Saturday, January 29, 2011

Times is hard

As I hinted a couple of posts back, things could look a bit rosier for our campus, budget-wise.

Word around the campfire is that the state legislature's looking at cutting us back 5% for this fiscal year, rather than the 3.5% we'd anticipated and planned for. This is on top of substantial cutbacks during the past couple of years, the last round of which left our entire campus pretty must adjunctless, jeopardizing even year-to-year (and not-so-year-to-year) lecturers. Tenure tracks are safe, but even seasoned teachers who've been with the school for many, many years may find themselves cut loose if they've not got such security.

Meanwhile, despite tuition hikes, enrollment is high (I'm sure in no small part because our public-school price tag is drawing some students who might otherwise go to our private competitors), resource availability is low, and everything is tight, from copier paper and computers to classroom space. It's not simply cliché to say that last dollar counts.

So what's next for our school?

The Integrative Liberal Studies program (ILS) is the crown of UNCA's curriculum, a rich array of courses including a four-year Humanities sequence (the jewel in the crown, if you ask some...tarnished silver and dusty stones if you ask others), topically clustered courses, four intensives, first-year and transfer "welcome to a liberal arts college" colloquia, and various other supporting cast members. (For the past year and a half I've been the faculty chair of the committee charged with overseeing several of these components; I've felt honored to work with a half-dozen or so wonderful people on this body.) Several of the sorts of courses ILS comprises, including the last-mentioned colloquia and the Humanities course, are taught by faculty from across the campus. In times of plenty the departments these faculty call home can spare the folks who traipse off to teach ILS courses, for adjuncts are available to carry the load of the "service" (I hate that word: it's condescending and debasing) courses in the meantime.

No more. Right now it's all-on-hands-on-deck time, and every department on campus is drawing up plans to make sure they can cover their own course offerings before sparing people to teach ILS courses. It's looking more and more like the ILS program may have to be trimmed back, though it's unclear where exactly the cuts might come.

Clusters? The faculty perceptions survey put out a couple of years ago showed that the ILS Topical Clusters program is the most poorly understood and most unappreciated aspect of ILS. Though there is rhyme and reason to its arrangement, many faculty (even many of those who are on board with the rest of ILS) perceive its restrictions as arbitrary and its organization as byzantine. To many faculty and many more students it's a labyrinth of requirements and checkboxes standing between convocation and commencement. In these persons' defense, several of the clusters are exquisitely mismanaged, and several others, though put together with good intentions, fall short of their lofty goal of giving students an interdisciplinary analysis of a single topic.

Intensives? This segment of the ILS program is pretty well-thought-of by faculty, and even if students grumble about having to take one more QI course than they'd like to, at least they understand the theory behind the requirement. Besides, the requirements are easy to understand, at least in comparison with those for the ILS Clusters. Moreover, for most departments, most of the intensive requirements (diversity, information literacy, quantitative, and writing) are met through required major courses. The most vulnerable of the intensives from this point of view are the Diversity Intensives, but the political implications of cutting those back are liable to keep them off the chopping block.

The ILS Colloquia? Many (myself included) consider these the most vulnerable ILS courses overall, especially the transfer colloquia, the LSIC 379s. Some of my colleagues have argued that much of what these courses do can be done in a one-hour "welcome to UNCA" seminar which would meet once every other week in a lecture hall full of 100 or more students. The LSIC 179s (for first-year students) have more, and more critical functions, not the least of which is providing a first-year writing-intensive experience to supplement LANG 120, our one-semester first-year composition course. Historically we had a full-year composition sequence, but like many schools we cut this back to a single semester, meanwhile asking 179 instructors to provide a rich writing experience to replace that once offered by the second semester of composition. Were the 179s eliminated, students would have to seek out another writing-intensive course elsewhere, since the Language and Literature Department is in no position to offer once again a full year of composition to every student. (They're barely able to cover enough sections of their single semester comp course.)

There are complicating factors beyond those I've mentioned above. Some of the smaller departments would likely cease to exist were the ILS courses their faculty teach to disappear. Some have few (if any) majors, weak upper-level offerings, and what offerings they have often don't make enrollment. Faculty in some of these departments make a living (literally) off of teaching Humanities courses, and without such courses they'd have a hard time, from a financial standpoint, justifying their positions. The argument has been made aloud (not by me, I should say) that these programs, and not ILS, should be the first to go should the budget force some out into the streets.

I ask again: what's next?

I have no idea. I hesitate to speculate further than I already have here. We're sure to get news soon. Meanwhile, I intend to keep doing what I do well, and what I love doing: writing my book, working away at my research, and above all else, enjoying the company of my students. Yesterday (Friday) afternoon as I stood at the door of the Math Lab and watched a dozen or so of my Calc II and 280 students hammering away at their homework, it hit me how much I love my job. Despite the relatively low pay and the laughably long hours, I've got the best gig on Earth.

Colleagues, how's your school being hit? Students, are you feeling it, too? I'm curious to know you stories. Please take a few minutes to check in in the comments, even anonymously, and let me know where you are right now. Please let me know I'm not alone.


Jack Derbyshire said...

Phew! I've noticed the budget cuts in the same way that I've noticed the moon; I know its there and I can even see it, but its a long ways away and it doesn't affect me much. To be honest, that's still true at this point. Cuts may be coming, but, being a first year student, I haven't known this campus to be anything other than what it has been for these past 6 months. I may say that these cuts may feel as though they are a long way off, but I'm still worried about what might come.

I do worry about cuts affecting higher level courses from smaller departments - being interested in computer science, this could hit me very hard. I've already decided I would like to get my degree at UNCA, but that might not be so easily accomplished if the higher level courses are offered any less than they already are.

Regarding clusters: its true that I don't really understand them (along with quite a bit of the student body). What I do understand is you look at a specific topic from different angles in 3 different courses. Unfortunately, the clusters seem to be arbitrarily named cluster X, where X is a number from 1 to 15? Perhaps the cluster could be named after the topic examined - then the students would be more interested in the clusters and what they offer.

The budget cuts are incredibly worrying, Patrick. Do you have any ideas on how to solve the problems these cuts could create? Right now, it seems inevitable that our campus will be affected negatively. Is there any way to dodge this bullet or minimize the damages done?

Anonymous said...

I work under confidentiality with the school, so I know of some of the cutbacks as well. I feel it is very unfair, and that we the students need to exercise our rights to fight for the teachers we love, adjuncts or tenures, and we deserve the best education and treatment while enrolled here at UNCA. I am very upset to say the least. And it's a burden, I daresay, that I am not meant to bare. I am a student. The reason of the University is the betterment of the student. I understand the cutbacks must be made, and I understand it is not the school's fault for the cutbacks. However, I do feel they need to reorganize their priorities and reconsider the distribution of the cutbacks.

DocTurtle said...

To both of my commenters: I'm afraid I don't have a "magic pill" solution to offer. There's no easy way out, sadly. Cuts are going to have to come from somewhere, and we're likely going to lose a number of talented teachers who don't have tenure...and those who do have tenure may have to take what will effectively be pay-cuts, before we see the end of this.

I'm currently attempting to get on a task force whose primary goal will be to overhaul the curriculum to make it not only pedagogically meaningful and rich but also sustainable for the very overworked faculty. I don't know how this can be done without sacrifice none of us want to make, but we'll do the best we can.