Doing More With Less
Making the best of the worst budget news in the University's history.
When word came down this summer that enrollment in Charles Stewart's 100-level global history class was going to quintuple from 50 students to 250, this 30-year veteran of the classroom gulped. The discussion sections that usually accompany his course had also been cut, and his teaching assistants were replaced with "graders"—graduate students who would grade quizzes and watch for signs of trouble based on students' performance on these tests.
Being the sole source of instruction for all those students was not Stewart's idea of a dream teaching environment. But because he was also an executive dean in LAS, he was determined to make the best of bad news by demonstrating that large classes could work. Similar measures had been taken in two dozen other 100-level courses so that freshmen could get the courses they needed to stay on track toward graduation. In a year of difficult choices, preserving access to education had been deemed preferable to shutting out students.
"This was a painful year for everyone," says Jesse G. Delia, dean of LAS. "We did all we could to retain the integrity of students' educational experience by cutting most deeply in administration, but given the size of the cuts, we could not shield education entirely."
As classes opened this fall, the University was grappling with the largest consecutive cuts in state funding in the institution's history. Since FY 2001-2002, the Urbana campus has lost $70 million in operating funds from the state, effectively reducing the University's share of appropriated state dollars to 1998 levels. When inflation is taken into account, this year's appropriation is the same as for 1984—a year before most of today's freshmen were born.
Rather than being isolated events, the cuts came on top of 20 years of declining state support for public higher education. State funding for U of I, as a percentage of the state's budget, peaked around 1980, when the University received nearly 48 percent of its operating budget from the state. Today, even as the costs of operating a University have climbed, the percentage of its operating budget coming from the state has dropped to less than 24 percent.
As the largest of U of I's colleges, LAS's loss was substantial—$7.8 million this year and with a cumulative effect that is double. Protecting faculty positions was a priority of the college even as it fended off "raids" by other, mostly private, universities that sensed the vulnerability of the pubic universities. Still, some 20 faculty positions were lost to attrition; 90 full-time positions in support areas of the college were cut.
Preserving a student's "time-to-degree" was also a priority. As the provider of the general education classes for the campus, the college had to find ways of ensuring adequate class spaces for freshmen despite diminished funds. The college was also determined to see that courses that upper-level students needed for their majors were available. To achieve both, the college made strategic cuts, examining every class, and making decisions based on the classes students usually take, working from the required classes to the preferred. Ann Mester, an assistant dean in LAS had to match slots to student interests. "If a class section had less than 10 students, we cut it so that other sections would have 25 students," she says. "If a rhetoric or math class could be enlarged by one to three students without harming the learning experience, then we did so. If we thought that the content of a course could be conveyed in a lecture class of 250 as well as in one of 50, then we did that as well."
Sophomores were steered toward 200-level general education courses instead of the high-demand 100-level classes so that these seats would be available for freshmen. The college retained most of the upper-level courses, except for those with chronic low enrollment. It also protected freshmen enrichment programs, such as the popular Learning Communities program and many of the Discovery courses.
Some 24 classes were converted to lecture-grader formats, such as the one taught by Stewart. New Web-based teaching technologies were provided to the instructors in these classes as was ongoing advice on engaging students in large settings. Some, like Stewart, were stunned by the rapport and degree of involvement they achieved with their students by conversing through online chat rooms and simply by dividing the students into small groups for projects.
"There may be fewer discussion sections and larger classes," says Delia in summing up the decisions, "but at the end of the day, we are trying to protect the intellectual heart of the college as well as the quality of the educational experience."
As much as the faculty and staff in the college, and the
University, have approached the cuts with an esprit de corps, no one is ignoring the seriousness of the situation.
At a time when demand for a University of Illinois education is at an all-time high and its faculty are garnering the highest awards in their fields—two Nobel Prizes and a Crafoord within the past six months—the University's ability to deliver its product is threatened unlike any time in the past 50 years.
David Swanson, an associate provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at U of I, described the University as being "on the brink" of losing its ability to compete and retain outstanding faculty, and with them, outstanding students. "The mission of this University has evolved from one of merely providing access to higher education, to offering students access to the highest quality of education in the public arena," says Swanson. "The average ACT of incoming freshmen climbed another 1/10th percent last year to 27.8. There is only one reason you get 22,000 bright students competing for 6,400 slots, year after year, and that's the value of the degree."
In the past, Illinois turned to tuition as its primary means of offsetting declines in state support. As a result, the average in-state tuition at Illinois has jumped from $682 in 1980 to about $6,000 today. This amount is still a bargain in comparison to the $27,500 average annual tuition at comparable private four-year research institutions. What is disconcerting about Illinois' increases, however, is that unlike at private counterparts, the increases have still failed to keep pace with cuts in state support.
Research grants and contracts are now the University's largest source of funds, having increased 24 percent over the last year. Unfortunately, their use is restricted and they do not include the cost of instruction. They are essential, though, in attracting and retaining outstanding faculty and students, who are drawn to the University's reputation for cutting-edge research. These funds also are vital in offsetting the costs of hiring of research assistants and of equipping laboratories, which can reach into the millions of dollars.
Private gifts are often seen as the salvation of public higher education. Indeed, at Illinois, a successful fundraising campaign increased the campus's endowment from $195 million to $884 million between 1991 and 2002, which provides a vital margin of excellence for the University. To expect private gifts to replace state funding, though, is unrealistic. Payments from the endowment constitute only 7 percent of the University's budget, and their uses are tightly restricted. Furthermore, the endowment would need to grow with unrestricted additions, such that the total current payments doubled, simply to compensate for this year's cuts in state funding.
Where will the money come from? The only viable means of maintaining excellence as an option in public higher education is to strengthen all of the University's sources of funding. The people of Illinois must speak out to stem the slide in state funding for higher education. The University must nurture stronger partnerships with corporations and with alumni in the form of private giving. An acceptance of higher tuition—accompanied by increased financial aid to ensure access—also is unavoidable. If this scenario is applied at Illinois, a degree from the University will remain a valued commodity. It will also remain a bargain, though not the "steal" it once was.
"Students come to Illinois because it is a great school," says Dean Delia. "Take away that excellence, and you take away their reason for attending. Unless we confront these funding issues, we are in danger of delegating the best in higher education to private universities."
*All statistics in this story are for the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois system.
By Holly Korab