Originally published 26 November 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood
Note pads, a staple in offices around the country, were nearly a casualty of budget cuts for the political science department at the University of New Orleans.
The department’s financial situation is so precarious that it had to go over budget to buy this cheap necessity. If something as small (and inexpensive) as a piece of paper is not able to fit into the budget, then readers can begin to understand the predicament many departments at UNO are facing.
Cuts to funding for higher education in Louisiana are changing the way the University of New Orleans serves students, and the consequences are grim according to many current faculty and students.
A prime example of the troubles facing the university lies in the political science department. It has been directly affected by these budget cuts on multiple levels, particularly the department’s graduate program.
Many people Driftwood spoke with did not want to make comments on the record, but several former employees of the university were able to provide comments about the budget cuts.
In the past two years, budget cuts have been drastic. The 2012-2013 UNO budget was cut by $12 million. For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the state is providing $11 million less for higher education, which will further impact the financial stability of UNO. According to Jim Beam of the American Press in Lake Charles, the state funding for higher education was $1.4 billion for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, but now stands at $284.5 million for 2013-2014. This constitutes an 80 percent drop.
Bob Worth, the president of the Political Science Graduate Student Association and a Ph. D. candidate, has seen the damage caused by budget cuts. Most recently, graduate enhancement funds—which allow for students to receive tuition waivers and pursue research—have been under attack.
“Based on my experience and from what others have said, the suspension of graduate enhancement funds has been a big blow,” Worth recounted. “This, as far as I know, eliminates dissertation improvement grants for things like data, conducting surveys, etc., which limits the quality of the research we’re able to produce.”
Graduate enhancement funds are one of the strained lines tugged at by budget cuts. Their value, according to Worth, is priceless.
“These funds are crucial for attending conferences to present that research; I can think of several people, including myself, who cancelled plans to attend conferences this year because of the cuts,” he told Driftwood. “This harms the school in several ways: first, it limits students’ job prospects, and thus the visibility and prestige for UNO that comes from placing graduates in positions at prominent schools and think tanks; second, the less research we present to our colleagues, the less visible UNO’s graduate departments and research are in their respective fields. If we’re not engaging with the field at conferences, when people think political science research, they probably won’t think UNO. Finally, the loss of faculty has presented challenges in forming dissertation committees.”
Indeed, the loss of faculty has made the demands of a graduate program, like the one for political science, daunting. Many former political science faculty spoke to Driftwood through email, providing their perspective on the situation facing UNO.
Former Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNO, Matthew Jacobsmeier, who taught at UNO from 2008 to 2013 agreed that the budget cuts were pushing faculty away.
“I would almost certainly still be at UNO were it not for the repeated budget cuts and associated threats to the PhD program,” Jacobsmeier told Driftwood through email. “I am very happy in my new position at WVU, but I would not have sought the position if it weren’t for the [budget cut] issues. I had a lot of great students, I was proud to work at UNO, and I was sad to leave.”
Outside the political science department, the only other response for this article came from the dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Darrell Kruger. The other deans from the other colleges at UNO were contacted for comment, but none responded to an email from Driftwood.
“The take away from all this is very simple: the COEHD has too many different programs of study, with too few fulltime faculty to teach in those programs, with too few students spread across the plethora of programs,” Kruger explained. “That stretches faculty. It will eventually further erode the quality of programs. We have a charge from the administration to look at our local contexts using responsibility centered management (RCM) as a tool to make decisions locally about our program array. In the COEHD we have convened 3 hour-long, separate department meetings to look at longitudinal data for each of our programs and make some decisions as to program array and configuration of programs.”
In fact, according to Dr. Kruger, from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2013, there has been a 60 percent decline of fulltime faculty within the COEHD. This major loss of faculty happened while student enrollment remained relatively the same over this time.
While this decline has occurred, Kruger also notes that the COEHD hired two new fulltime faculty members last year, and that they are currently in the process of hiring two more this year. He sees this as a positive development despite the state budget cuts.
Just as the COEHD has endured faculty loss and a lack of focus on which programs are vital, the graduate program of the political science department has suffered in this same vein. Former Assistant Professor of Political Science and Graduate Coordinator of the department, Daniel Lewis, assessed the situation facing UNO in much the same way as Kruger.
“A major factor in my decision to leave UNO was the continued erosion of support for academic programs and faculty across the board,” Lewis divulged. “Much of the decline of resources is obviously due to state political decisions by the legislature and the governor combined with the drastic changes to the student body following Katrina. However, the UNO administration consistently failed to strategically plan for these new realities.” Lewis noted that he had personal reasons for leaving UNO as well, but that the pairing of the two realities helped him make the choice.
The reality is that Louisiana has a Republican governor who has cut money for higher education consistently, following a trend from conservative politicians to enact austere budget cuts. According to many who spoke off the record, it is a widely known secret among faculty that the UNO administration has failed to accept this reality.
“When I arrived in 2008, it seemed that the administration assumed that the major cuts to the university had already been made and the university could continue on its pre-Katrina track towards reaching R-1 status as a major public urban research institution,” Lewis continued.
“However, the student body never came close to bouncing back to pre-Katrina levels, making the continuation of the wide variety [of] academic programs (especially graduate programs) very difficult. Instead of making strategic choices as to which programs to develop and support, and which to cut, the administration just continued to cut all programs across the board.”
This lack of strategic cuts is what set UNO up for the mess it finds itself in, and it is glaringly exemplified by the troubles of the political science department.
“We ran a PhD program, an MA program , and an MPA program with fewer than 10 faculty,” Lewis continued as he explained the effects of across the board cuts. “Other comparable doctoral departments have at least 15 to 20 faculty. This undermined the effectiveness of nearly all our programs as faculty were spread way too thin. The administration wanted to maintain these programs but was unwilling to dedicate the resources to it to make it effective. Indeed, they cut resources in critical areas (e.g., firing our only comparativist) and ignored the concerns of the faculty. In short, UNO was a highly unstable working environment that left its faculty and students with no ability to plan for the future.”
The aforementioned comparativist was Liz Stein, a former Assistant Professor of Political Science. Stein was told before the start of the 2012-2013 academic year that her contract would not be renewed, and she relayed the sentiment felt by many in the political science department.
“It’s completely demoralizing for faculty and students alike. There were constant threats we could be let go. They even talked about us having to provide our office supplies at one point. So it’s inevitably hard to keep junior faculty who are usually more mobile.”
Despite how demoralizing these cuts might be, the graduate programs for political science, public policy, and public administration have come up with a comprehensive restructuring plan, in hopes of keeping these programs alive. Stein points out that this is not the first time the program has had to rebuild in recent years.
“The department was rebuilding from Katrina when all this happened,” she continued. “We had a really good group of young faculty, in my opinion, who all got along with one another and whose work complemented one another. Had we been able to make a couple of hires over the next few years, we could have built up a decent program.”
And with these budget cuts came more responsibilities for a limited number of faculty. Added course loads and committee duties all contributed to less time for research to be completed by faculty members.
Losing faculty over the last several years has also led to a loss of talented students, according to Stein.
“It makes it hard to recruit good grad students or to retain them because we can’t fund them; faculty leave and so students also leave,” Stein made clear in her email to Driftwood. “Students also get delayed or rushed because they can’t get sufficient course offerings or for those who still retain us on their committees they have a 2-year window in which we’re still on the grad faculty. So I have students who should be applying for fieldwork, which would make them more competitive on the job market and more knowledgeable when they go to teach, but they’re too stressed out about finishing on time to do that.”
According to many who have left the political science department, lack of effective communication with the administration is a major impediment towards tackling the budget cut dilemma.
“I had very little interaction with the administration over the past few years,” Lewis remembered.
“The Dean would, from time to time, inform us of budget cuts, but there seemed to be very little consultation with the faculty—especially in trying to create long term plans for the programs. We were constantly in limbo trying to make the most of our resources while trying to plan for the next few years. In many ways it would have been easier for us to plan if the administration would just decide whether they wanted to really support the programs or cut them. Either way we could have then made real plans to shape our programs around the resources we did have and could count on in the future.”
As far as advice for how UNO can move forward, Lewis offered his assessment.
“The administration needs to accept the new reality of being 10,000 student institution with little state support and make a plan for how to best serve those 10,000 students for the foreseeable future,” he stated. “UNO will not be a 20,000 student high research institution anytime soon and pretending otherwise only hurts the current students and faculty.”