Tough Times

By Soren P. Sorensen

Soren P. Sorensen

Soren P. Sorensen

These are tough times. The stock market has plummeted, stores and factories are closing, and many people are losing their jobs. Here in Tennessee the tax revenues have been decreasing for the last year and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. As a direct consequence of the decreasing revenue the state funding for University of Tennessee was cut by 5% for this fiscal year, and during the recent budget hearings in Nashville, Governor Bredesen predicted budget cuts for higher education at the 10%-15% level for next fiscal year. And now the latest news sets the level at 20%. In general, our Governor has been providing as much funding for higher education in Tennessee as possible (after all Governor Bredesen is one of us, since he has a BS in Physics from Harvard), but even a physicist cannot violate the financial equation of continuity: when less money is coming in, there is less money to give out.

We are not the only state facing tough times. The trend all over our nation has been that state universities get less and less support from public funds. At some state universities the public support is now less than 10% of the total revenue. In 2009 this trend will escalate at a dramatic rate, including at University of Tennessee. Even when the financial situation for the state of Tennessee hopefully gets better in a few years, I do not expect we will be able to fully recover what is now being lost. The same will be true for most publicly funded universities. We simply have to get used to the fact that there will be fewer state funds available for higher education.

So how do these budget cuts influence our physics department here at University of Tennessee? Profoundly! We now have 25.5 Full Time Equivalent faculty members in our department. This is two less than just a year ago, since we lost two positions as a result of the budget cuts in June. We have to go all the way back to around 1960 to find fewer faculty members in our department. We have partly compensated for this loss in FTEs by having more Joint Faculty positions with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), so the 25.5 FTE correspond to 33 actual living beings!

Our department used to have a large set of lecturers and adjunct teaching staff, who would be responsible for many of our big service courses and general education courses. Over the last several years we have lost many of them and have not had any funds to replace them, so we are now down to only 3 lecturers, and since two of them are part-time they only represent 1.7 FTE. This has placed a strong teaching responsibility on our faculty and they have responded well. Our physics faculty is now teaching more student credit hours than any other department at the university, because our faculty members have been willing and have had the skills to teach general education astronomy and physics for biologists, engineers, and architects. In some other departments at our university the students do not meet a real tenured professor before classes at the sophomore or junior level!

We have also had to reduce our staff in the department. We are now operating our Electronics Workshop with only two people instead of three, and our Mechanical Workshop will now be run by only four people after the recent death of our workshop supervisor, since we do not have any funds to replace his position. We might even be down to three, if another machinist chooses to retire in the spring. Our administrative and financial staff now consists of only five people, who manage to run a “business” with approximately 200 employees in the form of faculty, departmental staff, research staff, research and adjunct professors, and graduate research and/or teaching assistants.

This high efficiency, however, is coming at a cost. There is no more “slack” in the system in the form of professors who can teach more courses. If we have to implement additional budget cuts, we will have to cancel classes. This will result in much higher student dissatisfaction and, more importantly, longer graduation times for our majors, since many students will not be able to schedule the needed 15 credit hours each semester.

This is our situation right now, but it will be getting worse very soon.

As mentioned above the state of Tennessee, like many other states, will be cutting the funding to higher education in the next fiscal year, maybe up to 20%. Since state appropriations only count for approximately 35%-40% of the total university revenue, the cuts at departmental level might “only” be 5%-8%, but in a departmental budget dominated by salary expenditures this means just one thing: additional layoffs. The problem is being enhanced by the state control of tuition increases. Private universities have been able to increase tuition to unprecedented levels over the last couple of decades, but the Tennessee University system will not be allowed to implement tuition increases that can offset the decreasing state funding, even if most of our students now are covered by the HOPE scholarship funded by the state lottery.

So how do we implement budget cuts?

The fundamental problem is that in common with many other academic departments and colleges, we don’t have any contingency plans for such a situation. Yes, we do have a fancy strategic plan, but like most strategic plans it deals with the much more pleasant problem of defining how to grow our department, not how to reduce it. “Fortunately” we are given some guidance by the university administration, who tells us that the cuts we implement should be “strategic” and preserve our “core mission”. This sounds good, but the problem is that nobody seems to know what strategic cuts are, other than it is the opposite of “across the board” cuts. Similarly there are many different opinions about what the university’s core mission is. If we ask the politicians or the general public it seems to be undergraduate education. My colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, who typically spend 2-3 times as many hours in the classroom as we do in physics, tend to agree with the emphasis on the undergraduate education, but many of them are also willing to place some emphasis on the graduate programs.

But most physics departments at research universities are different. In our case, we have more students in our graduate program than in our undergraduate program, and 2/3 of our total budget consists of external research grants and contracts. So for a physics department it is vital also to maintain the emphasis on excellence in research and graduate education, and that is not an easy task in the current climate. Letters to the editor of our local newspapers or online comments to articles about our university give the impression that a large segment of the public (and therefore maybe also the politicians) considers research a nice hobby for the faculty, but nothing that should have any priority during a financial crisis. Maybe Tennessee is different from the rest of the nation, but I doubt it. So one of our most important tasks as physicists in the coming years will be to intensify the efforts to educate the general public, politicians, and university administrators about the importance of the research component in our universities.

Placing emphasis on research at a university is not an abstract concept. In practice it means preserving faculty and staff positions in research intensive departments like physics, which might not produce as many Student Credit Hours in teaching undergraduates as do popular majors like Psychology, Sociology, or English. It means retaining Teaching Assistant slots for graduate programs, and it means preserving funds for startup expenditures for young faculty. If all this is not done for the next couple of years at our universities despite the financial downturn, we will lose many young people in the STEM fields, in general, and in physics, in particular.

So the recent emphasis on strengthening the efforts in STEM education and recruiting, as highlighted so well in the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, might be another casualty. In our department we had developed a great plan for increasing our efforts in the undergraduate program on educating physics teachers. We thought that would be important in a state where there are approximately 700 public and private high schools, but only 250 certified high schools teachers in physics! An important component of the plan was to introduce a set of courses that would better suit the needs of future K-12 teachers than our upper-division core curriculum classes, which are nearly entirely taught as preparation for success in a graduate program in physics. But now the flow of memos from the administration requires our faculty to teach more classes and, in particular, larger classes, so implementing new classes that initially might only serve a couple of handfuls of future physics teachers is impossible. So much for doing something to “rise above the gathering storm.”

Some of my good friends, who are working in private industry as physicists, engineers, or in staff positions, are not particularly sympathetic to our plight in academia. “Welcome to the club” they say, since they are used to living with the much more frequent layoffs and funding fluctuations seen in industry. But most of them have been able to compensate for this lower job security by having higher salaries than we can offer, at least in our department. So it seems that for a period our department will have to deal with both low salaries and low job security, at least for staff and non-tenured faculty.

However, in all this doom and gloom there is one bright spot. Our department has been blessed by wonderful alumni and donors, who over the last 8 years have increased our endowment by a factor of 20. This has enabled us to provide scholarships and support for many of our students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Increasingly we will have to offset the diminishing state support by relying on the proceeds from our endowment to be able to provide a meaningful educational experience for our students. Many of our donors have graciously made the stipulations of their donations very broad, which has enabled us to use the funds to support a range of activities that used to be state-supported: research participation for undergraduate students during the summer semester, support for students on foreign exchange programs, support for equipment used by students in our educational labs, and even in a few cases support for research equipment benefitting our graduate students (and their advisors!). We will also increasingly be using our endowment proceeds as payment/scholarships for our junior and senior physics majors, when they work in our tutoring center. This tutoring center has been a great success and we want to expand that service.

I am mentioning these concrete examples of what have been done and what can be done with endowment funds, since we have come to the same realization as many other state universities: we cannot continue to rely on state funds, but increasingly we have to go the same route as the private universities and raise the funds needed for teaching and operation from our alumni. Demographics might help us. Many physics departments grew dramatically in the years after the Second World War and then after the “Sputnik” crisis. Many of our alumni from that time have now retired and have hopefully fond memories of their time in our departments. We have found that keeping in touch with them through a newsletter and occasional personal contacts greatly increases the likelihood that they will donate substantial amounts, especially in their estate. So the job of a department chair is changing. “Development” will be a major part of it in the future.

Many people have worked hard in the past in order to bring our physics departments to their current level, where we as a community can be proud of having what is probably the best higher education system in physics anywhere in the world. We should now be determined to avoid being the generation of physicists that will let the current financial crisis and the steady erosion of state support result in a significant weakening of that educational system.

Soren P. Sorensen is a Professor and Department Head in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Ernie Tretkoff

February 2009 (Volume 18, Number 2)

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APS Membership Reaches Record High
President Obama Names Harvard Physicist John P. Holdren as Science Adviser
New Topical Group on Energy Research Proposed
Lighting Up Classrooms: 2008 PhysicsQuest Kits Launched
Education Award Recognizes 2-Year College Workshop Team
The Top Ten Physics News Stories of 2008
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