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Divisive Semester at Florida

December 4, 2006

The fall semester at the University of Florida started with a lot of uncertainty, as reports of a growing deficit in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences led to calls to eliminate dozens of faculty and graduate student slots in the humanities and mathematics. The semester is drawing to a close without much more clarity and with considerable rancor -- the dean is leaving, the English department is in receivership, and administrators have admitted that, initially at least, they didn't sufficiently involve professors in finding a way out of the college's financial mess.

A score of graduate students approached President J. Bernard Machen at Friday's board meeting to express concerns about a controversial five-year plan to lift the college out of debt, but were told, as The Gainesville Sun reported, that it will stay in place until a faculty-approved alternative is developed. Professors and graduate students filled the room for the meeting, students with posters protesting the recent happenings and faculty wearing stickers displaying their opposition, according to Nora Alter, a professor of German culture and film. Her department,  Germanic and Slavic studies, also underwent a period of receivership in the spring and faces a reduction of TA-supported graduate spots from 10 to 0 by 2011 if the five-year plan to slash spending is enacted.

Under the plan -- which would benefit the sciences but cut budgets for four humanities departments and mathematics -- 54 faculty vacancies would be created by attrition, administrative staff would be cut by 14 and the college would probably be back in the black by 2008-9. 

While many faculty members said they think the existing five-year plan is effectively dead, they see the recent events as indicative of an attempt to force changes in the profile of the University of Florida’s largest college. Some faculty wondered aloud why an institution that is unabashedly angling to crack the top 10 public universities would propose cuts to its humanities programs. They described an atmosphere of mistrust between arts and sciences professors and the administration. Several faculty members described a disregard for shared governance and an inability to even get their hands on budget numbers so they can effectively develop an alternative path forward.

Yet, the differences in faculty reactions, even within those departments targeted for cuts, are striking. While virtually everyone agrees that the development of the five-year plan without significant faculty input was inappropriate, some express faith that the plan was simply a misstep on the institution’s now more sure-footed path toward greater shared governance.

A new faculty financial advisory committee for the college has been established and the incoming interim dean, Joseph Glover, has already actively begun soliciting faculty input. Glover has pledged not only that he does not feel constrained by the unpopular five-year plan but that “everything is on the table” – leading some faculty to express confidence that a new, more palatable plan will emerge, with faculty input, to lift the college out of the red.

How It All Began

News of a budget deficit that had been growing since 2003 went public in a big way July 14, when The Gainesville Sun reported that the college, with an annual state budget of $97 million, had accumulated $9 million in debt. That total was later scaled back and estimates now stand at around $4 to $5 million, said Glover, the incoming dean.

“There was a small and growing deficit that the administration had been addressing with the college for a period of several years. When this became public, the magnitude of the deficit was larger than anyone had expected or anticipated. I think that rightly, the president and the provost asked the college to address the deficit situation because it’s certainly not something that the university either wants or can afford to continue indefinitely,” Glover said.

While a faculty group was immediately appointed to seek solutions, the plan put forward by the end of summer was largely produced by the college administration without “sufficient faculty input and consultation,” as Glover said. (Machen, in a September letter to faculty, also acknowledged the relative lack of faculty input due to the short timetable but defended the need to address the deficit by summer's end). The plan described a move toward increased investment, including new faculty positions, in the natural sciences, some social sciences and Asian and Middle Eastern languages, as well as a need to cut faculty and funded graduate student spots in the departments of English, mathematics, philosophy, religion and Germanic and Slavic Studies -- areas described as “those whose productivity or impact call for reorganization and/or reduction.”

The number of full-time faculty spots in English, for instance, would decrease from 59.5 to 51 by 2010-11, with graduate spots cut from 59 to 54. The Germanic and Slavic studies faculty count would drop from 20 to 14, and mathematics would lose 6.5 of 58.5 faculty positions and 10 of its 80 funded graduate slots. On the flip side, the sciences and several social sciences, including psychology, criminology, political science and communication, would see an infusion of resources. For instance, chemistry botany and zoology would each enjoy a handful of extra faculty positions and increases in graduate funding. And the number of funded graduate students would increase by 16 in chemistry, from 130 to 146.

In the meantime, Glover said the provost is working with a budget allocation committee on a university-wide level.

“Does the deficit mean that the college may have to make adjustments to the way it does business? Absolutely. Does it mean that the administration is going to swoop down and try to make changes in the college? That’s ridiculous," said Glover, who added that new hires in the past five years have been concentrated in the humanities and social sciences, leading to a need to reevaluate the balance of resources.

Yet, Ed White, the incoming associate chair of the English department, said he believes the administration “fabricated a crisis,” using a budget deficit that had been around for several years and was well-known among administrators to justify a desire to change the profile of the college, which White said has been under strain as funding failed to keep pace with rapid growth. The administration lacks the political will, White added, to increase the baseline budget of the college for fear that UF’s other 15 colleges would also clamor for more money.

“There’s a really legitimate desire to rationalize the financial situation for the college, but there’s also a possible agenda that hasn’t been articulated or shared,” said White, who thinks the central administration ultimately hopes to replace full-time English faculty with instructors.

Robert D’Amico, chair of the philosophy department, has similar concerns. “No business would do this. No business would start on August 1, freeze all of its budgets and say, 'In three weeks we’re going to redesign the business and start all over again,' " he said. "You’ve got students coming in, it’s absurd. So you have people believing it’s a pretext. I don’t know if it was a pretext or not, but it was stupid.”

“The deficit arose from a decision from UF about where to put its resources,” said D’Amico, who added that he thinks the five-year plan won't survive but heralds a continuing effort to prioritize the professional schools over the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “There is a split, different views about where the university should go, what its future should be.”

The plan, although praised for suggesting increased investments in the under-funded science departments, nevertheless provoked rebuke from faculty across the university. The Faculty Senate approved a motion recommending the president rescind  the five-year plan, and Sarah Badawi, a senior and a student senator for the liberal arts college, said students were also concerned, although the Student Senate did not pass a resolution rejecting the plan.

“A lot of students were concerned with the plan simply because we felt it was a Band-Aid for a really big problem that couldn’t be fixed by a rushed plan that didn’t have input from students,” said Badawi. “This is a problem that’s been building that no one decided to pay attention to until this year. Students wanted to know, 'One, why did we decide to pay attention to this now, and two, why did we throw together a plan overnight that won’t fix it long-term?'”

Badawi said she has not heard much about the five-year plan for the past month or so as UF has shifted its focus toward a proposal to raise an extra $25 to $35 million annually for academics through the implementation of a “charge” designed to circumvent legislative approval for tuition hikes (the proposal obtained the board's endorsement Friday, but still needs the Florida Legislature's okay this spring, according to media accounts). “As of right now, it seems like the discussion of the five-year plan has completely been tabled; we haven’t heard anything about it in the last month,” said Badawi.

Glover did not say the plan was tabled, but in no uncertain terms said he does not feel bound by its recommendations as he readies to step in as dean in January.

“My mandate, or my mission as you will, is to rebalance the college portfolio and to begin to address the budget issues in the college," he said. "I have complete latitude to do that. What I’ve been telling faculty as I’ve met with them around the college is I think everything is on the table. If there are elements of the five-year plan that will help us address these issues, then I think we’re going to look at them. If there are other elements that won’t help us, we’ll put them aside for the time-being.”

Shared Governance

When Machen became president in 2004, one of his mantras was the importance of shared governance. Faculty members differ dramatically when asked how well they think he’s made the idea a reality.

Alter, who said the Germanic and Slavic studies department was placed in receivership in May, thinks that a pattern has developed of unseating chairs in order to gain control of departments – posing difficulties for student recruitment and leading many of her peers in the humanities to jump onto the job market, she said. “A lot of damage has been done which will take, under the best conditions, several years to repair.”

The five-year plan indicated that the math and English chairs should be replaced, though not for financial reasons, Glover said. But he rejected the notion that there is an agenda on the part of the administration to influence departmental business. Those outside the college lack the expertise to make key decisions within disciplines, he said.

“There’s a sense there needs to be some change in the leadership of the departments,” said Glover, citing, in particular, a mention in a recent external review of the English department suggesting that the leadership be refreshed.

Yet, as faculty like to point out, the external reviews of the math and English departments conducted this spring were largely positive. The English review in fact lavishly praises the current head’s leadership before indicating that, due to his lengthy 10-year tenure (then set to end in 2008), fresh leadership could benefit the department. And other recommendations in both external reviews, calling for increased investment in resources, would not be followed but reversed under the five-year plan.

“I was shocked to discover that the recently announced reorganization plan not only ignores all our major recommendations but actually reverses them,” Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University professors and chair of UF's English external review committee, wrote in a September letter to the editor to The Gainesville Sun.

“Instead of giving reasons, they simply dismissed me and we now have a person who was an author of the five-year plan serving as chair of the department of English. It is a move to precisely attempt to establish enforced compliance," said John Leavey, the former English chair who was replaced by an associate dean and anthropologist Friday. The Gainesville Sun reported the Leavey was replaced after the English Department Council requested a postponement of the internal search for a new chair until next year and failed to form a search committee under the dean's much shorter timeline. The math chair has not been replaced.

Meanwhile, other faculty argue that if ever there were an administration that valued faculty governance, this is it.

“My experience is that both the president and provost listened when I brought ideas to them and changed course in several specific incidents based on input that we provided and that I provided personally,” said Kim Tanzer, the immediate past chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the School of Architecture. She added that outside of the affected departments, few faculty are particularly upset. "While there may be some idealized president and provost out there who would do a better job, for the folks in the Department of English, who are leading the charge in this, I would hope that they would understand that things could get far worse instead of far better.”

Both David Richardson, a professor of chemistry, a department that would benefit under the plan, and Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion, which would stand to lose, praised the administration’s commitment to shared governance in optimistic tones. “My impression is that the five-year plan is clearly one that is in a state of flux, that the administration has left the door open for significant changes in this plan,” said Richardson. 

“I believe we have the lines of communication open with the new interim dean," said Narayanan. "Many of us feel encouraged by the new developments.”

James Keesling, professor of mathematics and the chair of the college's task force on shared governance, is also optimistic, saying that the lack of shared governance exhibited in the development of the five-year plan was largely a reflection of a lack of structures for faculty input in place prior to this fall. "Shared governance is an idea that is really just coming to this campus," Keesling said. With new structures in place, including a new faculty finance committee, he predicted a new plan would emerge that might not make everybody happy but that everyone (or most people, at least) could live with.

“There has to be a mechanism by which people know where these numbers come from. There have to be these policies and procedures in place for that, and they’re not there. That's why we have this chaos, in my opinion.”

 

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