Paul Verhelst had to stop buying books on ancient Egypt years ago — his shelves ran out of room. He has been fascinated by archaeology since sixth grade.
“If there was anything on the History Channel or National Geographic with ancient Egypt, I was probably watching it,” he said.
So when he was looking for colleges, the University of Minnesota’s program in classical and near Eastern archaeology emerged as a clear fit.
Earlier this month, the College of Liberal Arts Assembly cut that major after CLA administration prevented the replacement of a key faculty member in that department.
Luckily for Verhelst, a senior, students currently enrolled in the program will be allowed to finish their degrees.
Verhelst said he understands the University needs to cut costs but thinks of what future University students like him will miss.
“It’s really just kind of crushing,” he said, “to know that maybe there’s somebody else out there like me, from rural Minnesota, who just fell in love with archaeology.
“But now the options are going to be extremely limited.”
It is likely that other small programs will face elimination as the University’s individual colleges fight against a sea of change in funding from the state Legislature, which is now considering a bill that would reduce its support to 1998 levels.
In late 2009, Provost Tom Sullivan ordered each college to prepare so-called “Blue Ribbon” reports that outline where they could cut costs, boost revenues and potentially narrow or merge their operations.
The reports, the last of which were submitted in February, will be used in setting the University’s next budget and shaping its long-term future.
Collaboration and cutting costs
Each of the Twin Cities’ colleges, or academic units, reflects a sense of what Sullivan called “the new normal” of lower funding. And while science-focused colleges take a more confident tone than CLA, all are worried about the prospect of continued cuts.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and it’s hard to remember a year when the budget went up,” said chemistry professor Chris Cramer, who was a member of the College of Science and Engineering’s report committee. “There’s not really much left [to cut].”
Cramer added that, in his role as vice chairman of the University Senate’s Faculty Consultative Committee, he has heard concern from all corners of the school — especially from CLA, which has the largest enrollment and comparatively little research.
“[They feel] enormously under the gun,” he said.
Perhaps in response to that pressure, CLA’s Blue Ribbon report is the broadest of the colleges. Its 60-page effort offers reforms that include dropping programs with fewer than 10 people and a proposal to move toward more integrated, interdisciplinary majors over traditional ones.
African-American studies professor Walt Jacobs, who helped write CLA’s report, said while traditional majors like English and sociology are “important to maintain,” academic momentum is shifting toward programs that, like his own, combine traditional disciplines like psychology and literature.
“Media studies, film studies —these are things that are really hot now,” he said, describing the school’s approach as “trying to do … a little bit of both.”
Eva von Dassow, a professor of classical and near Eastern studies — the program housing Verhelst’s major — said integrating majors as presented in the report is a financial reform, not an academic one.
“This is a PR strategy,” she said. “Real collaborations actually take more resources, not fewer.”
CLA’s tone is more direct on the consequences of cutting research. In its report, CLA says, the school faces the question of “whether [it] will have the resources to continue as a major research institution.”
An elite research institution
Language in reports by colleges dealing heavily in science, technology, engineering and math — or “STEM“ areas — show greater confidence than CLA. The confidence could be due in part to the goal of administrators — including University President Bob Bruininks — to make the University an elite research institution and the support for expensive projects like a biotechnology corridor on the northeast corner of campus.
“The Medical School is crucial to the University’s research mission,” said Dean Aaron Friedman.
Friedman’s tone echoed his school’s report, which emphasized identifying “which new areas of discovery to support” rather than potential areas to cut.
The Medical School’s report did, however, reference a need to narrow its mission, as well as commercialize faculty research.
The College of Biological Sciences took an ambitious tone similar to the Medical School’s, citing a goal to become the nation’s top undergraduate program.
“We assume that the University of Minnesota will not abandon its remarkable progress in educating students in the biological sciences,” the CBS report said, “nor become a bystander in the dominant science of the 21st century.”
But it also outlined potential mergers and revenue boosters. For example, the college proposed hiring new faculty in “clusters,” which would group professors by subject area, leveraging their combined work into more research activity. The report also said cluster hiring would attract better applicants because it signals the college’s commitment to their field.
The report also outlined the prospect of merging some areas, including research institutes, to reduce costs while still researching the same subject.
Nathan Springer, a professor of plant biology, leads the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute, which the report suggested could be merged with the University’s BioTechnology Institute. Springer said the University would need to study the potential benefits in much more detail before merging them.
“Often from a distance, larger groups simply look at the names of things,” he said, “and make suggestions for what, from a distance, looks like a sensible idea.
“It might certainly have merit,” Springer added. “But the actual completion of that would take substantially more effort.”
One difficulty is combining the finances of two departments, since they are often funded by multiple entities inside and outside the University, some of which can have conflicting research priorities.
Several colleges, including the College of Continuing Education and the Carlson School of Management, have centralized some administrative staff by merging clerical and support staff, which once were housed in each department.
The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences has done the same. As for academic mergers, which would combine programs, CFANS Dean Al Levine said it isn’t a given budget saver.
“You have to ask the question: ‘Where would the savings be in doing that?’” Levine said. “I don’t move on anything that doesn’t tap a benefit both scholarly and financially.”
Bridging the gap
Professional staff rather than tenured faculty have also been presented as a solution to help spend less money in the first place. Colleges could save money by increasing the number of academic professionals, like lecturers and lab assistants, who are paid less than tenured faculty.
That doesn’t mean professors — or even deans — think it’s a good idea.
“That’s not part of our plan,” said College of Science and Engineering Dean Steven Crouch, though he acknowledged, “It was something that was floated.”
Crouch said CSE employs only a few contract employees to teach specialized courses. “The prevailing view of the faculty and the departments is that that’s not a road we want to go down.”
Colleges are also looking for revenue from the private sector to cover the gap left by the state. CFANS, which gets roughly a quarter of its budget from dedicated research funds by the Legislature, mentioned looking more to outside groups for funding and suggested renting out its outstate research facilities during low-use seasons.
Virtually all schools raised the possibility of increasing private philanthropy for purposes ranging from graduate research to endowed professorships.
In particular, the Law School devoted much of its report to the strategy, with plans to increase the number of alumni reunions and programming to create a sense of community among its graduates. The Law School is also looking to invite area lawyers to give guest lectures and participate in extra and co-curricular activities like moot court, in the hopes that those connections might encourage donations to the school.
CLA Dean James Parente cautioned against viewing private dollars as a cure-all for his college.
“I don’t think it’s possible given some of the reductions,” he said.
Parente said that while grants pay for research, they don’t pay for equally important graduate instruction, which comes from regular revenues.
Without any apparent way to bridge the widening deficit using traditional revenue sources, each college is looking to stretch the margins on existing areas. That generally means increasing class sizes, reducing faculty and expanding course offerings.
One solution, heard in the sciences especially, is maximizing in-house enrollment by expanding course offerings that might net students currently taking a course in another college. For example, a science-based college might offer a class that meets a liberal arts requirement.
Sullivan voiced support for that strategy but said that central administration would be watching for duplication of courses across the schools.
Parente, acknowledging that CLA gets more enrollment from liberal education requirements than it loses to other schools, said that move would be an “unfortunate consequence.”
“You don’t want each college building its own little fortress,” he said.
Faculty under fire
Salaries and fringe benefits make up about 60 percent of non-grant funding at the University. That means that cutting significant costs entails cutting faculty and staff.
But because of tenure protections, administrators have to wait for faculty to retire before they can eliminate a position from the budget.
“We don’t have a lot of flexibility in how we scale back,” Levine said. Instead, he said they have to work through attrition, or not replacing departed professors.
“The message from [Parente] to most departments is, ‘We’re not going to be able to hire new faculty,’” von Dassow said.
While they move to eliminate traditional staff, colleges are looking to expand some programs for revenue, including professionally oriented master’s degrees. Schools including CSE, CLA and CSOM floated this idea as a way to capture skilled workers looking to advance their careers
But those professional degree programs that already exist, being not central to college missions and still taking faculty time, are facing pressure. Carlson’s report stated even though the programs cover their cost and then some, they may still be swallowed up. The college has seen tenure-track faculty grow by less than 7 percent since 2004, while student enrollment has grown by 25 percent.
Other colleges expressed a desire to expand enrollment (a decision ultimately made by central administration).
Citing increased demand, Crouch said he would like to increase enrollment by 20 percent over five years through a combination of increasing admitted students and retaining recruited ones. CBS, which also highlighted strong demand, anticipates adding 225 undergraduates and doubling applicants to its graduate programs.
But those increases would demand more space, from dorms to classrooms — an expansion some schools, notably CLA, which has more than 16,000 students, may not be able to handle.
“It really begins to push up against your infrastructure limits,” said Parente, adding a further, philosophical point.
“Sometimes it can seem that the fiscal structure can work against what is good for academics.”
The next stage
The Blue Ribbon reports, which were submitted for review to Sullivan in February, have been used to inform annual budget meetings between deans and the provost, which will continue through next month, which will continue through next month. Bruininks will then use them to plan the University’s ultimate budget.
The reports’ second purpose, Sullivan said, is to inform how colleges will respond to the medium-term landscape that the reports were designed to help address and will be worked on through the summer.
Jacobs said he looks forward to student involvement and increased discussion overall in the next leg of the process. Despite the background of funding cuts, he said he thinks people will come to see the reports as a positive development.
“When the Blue Ribbon process was first announced,” he said, “a lot of the faculty were like ‘Man, why do we have to do this thing? This is going to be a waste of time.’
“But as we went through the drafts and the final report came out, a lot of people became excited about the possibilities, thinking about how we can reshape the college.”
The next University budget will likely go before the Board of Regents by July. By that time Bruininks and Sullivan will be gone, and the Blue Ribbon reports –– and the issues they raise –– will fall to new President Eric Kaler.
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