Address to Board of Trustees

October 24, 2008

 

          Thank you for this opportunity to speak.  It’s an honor to be here.  Each member and former member of this Board is an outstanding citizen of the State of Tennessee.  And each of you donates your valuable time and extraordinary talents to the welfare and improvement of our University.  On behalf of the faculty of the Knoxville Campus, the Space Institute and the Institute of Agriculture, all of whom are represented in the Faculty Senate, I thank each of you for your efforts to support and facilitate our work.

          This is a difficult time for the University of Tennessee.  UT Knoxville suffered last May a 5.7% base budget cut.  Just a few weeks ago we learned of an impoundment of slightly more than 3.5%.   We expect further base budget losses in the spring.  Simultaneously we have received what are in effect further base budget cuts in the form of substantial increases in fixed costs—and most especially in the costs of coal, electricity and natural gas.

          These new losses have added to the losses we suffered from budget cuts in the second half of the 1990s, from which we have never fully recovered.  In my home college, Arts and Sciences, for example, the number of tenure-line faculty peaked at 523 in 1995.  The cuts of the nineties reduced this to 463 in 2000.  Beginning in 2002, we witnessed a slow recovery.  But now as a result of last year’s budget cuts and our inability to fill vacated positions, we are down to 455.  (This number includes faculty from the department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, who remain for now in the college.)  That’s a net loss in tenure-line faculty of 13% since 1995.  The Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures recently lost and is unable to replace its only tenure-line teacher of Chinese—a language crucial to the curriculum of any twenty-first century university.  As a result, it cannot offer courses required for the Chinese minor or for the Chinese concentration in the Language and World Business major.  Such examples show that the budget cuts we are now experiencing are not simply a matter of trimming fat.  Virtually all the fat there was in UT Knoxville academic programs is gone.  Further cuts will be amputations of limbs.

          These are hard facts.  Yet in some respects our situation is actually improving.  Our entering students have the highest high school GPAs and ACT scores that this university has ever seen.  Our increasingly excellent students deserve the best education that we can provide, and we aim to provide it, despite the conspicuous downsizing.

          One of the roles assigned by the Faculty Handbook to the Faculty Senate is to give “approval for establishing new programs and for terminating existing ones.  But academic program termination, except for valid academic reasons, strikes at the heart of the university’s mission.  It can only be an option of last resort.  All other means of saving money must be considered first. 

          We as faculty understand this and we recognize our obligation to practice systematic frugality.  We are working, for example, with Interim Chancellor Simek to implement the so-called “Switch Your Thinking” campaign, which encourages faculty and staff to turn off all unnecessary lights and electronic equipment.  The goal is to reduce energy consumption by 10% this year.

          But even such considerable efforts will not suffice to offset the combined effects of repeated budget cuts and escalating fixed costs.  We anticipate the need for additional program terminations in the spring.  Hence we are working cooperatively with Interim Provost Susan Martin to set up rational criteria and procedures for reducing or eliminating programs while doing as little damage as possible to the core missions of the university, to the morale of faculty and to the educational opportunities of the students.     

          But, again, program cuts for merely budgetary reasons are a measure of last resort.  Which brings me to the controversial issue of tuition.  Nobody wants to raise tuition.  We recognize that there is opposition from the governor, from legislators and from students and their families.  We understand the pain that increased tuition causes in a time of stagnating wages and rising unemployment—in part because own salaries are not keeping pace with inflation.  Some of us have ourselves personal reasons to oppose yet another tuition increase.  My son, now a senior at West High School, plans to come to UT in the fall. 

          Yet considering that we are already unable adequately to staff some classes and that additional program cuts will further decrease course options and likely increase time to graduation, it makes sense not to limit tuition excessively.  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 ten years ago.  For those who can least afford the cost of college, we offer the Promise and Pledge scholarships, funding for which would be increased by increasing tuition.  There is also the matter of market price.  Our applicant pool has been increasing.  Each year we become more selective in admissions.  In simple market terms our product is underpriced. 

          Of course it is not really 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 worth of a college education far exceeds its market value.  That worth depends in part on its wide accessibility to all.  But it depends also on the strength and depth of the faculty and the breadth of course offerings.  

          Thank you once again for allowing me to express some of the concerns of the faculty.  And thank you all for the work you do for the University of Tennessee.