Budget woes are paramount at universities nationwide

CHICAGO -- Facing their third straight year of lower state funding, public colleges and universities are finding it nearly impossible to shield students from the pinch this time around.

Even as they increase tuition, the schools are cutting courses and programs, laying off instructors, eliminating sports and firing student workers.

"I don't think I've ever faced a set of conditions that were more like a perfect storm for American higher education than we're in today," said John Peters, president of Northern Illinois University and a veteran public university administrator.

For Aubrey Monks and Joanne Lerman, signs of trouble at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus are everywhere.

They strain their eyes in dim lecture halls where burned-out light bulbs haven't been replaced for months and wait longer and longer for the rare campus shuttle bus. Both have been warned to limit the hours they work at university jobs that help pay their tuition.

"In the psychology department, we have so many kids and just one adviser," said Lerman, a 19-year-old sophomore. "You have to wait in line to get to talk to her for two minutes."

Illinois budget

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this week proposed a state budget that includes at least $112 million in cuts to state universities -- cuts administrators say could lead to shuttered libraries, larger classes, mass layoffs and fewer courses.

"There is going to be impact on the day-to-day activity of the educational experience," said James Stukel, president of the University of Illinois. "It will just be a university that's a little bit leaner."

Administrators at the University of Wisconsin in Madison say they may have to eliminate 200 courses, 90 administrative jobs, up to 60 faculty positions and several research centers to come up with their share of $250 million in proposed cuts.

At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, a research division of Nebraska's State Museum could be on the chopping block, which could put the museum's zoology and the anthropology collections in mothballs or in the hands of another state.

And in California, a proposal to cut $520 million for community colleges next year prompted thousands of chanting students to protest outside Gov. Gray Davis' Los Angeles office last week. Nine community colleges already have cut staff, faculty and classes that would have served 30,000 students.

Cheryl Fields, director of public affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said public schools have already taken the standard belt-tightening steps -- freezing hiring, delaying repairs and cutting travel.

But faced with more cuts, she said, some administrators will have to decide between targeting the classroom or increasing tuition to levels that price more students out of their schools.

"At the Big Ten universities, what they've said is one of the reasons they put significant tuition increases in place past year is because they don't want to sacrifice quality or course offerings," Fields said.

At the University of Massachusetts' flagship campus in Amherst, administrators have cut seven varsity sports teams, increased student fees, laid off workers and refused to fund negotiated pay raises for union workers.

"We sort of feel rather like the final victims of the dot-com era," said Randall Phillis, a biology professor and a vice president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, a faculty union.

UMass faculty members negotiated their contract when the economy was good, but saw their raises disappear when it went sour, Phillis said.

Meanwhile, 12 percent of the faculty took an early retirement package in a single year, leaving the remaining professors with larger classes and students with fewer course offerings.

Al Fatale III, a student trustee at Montclair State University in New Jersey, joined hundreds of other students at the state Capitol last month to protest Gov. James E. McGreevey's proposal to slash college operating budgets by $101 million.

School administrators say the proposed cuts would probably lead to double-digit tuition increases, fewer programs and layoffs. Fatale said students are also worried about losing non-academic services, such as the university health center or theater.

"I've been surprised by the outcry from students, who I will admit are usually apathetic," Fatale said.

Back at the University of Illinois campus in Chicago, students worry they will either have to pay more for summer school or not be able to get the classes they need.

School administrators say the proposed state budget cuts would force them to cut 450 course sections with a projected enrollment of 10,000 students. Another 400 course sections would see enrollments balloon by more than a quarter.

Antoine Khoury, a 19-year-old freshman, said he's already learned that he won't get the grants he expected to help fund summer school. Khoury, who works as a valet, said he needs summer credits to stay on track toward graduation.

"I've been trying to save up for summer school," said Khoury, who is looking for a second job. "Everything's being cut off -- first jobs, and now at school. It's more expensive, and it's already hard enough to get a job."


On the Net:

National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges: http://www.nasulgc.org