Raising Voices to Save Audiology

June 13, 2008

With many public colleges facing budget cuts, it comes as no surprise when the targeted departments are less than happy. However, the proposed elimination to a department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville may illustrate how departments with strong service programs can have many supporters in the public but still be vulnerable to being eliminated.

For the past two weeks, students, professor and members of the public have expressed outrage over a plan that would close the audiology and speech pathology department, a cut justified by administrators, in part, because it doesn't provide general education.

In all, the University of Tennessee will be sustaining a $21.1 million budget cut. On the Knoxville campus, the cuts total $11.1 million.

The department and its clinics in speech and audiology serve patients -- most of them children -- from 25 different counties in the state, in addition to residents of Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina, said Ilsa Schwarz, head of the audiology and speech pathology department.

The proposed closing, announced last week, came as a “shock,” Schwarz said, noting with all the services it provides to the community as well as it being one of the top rated programs in the county, closing it seemed like an “odd” choice.

Supporters have started letter-writing campaigns to administrators and trustees. Parents of patients have been writing to tell their stories, Schwarz said, and some undergraduates who had been planning to attend the graduate program may no longer be able to do so. Private practitioners have been writing to express they will not be able to handle the load of patients who will need services in the absence of this program. The American Speech Language Hearing Association and Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders have both written about the quality of the program as well, she said.

Bruce Bursten, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and distinguished professor of chemistry, was out of town but provided the e-mail he sent to the faculty about the cuts.

In the e-mail, Bursten explained why “focused cuts” were proposed rather than across the board. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were also sizable budget cuts. In these instances, the college made across-the-board cuts and this reduced the size of the faculty significantly, he wrote. Although the departments have began to recover, if the college were to reduce the number of faculty again without reducing the number of academic programs, it would “hamper our ability to deliver needed undergraduate instruction, reduce the breadth of faculty expertise required to maintain vibrant graduate programs, and decrease our overall research productivity,” he wrote.

As for why the audiology and speech pathology department was chosen, Bursten wrote the department is the only one not to offer general education courses. Also, the college wanted to maintain its “regional strategic advantages,” he wrote and specifically mentioned its relationship with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which the audiology and speech pathology does not work with.

James Thelin associate professor in the department, said the audiology and speech pathology department does not participate in research with the lab because it is not pertinent to the work of the department.

“[Bursten's] just not sympathetic to these types of things,” he said.

Finally, the other programs offered in the state would be able to continue to serve the state and give Tennessee residents the opportunity to pursue this type of work and education, Bursten wrote.

There are five colleges in Tennessee that also provide audiology and speech pathology programs. However, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is the only one to provide both undergraduate and graduate programs, Schwarz said. She noted that the other colleges have said that they can not take in additional students.

The impact will be felt beyond the Tennessee campus. Thelin said the department provides language services for all types of speech and language problems. Most of these services treat children, he said. The clients who receive services already drive one to two hours each way because they cannot find these services locally, he said.

Schwarz added of the patients: “I don't know where some of them would go who are on state insurance."

The closing of the program, if approved by the Board of Trustees at its meeting next week, will not be immediate. Tenured faculty will be retained, and other staff and faculty will be guaranteed a job for two years. Of the 40 faculty and staff members, only 7 have tenure.

On Wednesday, there seemed to be a ray of hope for the department. According to a press release from the university, an agreement was found that requires the university to keep the Hearing and Speech Center open through the year 2057, based on a pledge made to the state. However, the pledge appears to apply to the facility, not the program. Schwarz said closing the department but still operating the clinic is like firing all chemistry faculty but keeping the lab open.

“Without the department, there is no point in maintaining that center,” she said.

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