Anemic budget still bleeding at USF
TAMPA - University of South Florida supporters flooded state Senate inboxes with messages opposing a plan this year to carve up USF's budget. But it wasn't the immediate threat of cuts that posed the biggest danger to USF and the other state universities. It was the four years of cuts that came before. The state Legislature already had slashed university funding by more than 25 percent, down to 2002 levels, when it approved an additional 10 percent cut in March.Universities across the state are bracing their campuses for major changes, including the possible loss of entire academic departments. USF officials aren't saying what they may do. Gov. Rick Scott has yet to sign the 2012-13 budget. From the start of the economic crisis, USF President Judy Genshaft has worked to prevent major program changes and faculty layoffs, university spokesman Michael Hoad said. "The problem is," he said, "we are running out of options. This has been going on since '07, and we continue to be optimistic, we continue to work hard, but there isn't a lot of room left." Jordan Driggers, a sophomore studying elementary education, is feeling the pressure as tuition also rises. She's already working full time at a sub shop near campus to pay her bills. "It's discouraging," Driggers said. "It's taking me longer to finish my classes. I wonder if I'm ever going to make it." Officials knew they were in for hard times when the economic collapse began, Hoad said. No one told them what kind of budget cut to expect, he said, but Genshaft instructed "everyone to prepare for a 15 percent cut," of $50 million. A cut this large was "unprecedented in USF's history," USF Provost Ralph Wilcox wrote in a January 2008 memo to staff and faculty. It would surely mean a continuation of large classes, "something we know has a deleterious impact on student learning," Wilcox wrote. Student-teacher ratios are a key quality measure that separates many high-ranking universities from the rest. At the time, USF's average was 28 full-time students for every one faculty member. The average for universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities, which USF aspires to join, was 18 to 1. To find the $50 million, USF reorganized some departments, dropped classes with low attendance, cut back on building maintenance, cut travel budgets, reduced building hours, centralized some operations and eliminated several staff positions. Officials expected to lay off dozens of staff members, but in the end, by switching people to new jobs, they were able to keep all but a handful, Hoad said. Because USF started making preparations early, before the cuts came down — and they did turn out to be about 15 percent over two years — "we had the cushion to work over the course of the year" to prevent severe program cuts. Federal stimulus money helped USF and the other universities stave off cuts in 2009-10. But they lost more state money in 2011. USF had built up substantial reserves over the years and dipped into these to plug the budget gaps, partly. It used the money to hire adjunct faculty on temporary teaching contracts to fill in for professors who needed to do research or left the university. Overall, the ranks of tenured or tenure-seeking full-time professors dropped from 1,210 in fall 2006 to 1,142 in 2010. Nontenured part-time faculty rose from 165 in 2006 to 397 in 2010. Also, the state increased costs to students and their families. Lawmakers and university officials statewide, including at USF, approved annual 15 percent tuition increases starting in 2008. It was imperative, they said. Florida tuition was the lowest in the country. Tuition and fees at USF came to about $5,800 last year. The hikes made up for some of the cuts. But even counting tuition increases, state Board of Governors reports show that funding for the 11 state universities is still lower than in 2007, even though enrollment has grown. Meantime, Florida's tuition has crept up to about 45th nationally. The burden on students is rising in other ways. Bright Futures scholarships cover a smaller and smaller proportion of tuition. Fees have gone up. And as universities cut funding for office support, campus jobs disappear. Ryan Harke, a graduate student in anthropology, just learned he's losing his job with a nonprofit organization associated with the anthropology program. "I'm going to have to find something else," Harke said. In a dozen small ways, other opportunities are shrinking. Some of the graduate programs have cut back, particularly on their teaching assistantships, which include tuition waivers. Bianca Riholm is studying speech therapy, where a graduate degree is a must for later employment. "We've basically been told that if we're not getting straight A's, we're not going to get into USF's graduate program." These changes may seem small, but over time they eat away at the strength of the university, Hoad said. Students do better, for instance, when they can work on campus, he said. But "our students work outside the university, off campus, at twice the national average." And for students such as Harke and Driggers, who works at Firehouse Subs, it's not going to get any better. Also, USF has slashed travel budgets. Some think this is a luxury, Hoad said, but "we actually hurt our national reputation because faculty can't go to national and international conferences and present papers" and meet with their colleagues to share their research. Through all this, however, USF has managed to make progress. "Federal funding has shifted to applied research. We actually do applied research very well," he said. USF announced last week that it rose from 65th in 2007 to 50th in 2010 in research expenditures, as measured by the National Science Foundation. Its student-teacher ratio even dropped, down to 27-to-1 in 2009. By the next year, however, it was back up to 28. And in March, the Legislature voted to cut the universities again. USF will lose nearly $37 million, 11 percent of its state funding. Lawmakers have said they're only tapping universities' reserve funds. Hoad responds that USF depends on that money to fund daily operations. Also, tuition will go up another 15 percent. "I've thought about dropping out," Driggers said. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to go home and save some money." She lives in Ocala. One thing has stopped her: "I actually love USF," she said. "The professors are great. The diversity of students (is) great. I have great friends here." During the funding scare earlier this year, when state senators were threatening to cut more than half of USF's state funding, the university learned there was "this huge well of support for the university," Hoad said. "So you can say we are running out of options, and to some extent it is getting harder and harder every year," he said. "But the spirit around USF is very strong. There is still a lot of optimism at this university."
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