Class canceled, too few students

PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) is cancelingclasses and cutting back programs in a last-ditch effort tomaintain financial stability, and classes with fewer than 20students are under the knife.

“It is very questionable if CLAS is going to balance its budgetthis academic year,” said Miles Turner, CLAS fiscal officer.

“We are in financial hot water. We are not doing well at all. Weget very little in revenue but have very high expenses, especiallyin the sciences.”

Turner said the college’s base budget is $26 million a year, butit costs about $31 million to $32 million to run.

“We took a $946,000 hit at the beginning of the fiscal year July1,” he said. “We had to find extra money.”

One source of this is a category called “overrealized studentcredit hour revenue.” This means students pay more per credit hourin tuition than it should cost to put them in classes.

One reason this is a necessity is that the instruction job isnot 100 percent instruction. Turner said instruction is only 40percent of the job of a professor; the rest is research,application for grants, writing books and community service.

The state has changed its formula for how much it contributes tothe university’s budget twice. Currently, the university keeps itsenrollment money, in contrast to one longtime formula where alltuition money went into a common pot and the state doled out fundsto the various state universities.

The model was changed to reimburse the universities per studentcredit hour. Some schools at Portland State, such as engineering,got more per hour funds than liberal arts and sciences.

The latest formula capped the number of graduate credits to bereimbursed. There also were enrollment goals set. For everyundergraduate over the goal, CLAS was to be reimbursed $72 out ofthe university pot of funds and for every graduate student overgoal, $125.

“We have very little in revenue but very high expenses,especially in the sciences,” Turner said. “As a consequence, we tryto hold expenses to the minimum without sacrificing quality.”

One road to a solution: maximize class enrollment.

Turner projected that the minimum combination under this processwill be to have a class taught by an adjunct professor and requireat least 12 undergraduate students to be enrolled.

“Even when students pay $90 a credit hour, it takes 12 studentsto break even,” he said. The fiscal goal is to have 20 students inan undergraduate class, 11 in a graduate class.

In the first week of classes, the department head confers withthe instructor and if enrollment doesn’t pick up, the head goes tothe dean, Marvin Kaiser, to decide whether the class should becanceled.

Surprisingly, Turner revealed, it is cheaper to hire an adjunctto teach a class than to hire a graduate student. He called anadjunct professor “probably the cheapest labor in the city, thelowest paid minority.” Grad students get very low pay but get$2,000 a term in benefits.

Low enrollment can mean a canceled class and an adjunct out of ajob.

Turner expressed sympathy for adjunct professors. He saidadjuncts originally were people with other jobs who wanted tobecome involved in some teaching. Now, being an adjunct has becomean occupation, with adjuncts picking up bits and pieces of jobs atdifferent institutions.

Dealing with a tenured professor may present its ownproblems.

“Some are such lousy teachers that nobody shows up in theirclasses,” he said. In those cases, CLAS may try to shift theprofessor to something more attractive to students.

“We just try to muddle through,” Turner said.

Canceling a class can’t be the only solution because there areexpenses that can’t be minimized. Turner estimated it takes about$1.6 million to set up a new professor in the sciences, what withlabs, equipment and all – but part of that new hire’s job is to getgrants.

All travel has been stopped except where travel was part of theprofessor’s contract. This limits research and attendance atprofessional conferences. Some positions are cut. Department chairsare being leaned on not to spend money.

Turner expressed some envy for the situation at Reed College,where tuition is not only higher but the college operates from ahuge endowment.

“We’re always living on our last dime,” Turner said. “We’regiving our best shot at grappling with the problem.”