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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.

By Seth SternStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2003


A year after she earned tenure, University of Nebraska professor Julia Morse received a less welcome distinction this spring: a pink slip.

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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.

'Not a way to run a university'

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.

'Eating our own seed corn'

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.