IT was the closest thing to the '60s people around here have seen in a long time. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 students with placards clogged the State House and massed on the Boston Common recently. But what brought them out on this drizzly fall day to shout slogans at the establishment was not a war. It was to save their schools.
The 29 state universities and colleges here have been ordered to trim $25 million and to cut 700 jobs, as part of an across-the-board 5 percent state budget cut to offset a $340 million shortfall. They've been asked before - this is the fifth time in 18 months. But this time something snapped. Chancellors and presidents say they have just finished implementing the cuts asked for only a few months ago, and say it's too soon and too much.
``We have come to the end of our ability to make even short-term cuts without severe and lasting implications for our academic programs,'' says Sherry H. Penney, chancellor of University of Massachusetts in Boston. Already, she says, the university has laid off 18 members of the administrative or professional staff, cut the number of students accepted by 1,000, cut 12 faculty positions, raised tuition, and mandated fee increases of 27 percent since the fall of 1988.
Some schools had their computer budgets cut by 80 percent, others lost teaching assistants and class sections, others hockey teams. Now the government wants them to either make more cuts or raise tuitions and fees.
``The presidents are all very seriously concerned about maintaining academic programs,'' says Joseph Duffey, chancellor of University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``They feel they can't do that with an additional 5 percent cut.''
``Students are having to extend by one year because classes required to graduate aren't available,'' says Roger M. Hewett, director of planned giving at UMass in Amherst, who came out with students from western Massachusetts. The students had been released from classes by Chancellor Duffey. ``Teaching aides are so severely underpaid that they can't afford to attend the college and provide support for those reduced faculty.''
Julie Buschini, a senior in the Japanese studies program at UMass, was holding a sign that said, ``I want to study, but ...'' in English and Japanese. She was studying in Japan as part of a UMass exchange program but recently had to return six months early. The school called and told her if she didn't, she would lose her financial aid and might not get back in the program because of the budget cuts.
For other students, it's the uncertainty that gets them. ``Some people are saying North Adams [State College] is going to close,'' says Susan Gromko, a sophomore there. ``We start thinking, `Maybe we should go somewhere else. What if we go for two years and then it closes?'''
Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) would like to see the budget shortfall taken care of by higher taxes, but the legislature is resisting that. ``Some would say that we have not cut the budget enough,'' he says. ``They have said that until they see the blood in the streets, they won't believe that there have been enough cuts. But the students ... prove that we cannot afford to eat our seed corn - our future - any more.''
After a series of negotiations with the Board of Regents, the governing body of the state college and university system, the governor reduced the reversions by $10 million from $35 million. Now tenured faculty won't be laid off. Heads of higher education have predicted that this would be passed along to students in the form of higher tuition and fees. But the situation is still fluid, observers say. The Board of Regents, which has the power to set tuition, is still deciding if it will be raised and how the cuts will be allocated. The campus chancellors are discussing fee increases.
One engine driving the cuts in higher education, says Paul Tsongas, chairman of the Board of Regents, is the perception that higher education, like much of the public sector, is filled with ``waste, fraud, and abuse.''
``We have to convince the public that we know how to run the system well,'' he says. To do that, he says, the regents are setting up a task force on management efficiency. Mr. Tsongas is acting as host for an education summit today with state business leaders to encourage them to marshal support in the business community for schools. Tsongas also is supporting a $400 million referendum for education that would come from a 1 cent increase in the sales tax.