The unkindest cuts
State budget crises are forcing public colleges to make hard choices about what to cut. A close-up look at how one university system wielded its ax.
LINCOLN, NEB. — A year after she earned tenure, University of Nebraska professor Julia Morse received a less welcome distinction this spring: a pink slip.
So instead of fixing up her new house, Ms. Morse is packing it up - along with her office. Down the hall, the soccer-field-sized manufacturing lab where she used to teach sits idle. Her department is a casualty of a $13.7 million cut in the budget at Nebraska's four-campus university system, brought on by the state's worst fiscal crisis in decades.
Thus far, the University of Nebraska's cuts of tenured faculty and whole departments are one of the most extreme university responses to a budget crunch. But if the economy's sluggishness continues, other states may face the same dilemma as Nebraska's flagship campus in Lincoln: whether to sacrifice a few programs and professors to preserve quality overall.
The experience at the University of Nebraska's Lincoln campus has revealed some unpleasant truths: Even the biggest state universities can't do everything, and a poor economy can be the catalyst for setting priorities. But the affected students and faculty aren't the only ones reeling from this new round of cuts. Many fear long-term damage to UNL's reputation and the state's economy.
Nowhere in Nebraska have the cuts to higher education hit harder than in Lincoln, the state's second-largest city. (This in a state so sparsely populated that UNL's 74,031-seat football stadium qualifies as the third-largest city when the Huskers play at home.)
Grain silos are the tallest structures on the horizon here, a symbol of the state's continued dependence on corn and cattle two decades after an agricultural depression stalled Nebraska's economy.
Today, the state faces an even deeper budget crisis. Four times in the past two years legislators have trimmed UNL's budget. In all, the university lost $15.6 million. The cumulative 9 percent reduction is double the percentage cut during the 1980s.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman didn't want to repeat the university's experience during earlier recessions, when across-the-board cuts forced professors to reproduce tests on scratch paper and departments chose to disconnect their phones to save money. "That's not a way to run a university," Mr. Perlman says.
Like other public universities facing big shortfalls, UNL first shaved administrative expenses and enacted a double-digit rate of increase in tuition. The university also merged colleges and cut support for its natural-history museum, hotel, and arboretum.
But when those measures proved inadequate, Perlman opted to drop a handful of academic programs rather than spread the cuts equally among all departments.
In June he announced the targets: the department of industrial systems technology, based in Omaha, and the department of health and human performance. He also eliminated Portuguese and downsized Russian.
Those cuts directly affected a few hundred students and a couple of dozen faculty - only a fraction of UNL's 18,000 undergraduates and 1,000 professors. Compared with majors such as physics or economics, it's hard not to argue that these departments are somewhat peripheral. Only 30 students, for example, were enrolled in introductory Portuguese this coming year.
Professor Morse's department - Industrial Systems Technology - is located in Omaha, more than 50 miles from the Lincoln campus. Morse taught applied skills, such as manufacturing techniques and how to operate computer-run lathes, rather than conducting the kind of research UNL places a premium on.
But Morse argues that cutting her department is shortsighted, given the economic benefits it offers. Manufacturers agree that they are losing a key source of skilled managers. "We need the brightest people who are well trained," says Philip Mullin, CEO and owner of Garner Industries, a 100-employee manufacturer in Lincoln. "By eliminating that department, we're saying that's not important."
Similarly, ranchers and state senators in western Nebraska had been angered, earlier, when UNL eliminated two of three veterinary diagnostic labs and reduced cooperative extension programs that informed farmers about animal-borne diseases. All tissue samples and whole carcasses must now be shipped to a lab in Lincoln.
University of Nebraska President L. Dennis Smith likens the cuts to "eating our own seed corn." "If you have an economy that's struggling, it doesn't make sense to eliminate the engine that drives it," he says.
Yet the University of Nebraska "can't be all things to all people anymore," Dr. Smith says. "We have a set of responsibilities to the people in this state, [but] we can only do so much."
That's little solace to students like Jake Peetz, a junior who learned while listening to the radio in the shower that his major, exercise science, was being phased out. A mass e-mail came later. "I didn't think they treated it with a lot of respect," says Mr. Peetz, who hopes to become a college athletic coach after graduation.
Sophomores were told to shift majors or transfer to another University of Nebraska campus, while upperclassmen like Peetz were assured they could finish out their studies.
Exiting professors wonder how that will be possible if no one remains to teach in those areas. Part-time students, who would need more than two years to finish, are also at a disadvantage.
Peetz says he feels a new pressure. Fail a single required class and he won't complete the major before it's phased out.
Peetz's tuition bills, like those of his peers, will increase 25 percent during the next two years, and that doesn't include new fees for the library and engineering classes. Adding to his financial troubles, the athletic department can no longer afford to pay him to supervise student athletes' training regimens.
As a result, Peetz has been working a second job at a local warehouse, loading pallets of frozen food from coolers onto trucks. He now works 18 hours a week - 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. three days a week - in addition to his full schedule and unpaid work as a trainer.
Making matters worse, course offerings dwindled this summer, a time when many students try to knock off required classes. "It's pretty rigorous, but I have to get done with school in two years," Peetz says. "I don't have a choice."
Choices - or at least good ones - are something Prof. Wes Sime says he has lacked since his job was eliminated along with seven others in the health and human performance department.
That's a new feeling for Professor Sime, who, as a stress management specialist, is usually the one helping others cope with difficult situations. A decade ago, he earned a second Ph.D. in counseling. But now, the 26-year UNL veteran can either accept early retirement or appeal the decision and risk losing his family's health benefits, which he relies on to help pay for care for an ill family member.
He spent much of the summer pleading with other departments to find a space for him.
Unlike several other members of the department, he has yet to be offered a position elsewhere at the university.
Still, like many faculty members, Sime doesn't necessarily disagree with the chancellor's budget strategy. He just doesn't understand why UNL cut his position. "It's devastating," he says. "I'm not dead wood here. I'm not ready to be hung out to dry."
Morse fared better, quickly landing a job teaching at Kansas State University at Salina. She says she also learned an important lesson: Tenure doesn't mean a guaranteed job.
"I'm younger, I have no family to move, I'm very flexible, and I have 30 years left," Morse points out. "My colleagues don't."
Faculty leaders say UNL could have spared all the heartache by following the lead of its sister campus in Omaha, which saved money by leaving already-vacant faculty positions unfilled for the coming year. They worry that cutting tenured professors will make it harder to attract top faculty to the university.
"It's not something [where] the faculty will forget and move on," says economics professor Ann Marie May. "We have a very black mark from this."
Already there are signs that the cuts have tarnished the university's academic reputation. Andrew Smith, an entomology researcher affiliated with the natural-history museum, had a grant rejected by the National Science Foundation.
Reviewers noted, "The stability of the home institution and the quality of its facilities must have some bearing on the overall competitiveness of proposals," according to an excerpt Dr. Smith provided.
But Michael Baer, senior vice president at the American Council on Education in Washington, says UNL made the right choice. "It reduces the breadth of the institution but not the quality," he says. "In the long run, the institution will be as able or better able to continue to attract good students and good faculty."
As Morse prepares to start her new job in Kansas, she predicts that the campus will ultimately weather this crisis. "Folks from Nebraska take things where they are and they work with them."
Nebraska is not the only state in which public universities must cope with deep budget cuts in the next fiscal year. A survey by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) found:
• 25 states anticipate decreases in funding for public higher education.
• The deepest of cuts are in Colorado (13.7%) with California, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wisconsin all experiencing cuts between 9.1 and 10.5%. (That compares with a 4.2% cut in funding in Nebraska.)
• 20 states anticipate increases in funding for higher education, including Nevada (22%) and New Mexico (7%).