University of Washington Enacts Austerity By Choice
This spring, University of Washington graduate student teaching assistants began receiving news that their positions are to be cut from the upcoming academic year.
Roughly 25 graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences had their positions eliminated because of budget shortfalls at the college level. Students were informed by their departments, some of which faced drastic reductions. In my own department, history, fully one-third of all TA positions were to be cut, although some of those positions have now been restored. Other departments were cut by a quarter or a fifth. Still others chose to reduce their incoming cohort by 80%, or completely eliminate incoming grad students, rather than make cuts to current students.
Needless to say cuts this drastic hinders the core mission of the university: undergraduate instruction, production of new knowledge through graduate student research, and training the next generation of scholars. All suffer with these cuts.
It is hard to know the precise nature or the extent of the cuts because even now, a full three months after students were informed they were being let go, top university administrators including College Dean Robert Stacey, University Provost Gerald Baldasty and President Ana Mari Cauce, have issued no official statement about the cuts or their reasoning.
Instead what we’ve learned has come in bits and pieces from department chairs, private emails, and in conversation with top administrators.
University administrators say there is a $5 million budget shortfall in the College of Arts and Sciences. In November of 2015 however, just two-and-a-half months before he informed departments of cuts, Dean Stacey pledged $10 million to build a new bio-science building on campus. According to the Seattle Times, “Stacey said his department is run so efficiently that the $10 million amounted to a windfall of extra money,” and that the College had an “unexpected infusion” of tuition dollars that could be spent on the new building. The remainder of the funds for the new building will come from Wall Street bonds, which of course, are to be funded through student tuition.
In February of 2016 Dean Stacey turned around and told departments they would have to cut graduate positions. In an email to department chairs Stacey explained the “bad news” that the College’s “instructional fund . . . allocations will not be sufficient to maintain next year the same number of TAs and lecturers you were able to support this year.” He called this a reduction in departments’ “TA purchasing power.” (Later, during a September 1, 2016 meeting, Stacey denied knowing that the cuts would result in reduced graduate positions.)
Stacey now told chairs that cuts were necessary because key metrics in a new budget system, “activity based budgeting” or ABB, had declined. The cuts came “as a result of declines in the number of degrees we awarded and declines in our total student credit hours,” he wrote. Coupled with a confluence of other reasons (like a short fall of state funding, increasing union wages, and fees that were dropped), and months after spending millions of dollars on other priorities, Stacey now claimed a deficit.
It is difficult to say for certain what is happening on campus because of the lack of transparency coming from university officials. Some cuts have been rescinded by Dean Stacey, but we don’t know how many, and many more are still having their positions eliminated, including me.
The University claims the ABB budgeting model and declining enrollments necessitate cuts at the College of Arts of Sciences. However, enrollments College wide are up, and Arts and Sciences has seen an increase in funding based on ABB. Furthermore, ABB is not applied at the department level, on which Stacey has chosen to enforce these cuts.
At a September 1, 2016 meeting with impacted graduate students President Cauce and Dean Stacey heard from a Fulbright scholar who withdrew from her program because of the cuts. The student explained that the cuts were likely the “new normal,” and that the prospect of years of uncertain funding was too anxiety provoking for her to continue. Another student, recently recovered from open heart surgery, shared that she would lose health coverage at the end of the month if her position was not restored. President Cauce and Dean Stacey did not respond to these students’ concerns.
It’s clear that the cuts Dean Stacey and others are enacting is a choice; they are political, not fiscal. Our university budget is healthy, with plenty of funding for other priorities. University of Washington officials are choosing to undermine graduate research and instruction, a core mission of the public university, to favor construction contracts funded through bonds and tuition guarantees. This is a phenomenon we are seeing at public universities across the country, one that undoes the foundation of public higher education.
The cuts, administration priorities, the lack of transparency, and other recent problems indicate a failure of leadership at the very top of this university. At a minimum the TA cuts should be rescinded for next year. More broadly, we should think about what kind of university we want to have, and what kind of leadership can get us there.
Michael Reagan is a graduate student in the history department at the University of Washington