Every university is broken

But the University of Hawaii at Mānoa looks to be more broken than others. Christie Wilcox writes about the budget cuts there: the place is being gouged to the bone -- the College of Natural Sciences has a cohort of graduate students to whom they are failing to live up to their responsibilities (the university brought them in, these students made a commitment to UH Mānoa, you don't get to suddenly decide midway through their training to abandon your obligations.)

For the spring semester, 81 students applied for TAships within the department of Biology. Only 35 of those have advisors within the College of Natural Sciences, leaving 46 students with no funding source less than two months before the end of the semester. The deadlines for applying for financial aid have long since passed. It’s not like anyone has dozens of research positions to hand out willy-nilly. So this email left the advisors of 46 students with no time to react. Without their TAships, most of these students would be forced to take a leave of absence or drop out, because the loss of a position means the loss of a tuition waiver, too. For out of state students, that means paying more than $10,000 in tuition as well as losing $8,500 in income. It’s hard enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country on a TA salary. It’s basically impossible without it. And as Dr. Cole wrote, a sudden drop in TAs would directly impact the number of courses offered to undergraduates, negatively impacting their education that they pay thousands for every year.

It's specifically the sciences that are bearing the brunt of the cuts, and there is definitely a perception that that is unfair.

In the past few years, the College of Natural Sciences has been doing exactly what it should be: enrollment is up 35%. Faculty research funds are up 67%. The college—which teaches some 60% of all undergraduate majors on campus—has been booming, and now brings in 15% of all the tuition revenue at UH (and that’s including the professional tuition revenue from the law and medical schools). However, the budget allocation model, overseen by Vice Chancellor Reed Dasenbrock and Vice Chancellor Kathy Cutshaw, has remained stagnant, basing funds solely on historical allotments. The College of Natural Sciences has been expanding, but it’s budget hasn’t. Though it brings in 15% of the revenue, it receives 2% back. That’s it. I’ve seen the numbers—Ditto is right. He had two choices: cut TAs, or run in the red. He was explicitly ordered to balance his budget, so he cut TAs.

I'm going to disagree with Wilcox a little bit: the sciences do bring in more revenue at many universities -- here at UMM, biology is the most popular major on campus, and our enrollments have been growing at a faster rate than other disciplines. However, the sciences are dependent on every other department: we expect our students to take courses in math, and English, and foreign languages, and art. It is only right that the wealthier disciplines help subsidize the less heavily populated, but no less essential, disciplines. We're all in this together to provide a balanced, broadly based education.

But that doesn't change the problem. It simplifies it. Universities are grossly underfunded. These are state institutions, set up to serve the needs of the people, and our budgets are easy targets for know-nothing legislators, who nibble at them every year, and they're shrinking below maintenance levels. That's exactly where we're at now: fire essential staff needed to run the education mission of the college, or run in the red, because the state is starving them. I've seen the budget figures for the University of Minnesota, and it's shocking -- while demand for higher ed keeps growing, they keep cutting our budget, year after year, and telling us to throw more of the costs on the backs of our students, who already suffer from painful debt.

The problem isn't in the universities, or the students, or the faculty. The problem is that state governments have been shirking their responsibility to maintain the educational infrastructure for decades, and it's reaching a crisis point. First UH Mānoa, and then every other university will crumble into the same sewer of neglect.

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And a TA is?

Eamon, a TA is a teaching assistant (also known as a professor's slave.) They help out with lectures, labs, exercise classes, grading, etc...

My school has a sit-in happening at this very moment over tuition hikes, amid cuts in services. And I must say that I would not make it without TAs.

By John Hynes (not verified) on 21 Nov 2014 #permalink

Thanks Robert, we don't quite have the same system in the UK, so the acronym left me puzzled.