Several years ago, when the regular cuts in state appropriations to public higher education commenced, we were told to “do more with less,” and the University of New Orleans, like other state schools, diligently complied. We looked for all the efficiencies we could find, and in English, the department I have chaired since 2004, we have long since reached the point of diminishing returns; so have the other academic units across campus. Although skeptics believe that there is always more fat to trim from budgets, there was never much to begin with, and so doing more with less really means that you cut into the flesh and bone, punishing students in the process.
Here’s one example. Since 2009, the Department of English has downsized by 18 faculty positions and increased class size in freshman English by 31 percent. When you reduce your faculty workforce and increase enrollment in writing-intensive classes (and thus the volume of written work faculty members must closely read and assess), you are not gaining efficiency. You are only straining the ability of faculty members to help students improve those writing skills, which are not only demanded by employers but are the essential equipment of an educated citizenry. To this point, my colleagues have done their professional best to teach these skills to our students. If, however, this legislative session ends with yet another deep reduction in our state appropriation, how can my colleagues possibly continue to meet the needs of our students? Another cut will force us to release more faculty members and increase class size yet again. How will an outcome like this — which will play out in department after department, institution by institution — serve the interests of more than 250,000 students and that of the state, particularly the goal of creating an educated workforce?
The fallout from the directive to do more with less, as I have just described it, is destructive enough, but there’s more, and it’s worse. For our students, doing more with less also means paying a tuition increase that has generated funds used only to backfill the hole in state funding created by the ongoing reductions in state appropriations. State legislation (the “GRAD Act”) permits institutions meeting performance benchmarks to increase tuition annually by 10 percent, but the potential benefits of the GRAD Act have been negated through what is euphemistically called a “tuition swap.” In this procedure, the state reduces the funds appropriated to each institution by an amount equal to the total new revenue the tuition increase is projected to generate in the coming year. Thus, additional money that could have been used to benefit students in various ways — by hiring additional faculty to bring down class size or upgrading our facilities — never materializes.
The tuition swap has been utilized in every fiscal year since 2009, but the current one and its cumulative effect adds a grotesque twist to the real meaning of doing more with less. Although tuition at institutions meeting Grad Act standards has dramatically risen since 2009 (for example, by 80 percent in the University of Louisiana system), during this time, the annual state appropriation to higher education has been cut by $700 million. Universities cannot hope to gain enough additional tuition revenue to climb out of this deep hole. Thus, the tuition swap has thwarted the original intent of the legislation by ensuring that institutions remain underfunded, while our students wonder what they’re getting for the higher tuition they pay.
At the inception of the GRAD Act, UNO supported the legislation, anticipating that the added revenue would enable us to make badly needed improvements that would directly benefit students. If we had known that the legislation would instead enable reductions in state funding for higher education, would we have supported it then? No. And our students? They and their families have borne the cost of this budgetary maneuver that increasingly privatizes public higher education; they have been stuck with the bill for a “swap” that offers no real exchange but only shifts the cost burden of their education back to them, in effect levying a tax on them only. If they had foreseen this, would they have supported the act? Not likely.
How much more will conditions deteriorate in our public universities if the state appropriation is cut yet again and the tuition swap is continued next year? At UNO, we have already raised class size in freshman English beyond a professionally acceptable limit (the Department of Mathematics has been forced to do the same), and we will simply be compelled to do it again, pushing it higher and higher in lower-division courses and damaging the education of our students. Here and elsewhere, programs — those in traditional fields, necessary to the university — will be eliminated, the faculty released. Unless funding is stabilized, each university will be left unable to fulfill its basic mission.
But it doesn’t have to come to this. Surely everyone who cares about education in this state must understand that by now our students have taken more than enough, and I sincerely hope that all who are concerned will speak out now.
Peter A. Schock is a professor and chairman of English at the University of New Orleans. He also serves on the University Budget Committee.