funds to replace his position. Our administrative and financial staff now consists of only five people, who manage to run a "business" with approximately 200 employees.

We are not the only department or university facing tough times. The trend all over our nation has been that state universities get less and less support from public funds. At some universities like Washington and Virginia the state support is now less than 10% of the total revenue. I expect that the University of Tennessee will be following the same trend, so even when the financial situation for the state of Tennessee hopefully gets better in a few years, I do not expect we will be able to fully recover what is now being lost.

The problem is being enhanced by the state control of the tuition. Private universities have been able to increase tuition to unprecedented levels over the last decade, but UT will not be allowed substantial tuition increases, even if most of our students now are covered by the HOPE scholarship funded by the state lottery.

However, in all this doom and gloom there is one bright spot. Here in the department we have been blessed by wonderful alumni and donors, who over the past 8 years have increased our endowment from $100,000 to nearly $2,000,000. This has enabled us to provide scholarships and support for many of our students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Increasingly we will have to offset the diminishing state support by relying on the proceeds from our endowment to provide a meaningful educational experience for our students. Many of our donors have graciously made the stipulations of their donations very broad, which has enabled us to use the funds to support a range of activities that used to be state supported: research participation for undergraduate students during the summer semester, support for students on foreign exchange programs, support for equipment used by students in our educational labs, and even in a few cases for research equipment benefitting our graduate students (and their advisors!).

We will also increasingly be using our endowment proceeds as payment/scholarships for our junior and senior physics majors, when they work in our tutoring center. This tutoring center has been a great success and we need to expand that service. Every day many students in the lower-division physics courses come here to get help with homework and help with understanding difficult concepts in physics (like the difference between centripetal and centrifugal acceleration). We would also like to expand this valuable service to cover our astronomy courses.

In the future, it is also my hope that we will be able to cover other activities through our endowment. We have a wonderful astronomy outreach program that we would like to grow by having a planetarium in the high-bay room Nielsen 108. We would also like to grow our physics outreach program, so more of the middle- and high-school children (and their parents) in Tennessee will be excited about physics and might choose a carrier in our field or at least in science or technology. In the past I had hopes of having a physics outreach coordinator funded by university funds, but as explained above we cannot anymore count on state support for this. So this would be another great donation opportunity.

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