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Deja vu all over again

October 8, 2009

Because state revenues are projected to be about 7%  lower than the  FY2010 state budget, the governor just announced that there will be 10% an across-the-board budget cut to all state agencies.   (This is the highest budget reversion in state history:  the previous high was 4.3% in 2001.)    This 10% reversion means that the university will have to cut its budget by about $25 million ($19 million from the general university budget and an additional $6 million from directed state appropriations to various units).   We have known for sometime that a reversion was likely, and  local pundits had been estimating this reversion would be between 5 and 10%.    Unfortunately, this budget cut is a case of  “Deja vu all over again”  as Yogi Berra so famously put it.   The university’s  FY2010 state appropriation had already been reduced 15% over its FY2009 appropriation.

The announcement of this latest budget cut has suddenly made me popular with the local news media.   Several newspapers called me for interviews and a local TV station came to my office to interview me on camera.  As with most interviews only a few snippets of what I  said ever made it into print or onto TV.   I was basically asked asked two kinds of questions (1) How will  the budget cut effect me and other faculty? and (2) What should or can the university do to reduce expenditures?  I am not going to try to summarize my responses to these two questions, but I am going to give more candid, if very partial, answers to them here.

There have been a number of stories on the news recently in which somebody was beaten or killed by a group of strangers.  These innocent people had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  News stories about unprovoked violence are much more disturbing  to me than stories about robberies or hate killings.  Although I have obviously not suffered any physical harm,  the repeated budget cuts  and reversions in the last year – this is the fourth – are taking their emotional toll.  Like the victims of random violence, I am increasingly asking the question, “Why me?”  I have not done anything to deserve being robbed by a gang of white color thugs who I have never met or even seen, nor probably has anyone else at the university. Nevertheless, these white collar thugs are threatening my economic well being by forcing the university to consider ways to trim expenses that may include reductions in my benefits and indirectly in my pay through a leave-without-pay.   I don’t understand why I should have to suffer the consequences of the irresponsible actions of unknown and unregulated financial speculators in New York. Unfortunately, like all victims of unprovoked attacks, all I can do is live with the damage and move on with my life.

My main role as faculty senate president this year will be to try to minimize the impacts of budget cuts on the faculty.  I truly believe that the faculty are the heart of the university:  after all, they do all the teaching and research.  To preserve the university means preserving the faculty. To put this another way and more directly, I am not in favor of spreading the impacts of budget cuts equally across the university.  We need to retain faculty lines at all costs. 

Because salaries make up such a high percentage of the overall university budget,  reducing salaries will be essential to reduce expenditures by another 10%.   Preserving faculty lines will require differentially cutting support staff.   Cutting support staff, however, will obviously have an adverse effect on the faculty.  In some cases, faculty will have to assume duties  that are now being handled by support staff, but that were done by faculty in the past  For example, in many departments and colleges, undergraduate student advising is largely being done by support staff.  Faculty will need to become advisers again.

In short, faculty and administrators can no longer afford the level of support to which they have become accustomed.  This means that faculty and administrator workloads will have to increase.  Reducing professional services in order to preserve faculty lines is essential to preserve the teaching and research missions of the university — especially at a time when the university has a record number of students.  During a budget crisis, all organizations need to focus on the their central missions and to eliminate support and peripheral programs that can they can no longer afford.  When the recession is over and our budget begins to grow again, it will be possible to raise the level of support for faculty and administrators again.  It is much easier and cheaper to rebuild support staff then to try to rebuild a decimated faculty.

The university failed to protect faculty lines during previous recessions and over 200 tenure-track faculty lines were lost.  We have never recovered from this costly mistake that adversely affected both our teaching and research missions.    We need to make sure that we don’t repeat this mistake.  We may have no control over budget cuts, but we do have control over how we deal with them.  Let’s make sure that it is not “deja vu all over again” when it comes to dealing with this latest cut.

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