Opinion: Students Need to Know That University Values its Classes, Faculty

John NoltCuts in state appropriations to the University of Tennessee may amount to nearly $100 million next year. Simultaneously, we have suffered what are in effect further base budget cuts in the form of substantial increases in fixed costs – especially in the prices of coal, electricity and natural gas.

Yet, while our budget is shrinking, the quality of students is rising. Freshmen at UT Knoxville have the highest high school grade-point averages and ACT scores that this university has ever seen. They deserve the best education that we can provide. But the cuts are compromising our ability to provide it. UT President John Petersen recently estimated to a committee of the UT Board of Trustees that this year’s cuts would cost the statewide UT system 700 jobs. That is a rough estimate, subject to many unpredictable variables, but it is not unrealistic. Moreover, it is predicated on tuition increases of between 7 percent and 9 percent. Without these tuition increases, the job losses could be worse.

Some of the jobs will be eliminated by not filling vacancies. But there will be layoffs as well. Many, perhaps the majority, will not be faculty jobs. Still, many nontenure-line faculty are likely to face unemployment.

The layoffs will be counterproductive in at least two ways. First, while they may enable UT to meet its budget, they make less sense in the broader context of the state economy, for they will take talented, skilled and productive workers off the state payroll and put many of them on unemployment and TennCare.

Second, cuts in faculty, while saving the university money, will create immediate difficulties for students and their parents. This is because fewer faculty mean fewer and larger courses. (UTK cannot afford to reduce enrollments because that would result in still further cuts in state appropriations.)

So many students will not be able to get the courses they need when they need them. Times to graduation will increase, and the students – or their parents – will wind up paying more tuition for extra semesters of work.

Because of last year’s 6 percent budget cut, we face such problems already. The Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, for example, recently lost and has been unable to replace its only tenure-line teacher of Chinese – a language crucial to the curriculum of any 21st-century university. As a result, it cannot offer courses normally required for the Chinese minor or for the Chinese concentration in the Language and World Business major. With this year’s larger cuts, such problems will proliferate across the curriculum.

Faculty are doing what they can to fill the gaps. Many of us will teach larger classes in the fall. And we have been working to reduce costs. UTK’s new energy policy requires us to turn off all unnecessary lights and electronic equipment in order to reduce consumption. This winter classrooms and offices have not been as warm as many would like. But these efforts cannot suffice to offset the combined effects of repeated cuts and escalating fixed costs.

What can be done?

n First, because our primary obligation is to our students, we must do everything possible to keep teachers in the classroom. Staffing is already inadequate. All possible administrative cuts should be made before any more faculty positions are cut.

n Second, all unused pools of money, such as the $17 million Governor’s Chairs fund, should be devoted to preserving classroom instruction.

n Third, we must do still better at energy conservation and efficiency.

n Fourth, we need to petition the governor to release at least some money from the state’s rainy day fund.

Perhaps a stimulus package from the federal government will help keep state-funded higher education afloat next year. But, in the long run, the only workable solution is to modernize Tennessee’s antiquated tax structure.

None of this will help enough or fast enough, however, to prevent serious pain in the fall. As the state withdraws more and more support from UT, we have no choice but to raise tuition. Nobody wants to do this. We know wages are stagnant – they are for us, too – and unemployment is rising. Some of us, including me, have personal reasons to regret yet another tuition increase: My son, now a senior at West High School, will enter UT in the fall.

Still, it needs to be understood that virtually all UT students receive the Hope Scholarship – and with it the cost of tuition to families in real dollars is less than it was 10 years ago. For those who can least afford the cost of college, UT provides the Promise and Pledge scholarships, whose funding is increased by increasing tuition.

Moreover, in simple market terms our product is under-priced. Our applicant pool has been steadily increasing. Each year admissions become more selective. But, of course, it is not that simple.

Education is not just a product. It’s a necessity for a free, rational, cultured and ethical citizenry, who in turn are essential to a working democracy.

The value of a college education greatly exceeds its market value. But that value can be maintained only by maintaining the quality and breadth of course offerings and the strength and depth of the faculty.

John Nolt, a professor of philosophy, is president of the University of Tennessee Faculty Senate.

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