Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Education woes

After so many people had such joy and hope yesterday with the new inauguration (which I'm commenting on not as a political commentary, but as a historical one), today has been a day of doom and gloom around here.

But first, a slight side note. While the university in which I work tries to convince itself that there is no widespread alcohol use problem among the undergraduates - especially the minors among them - today my lunch experience was just one example of the problem. I went to the union to get my $3 lunch special. Every Wednesday about half of the the university food places offer a special meal for only $3 plus tax. So I picked up one of the specials and sat down to eat. I ended up on the other side of the wall from two young women. I ate silently, but for the entire 15 minutes that I was eating my sandwich, this one girl spent the entire time relating her alcoholistic exploits. She was regaling her friend with literally dozens of stories of how she and her friends had gotten their hands on bottles upon bottles of gin, whiskey, beer, vodka, and who knows what else. She talked about how she had done 16 shots in a row the night before. She then started reminiscing about her long-ago high school days (which, from her conversation, was only a year ago), when she used to steal all of her parents' alcohol and was downing entire bottles of vodka with her friends and lying about it. Now, who knows how much of her story was true and how much was her trying to impress her friend (and anyone else who could hear, for that matter). I was sickened by the fact that this girl seemed to really think that the one way she could gain prestige was to talk about how drunk she could get, how much she could steal, and how wasted she had been when she got caught. But no, there is no alcohol problem on campus. Right. There's just a value problem.

Anyway. The state of education in my state is, well, dire, to say the least. I might have mentioned before that the state legislature has proposed a $900 million budget cut to public education, with a $300 million cut to the three public universities for this fiscal year alone. (AKA, this would only be to get us to the end of June, 2009.) At the universities there is, of course, major uproar. The approximately $100 million that my university would need to cut for the rest of this fiscal year would amount to around 25% of the budget. We already cut $20 million for this academic year, and that was pretty painful. So yesterday there were protests coordinated at all three universities, with faculty, graduate students, and undergrads protesting the slashing of educational budgets to make up for fiscal irresponsibility in the legislature.

Of course, the Republican legislators who are proposing the cuts are insisting that the cuts are the only possible move (though they seem to think that we should still be able to teach larger numbers of students, graduate more students faster than we have been, and provide them with better quality educations than ever before all without funding). Yesterday, our faculty had an emergency meeting to discuss things, and then we got an email from my advisor, who is also the director of graduate studies. He told us that the head of the department was informed that 20% of our graduate funding is being taken away (to start with), and so we are going to have a big meeting on Friday to talk about how the department is going to deal with that. Some possible options include:
* Only funding current PhD students, and leaving all MA students and incoming students out in the cold
* Not accepting any incoming students at all for 2009-2010 to make the above option less dramatic

In reality, there aren't many other options. We don't work like the sciences - grad students do not get paid from a professor's grant money. The 33 assistantships that the department has funded for the last few years are the *only* support we get, aside from tuition waivers through the graduate college while dissertating. So while we were all trying to digest the fact that, despite being assured only three months ago that the university would not take away our graduate funding, the university is taking away 1/5 of our measly graduate funding, I heard some more disturbing news today. Two of my good friends are in the College of Science, and it seems that both of them got a memo, from different people, regarding information given from the dean of the COS to the heads of the science departments. I think this email speaks for itself:

"At yesterday's Heads and Directors meeting the Dean asked us to convey two important points to our respective departments.

1. In the next few days to weeks entire colleges and departments will be closed before the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2009). Lay off notices for both faculty and staff are being prepared (tenure doesn't count when an entire department is closed). [The Board of Regents] is coordinating the closures system wide so that College X is not simultaneously closed at all three universities.

2. The Administration is committed to preserving COS, so no closures are expected in our college. In fact, the 5% cut I discussed yesterday might be the last we see, including July '09.

These are the long discussed (highly) differential cuts. [The university] will not be the same when the Fall semester begins. [The dean] was not at liberty to reveal the details, but he did say "trust me - COS will be OK".

"Environment", very broadly defined, is the university's top priority so my advice is to try to stay calm. If the administration succeeds in preserving the best [the university] has to offer then we might indeed be leaner and stronger in a few years. In the meantime, it's going to be very ugly so please spare a thought for your friends and colleagues elsewhere on campus."

Now, I'm not panicking, because I can't imagine that they would eliminate my department. Supposedly there is something in the land-grant setup that requires that there be a history department and that we provide historical education. But it's interesting that my department is looking at a 20% cut - and was told that is probably just the beginning - while the entire college of science is told to expect only a 5% cut. Of course, it is entirely possible that their starting budgets are so much larger than ours that a 5% cut in the chem budget is equivalent to a 20% cut in the history budget, since we have no money to start with. And, of course, many of their graduate students are not paid by university funds to begin with - they are paid from grants and so are not affected by budget cuts anyway. It is also a very disturbing thought that the board of regents is preparing to close "entire colleges and departments" across the three state universities. Which ones we don't know, but this is scary. Who decides which departments get cut?

I am preparing for the fact that my department can't help me after this semester. Even if they wanted to, they'll only be able to fund a little over 20 grads, and I've already received 4 years of support. It wouldn't be fair to expect anything else. So if I don't get grants or fellowships for the next two-three years, I have no idea how I'm going to finish my degree. If I don't have funding, I'm not sure where I would live, or how I'd pay the rent, or what job I'd get.

Wow, the world seems so... uneasy.

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