Academic Budgets Cut

Students, faculty and staff gather to consider different budget options at the budget forum. (Rowan Copley)
Students, faculty and staff gather to consider different budget options at the budget forum. (Rowan Copley)

The College’s academic departments saw 15 percent of their yearly discretionary budget slashed earlier this spring, according to Provost Larry Vote and numerous department chairs.

Maryland Higher Education Student Advisory Council Representative Lauren Payne said the budget cuts were “unfortunate given that we are an Honors College and academics should be our first priority.” But, she added, “I know that St. Mary’s is not the only institution of higher education that is feeling the impact of these economic times”

Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman said the cuts were necessitated by a budget shortfall of approximately 2.3 million dollars. Shrinking interest earnings and endowment funds, coupled with growing energy, food, travel, benefits and minimum wage costs caused the deficit. Also, the State of Maryland rescinded 125,000 dollars of funds from St. Mary’s, with an additional 232,000 dollars of cuts pending approval by the Board of Public Works.

The 2.3 million dollar discrepancy was partially offset by leaving vacant staff positions open and filling the College to capacity, but Botzman said, “We still needed about 750,000 dollars to close this fiscal year’s budget.” This burden was proportionally spread between each Vice President’s office and the Dean of Students, according to Botzman.

The Office of the Provost, Vote said, “had a target number to meet and 15 percent of each unit’s operating budget potentially allowed us to meet the target with the least amount of impact and most equity across the campus.”

Many academic departments were able to absorb the budget cuts without suffering extensive obstruction to their day-to-day operations.

“I don’t think it really affected us that much. My big concern is really on the teaching side. Since that budget was already allotted, it only had a small effect on us,” Michael Cain, the Political Science Department Chair, said.

Charles Adler, Chair of the Physics Department, added, “We were able to give the requested amount back without too much change in the department’s operation.”

English Department Chair Ruth Feingold said that the cuts would have “little to no” impact on English students. But, she added that, “Morale might be lower across the board.”

Still, the Biology Department – whose budget hovers above 100,000 dollars – “didn’t have as much money left in the kitty as we needed to pay back,” according to Department Chair Rachel Myerowitz.
“I was really scared, I thought I might jump out of a window because I didn’t know how we could give the money back,” she added.

Myerowitz credited Vote for being “flexible.” The department eventually was able to return 5,000 dollars after being asked for 16,000.

Biology students will see the department ordering fewer supplies, sharing reagents and traveling less this spring. “We won’t replace broken glassware. There’s a piece of equipment that is down, so we’ll try to catch the moment where it’s functional instead of replacing the software,” Myerowitz said.

Other departments are responding similarly; many are delaying new technology purchases, prioritizing the travel plans of professors and inviting fewer speakers to campus. Dave Kung, Chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Departments, said he had to “postpone plans to build a network for Computer Science students.”

Overall, Vote said, “We have tried to minimize the effect on students. People will be asked to be more observant of waste and use of equipment. Some replacement purchases will be postponed, some materials may be in shorter supply, social events will be less expensive.”

While the College has attempted to shield students from feeling the effects of the budget rescission by cutting from various pools of funds, there are consequences, according to History Department Chair Tom Barrett. He noted the benefits of on-campus speakers. Also, Barrett said, “It would have been nice to be able to use some of that money to hire students to help us with research. That’s a direct value for students, in many different ways.”

The Chairs of both Mathematics and Political Science also anticipated possible consequences for their student-workers. Kung asked his department’s teaching assistants if they would be willing to work for credit instead of an hourly wage. Additionally, Cain said that Political Science students might not be able to conduct paid research as late into the semester as in previous years.

Many Department Chairs noted their relative unease over fiscal year 2010, which begins on July 1, 2009. “We’re very concerned about FY2010. We don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Barrett said.
While no academic budget cuts have been planned for the next fiscal year, Vote said, “The [economic] environment is unstable.  We will need to be ready for further action should it be called for.”

To address the College’s budget issues, Kung hosted an all-campus forum that was attended by about 50 students, faculty members and staff last Friday.

“I think there is a real benefit in getting the people on the ground – the students, the staff, the housekeepers – involved in finding solutions to budget cuts. They’re the people who see how the money is spent and might generate great ideas. Having this sort of forum generates a shared sense of sacrifice,” he said.

Senior Stephanie Hartwick attended the forum. She said, “Everyone needs to realize that every light they leave on, every load of clothes they dry, every paper towel they use drains money away from the livelihoods of the teachers and the staff we depend on.”

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