THE gray gothic buildings, with their impressive buttresses and imposing towers, speak of Yale University's three-century history in the forefront of American education.
But the peeling paint above the door of the office of undergraduate admissions tells a different story.
A staggering $1 billion worth of maintenance work needs to be done on campus facilities, most of them built in this century.
Even without this repair bill, Yale must reduce its academic offerings or see its annual budget deficits reach $50 million by the end of the decade, says Provost Frank Turner.
The thought of an 11 percent cut in Yale's faculty - a measure proposed last month by an in-house commission that Dr. Turner headed - is met with disbelief by many of the students and professors here.
Yet the problems that seem so glaring at this richly endowed Ivy League bastion are being faced in some degree at colleges and universities across the country.
"There's a lot of pressure on university budgets" nationwide, says Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities. Among the constraints he and other experts cite:
* Financial aid to students is absorbing a rising share of operating budgets.
* Competition to attract top-flight professors is likely to increase due to a shortage of PhDs in the next 20 years. Soaring health-care costs have added to the payroll problem.
* Like Yale, many institutions face a backlog of repair work, known as "deferred maintenance." Extra money is needed to make structures comply with a just-enacted federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
* Last year, budget-strapped state governments reduced their net support for higher education for the first time in more than three decades.
* Meanwhile, Washington is tightening its standards for granting money for research.
* After a decade of big tuition hikes, public resistance puts a damper on further increases, particularly in the present slow-growth economy.
* The nation's economic slump has made charitable gifts harder to come by. Focusing on strengths
"The overarching theme will be that no university has enough resources to do everything anymore. So they have to focus on what they do best," Mr. Rosenzweig says.
Kent Chabotar, treasurer of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, offers a similar assessment: "Schools are going to have to consider becoming boutiques rather than supermarkets."
At Yale, for example, 40 percent of the proposed cuts would come from four departments. The departments of operations research (an applied math field) and of linguistics would be phased out entirely. Engineering would be consolidated into one department, removing special departments for chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering. Sociology would lose 11 of 27 positions. For tenured faculty, the cuts would be achieved through attrition rather than layoffs.
Despite such moves, "Yale is not going to become a specialized university," says university president Benno Schmidt. "We are doing some downsizing in order to better support what we will continue to do." Restructuring opposed
But Werner Wolf, a critic of the proposed restructuring, says the plan represents an "ivory tower attitude" that cuts most sharply the study of "anything that looks out into the real world."
"It's the wrong thought," says Dr. Wolf, who is chairman of the applied physics department. That department would lose five positions and be merged into the larger physics department under the plan, which must still be approved by trustees.
Ironically, in 1979 Yale made plans to cut its faculty by 7.5 percent, but instead wound up increasing the ranks by 3 percent during the 1980s. Now, "retrenchment" is becoming the norm at Yale and other institutions.
Stanford University recently outlined steps aimed at cutting its $43 million annual deficit.
Smith College in Northampton, Mass., was hit last year by an unexpectedly high level of requests for financial aid. As a result, about 20 students could not be admitted who ordinarily would have been under Smith's "need-blind" financial-aid policy for applicants. Academic cuts avoided
Stetson University in Deland, Fla., has managed to avoid cutting its academic offerings but has seen financial aid rise from 27 to 33 percent of its education budget in the last four years. The liberal-arts college is squeezing on salary increases and saved $300,000 by refinancing its debt, says its president, Douglas Lee. He says the downsizing trend in higher education is not entirely bad. Universities "are bureaucracies. From time to time they will start new ... programs that will meet a need for a sh ort term ... but are not really central to the university's mission."
How Yale will fare in the coming decade depends on several unresolved issues.
One question mark is federal research funding, which at $218 million is the largest revenue source in this year's $800 million budget. With a burgeoning federal deficit and Stanford's alleged misuse of federal grant money in view, Washington is becoming more strict about what the nation's research universities may bill as "indirect expenses."
Another uncertainty is labor unions, which struck in 1984 and have voted to strike again if current talks do not yield a contract by Feb. 12. Health benefits and freedom to hire subcontractors are key issues.
Yale is committed to keeping faculty salaries competitive and financial aid need-blind, says Turner. But the proposed reduction in the faculty will save no more than $5 million a year.
So where does the money come from for all the deferred maintenance work? This spring, Schmidt is expected to announce a campaign to raise $1.5 billion, one-third of which would go for maintenance. The university plans to borrow money for some of the work, and much of it will be postponed further.
In hindsight, Schmidt says it is easy to say that Yale should have been more vigilant about maintenance. But he says equally pressing needs are going unmet today: "I worry about what the next generation will say about the deterioration of books in our libraries."