New Fiscal Reality Startles
Sanjay Paul

The article appeared in The Etownian, Mar. 25, 2010.

At a chairs meeting last spring, we were told the bad news. The departmental budgets would be cut by 10 percent. There would be no exception. Every department’s budget would be reduced — and each chair had to figure out how to reach that goal.

The pretzels turned to ashes in our mouths. What, oh what, could we cut? Had we not already cut expenses to the bone? What would we tell our colleagues — that they must tighten their belts even further? That they must forever be resigned to eating chicken at the annual awards dinner? Would we even have an awards dinner?

We could remonstrate all we wanted, but the facts laid out by Vice President of Finance Rick Bailey were clear. The recession was taking its toll. Nobody knew how many students would enroll in the fall. Uncertainty reigned supreme. Would students be able to get loans to attend college? Would their parents still have jobs in a few months?

Better to be prudent under the circumstances, we were told. Cut expenses now, and perhaps we could cushion the imminent blow better.

And so we cut. The chairs went to work, chopping off expenses on photocopying, mailing and phones. Department meetings became snack-free (and perhaps a tad healthier), and printing charges came under close scrutiny.

Soon fall came. The enrollments were better than expected — hallelujah! The College’s revenues, driven by tuition, rose. Further budget cuts were deemed unnecessary.

But it is too early to celebrate. The economy is lackluster, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high and credit markets sluggish. Uncertainty about enrolments in the fall still abounds (although to a lesser degree than last year). So when Bailey made his annual pilgrimage to the chairs meeting recently, we were not surprised to discover that prudence was still the name of the game. The 10 percent budget cuts would remain in place. Possibly for a long time.

So this is the new fiscal reality. Colleges everywhere have to pare their budgets. Increasing tuition fees by more than five percent per year, as was common until recently, is a thing of the past. Even institutions with large endowments have not been spared: with investment income falling, programs have been axed and people laid off.

Dealing with this brave, new world will mean changes in the budgetary affairs of academic departments. It already has. We are doing less photocopying, printing and mailing. We are making do with fewer adjunct faculty. We are spending less on phone calls. (Skype, anyone?)

Yet, in the midst of all this, we cannot forget what we do. What we do is teach. Make students think. Provide a solid liberal-arts education. We cannot afford to compromise that.

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