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Cutters 

How much can HSU subtract from its curriculum and remain HSU?

HSU's budget cuts have begun to draw blood. The latest whack -- a $10 million slice from next year's budget, most of which will come from Academic Affairs -- will mean the elimination of several programs. How many and which ones have yet to be determined, and the process for reaching those decisions has been taking a toll on everyone involved, from department heads forced to argue for their particular discipline to administrators fretting over the integrity of the university's mission. As the Academic Senate struggles and debates its way through an accelerated program-elimination process, there are at least two points of general agreement: One, the process itself is screwy, and two, no matter the result, it will damage the university.

First, the process: The university recently finished ranking every program in its curriculum with an eye toward making just such difficult decisions. But that was just one phase of a longer procedure. When HSU Provost Robert Snyder realized early this year that more immediate cost-cutting measures would be necessary he presented the Academic Senate with an ultimatum: Either figure out how to eliminate more than a million dollars worth of programs from the curriculum but fast, or else he'd be forced to salvage that money through more draconian measures, meaning no exceptions for extenuating circumstances. If, for example, a class failed to reach a hard-and-fast enrollment benchmark, it would be canceled, no questions asked or exceptions made, never mind that it may be essential to the few who'd enrolled.

The Senate opted for program elimination and quickly developed a new ranked list, no less controversial than the first. It was based largely on cold, quantifiable data including program costs, number of degrees issued annually and student-faculty ratios. Those that ended up on the bottom were placed on the chopping block, with 90 percent of the cuts slated to come from baccalaureate programs. If they hope to survive, representatives of those programs must now write rebuttals, explaining to the Senate why they deserve a pardon from the executioner's blade. Those rebuttals are due Wednesday, March 24. The Senate will hold a special meeting April 3 to vote, and if the necessary cuts aren't achieved in this first round, they'll just keep moving up the list until they reach their goal.

Not surprisingly, many are unhappy with this method. Professor Robert Zoellner, who serves as chair of both the Physics and Chemistry departments, was disturbed to find the undergraduate degree programs for both his departments in jeopardy. Speaking with the Journal last week, he pointed out that seven of the 10 undergraduate programs on the first round chopping block come from the College of Natural Resources and Science, where labs limit classroom size. Meanwhile, the quality of each department has yet to be considered, Zoellner said. He and his colleagues will address that in their rebuttal. They'll also mention that even if the Physics and Chemistry majors are cut, 80 percent of the classes will need to remain since they're required for other majors. The savings would therefore be minimal but the damage extensive, Zoellner reasons, since recruiting quality faculty would become a huge challenge: Any Physics or Chemistry professor worth her salt would rather work somewhere with a full department.

These are Zoellner's arguments. Representatives from other programs are busy compiling their own. Professor Susan Marshall of the Rangeland Resource Science department points out that there's no other rangeland undergraduate program in the state. As such, the graduates are in high demand by state agencies. "Our students get jobs and become taxpayers," Marshall said. Philosophy Professor and General Faculty President John Powell called the elimination process "oversimplified" and argued that the criteria being used is both fuzzy and likely to prove irrelevant since each voting member of the Senate will no doubt use his or her own criteria to arrive at a decision. Which isn't necessarily wrong, he said. "[T]he university is a complicated place ...," he wrote in an e-mail to the Journal. One set of criteria does not fit all. "[S]ome programs should be kept for different reasons than other programs should be kept."

All this frenzied evaluation is taking its toll. "Colleagues, in order to defend their own programs, are pointing fingers at other programs," said Academic Senate Chair Saeed Mortazavi. "That's really demoralizing."

Asked if morale is low in his departments, Zoellner responded with his own question. "Can you have low morale and be angry at the same time?" Either way, he's ready for the process to end.

Even Provost Snyder is skeptical that the Senate's method will work well. He's worried about so many people (the Senate has 28 voting members) trying to make informed, deliberate decisions, though he's largely held his tongue. "I'm trying very hard to be a good partner in shared governance, so I'm trying to let it play out," he told the Journal last week. President Rollin Richmond has maintained an even larger remove.

As for the second point of general agreement, Snyder said there's "no question" that such funding cuts reduce access to the university and ultimately damage the quality of education provided there. Classes have gotten larger. There are fewer permanent faculty members. Less equipment. Enrollment will be reduced next year.

Powell, for one, is angry -- not so much at the Senate or the administration as at the priorities of a society that let things get this bad. The citizens and legislators of California need to "confront the question of how much taxation is appropriate to this state," he wrote, "[and] we need to answer in powerful and persuasive terms." Powell feels that, when Californians passed Proposition 13 in 1978, severely limiting property taxes, they unwittingly set the stage for the state's current mess. And it may not have been as frugal a measure as voters intended. "The enormity of the costs we are paying in lost opportunities and growing divides between the rich and poor has to be laid out for all to see," he said.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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