Far from budgetary bliss

Sports, social sciences, graduate studies, student services—what do you think should go first? I pose this question because it may not be so far away that universities need to drastically suspend or even cut good programs and services just to stay afloat.

The question is, if our particular pride and joy is the one that needs to go—I happen to like silly things such as history and english—will we allow ourselves to be willingly cast overboard like Jonah to save the ship? Or will we preempt the matter and attempt to prove the case for our spot on board?

Some are desperately trying to avoid answering these questions.

The University of Washington recently insisted it would not have to cut many programs despite expecting a $10 million budget cut, relying on hiring freezes and reducing expenses like equipment purchases [“UW budget faces $10 million cut,” Oct. 15, Seattle Post-Intelligencer]. Critics decry the university for not using any of its large endowment—estimated at around $3 billion—or for not cutting back on administrative and coach salaries.

The problem is that while you can make a sort of metaphysical case that basketball programs are not as valuable as the profundity of sci-fi lit, basketball won’t go because it wins the argument in the real world—it, at least potentially, brings home the bacon.

This is even the case here at Portland State. As of 2006, “Portland State football is in the top 25 in the nation for attendance growth, and the top 10 in the nation for volleyball, softball and women’s basketball attendance growth” [“Athletic Department Wins Three Marketing Awards,” PSU Athletic Dept.].

One report noted that UW is over-enrolled by 1,100 students, which will force the university to adjust workloads of professors from research to teaching, especially those courses needed for prerequisites [“Exceptions to the Rule,” Inside Higher Ed., Nov. 25, 2008].

To me it seems this would also divert attention away from upper-division or graduate offerings and smaller, research-oriented seminars. In effect, this means that upper-division courses and higher degrees are ultimately less important than a broader liberal arts education.

In fact, voters already decided that lower-division and prerequisite courses are more important by approving the bond measure this November to improve Portland Community College.

It also means that some things might be less important than basketball. Yep, in the college world, hardwood can beat history.

But before crying foul and declaring your right to study sci-fi lit of the 1950s (honestly, something worthwhile) let’s remember where those rights, which are strangely not hinted at in the U.S. Constitution, hail from: wallets. Some rights are divine, others are bought.

This can be hard to swallow, especially to a prospective grad student like myself, and provides essentially two choices when the budget falls on hard times and your department gets cut: cry foul or argue for your existence.

I know some would love to decry the sustainability programs and find them a waste of time, but lips ought to be sealed when they bring in the money and, well, sustain themselves. And the Miller Foundation’s generous $25 million matching donation to Portland State this past September certainly keeps that ship afloat.

The point in all of this is to help us recognize where the health and stability of universities really come from. If we value enough certain things the university has to offer, we will pay for them. Otherwise, many worthy fields could go by the wayside if the money isn’t there.

Governor Ted Kulongoski has proposed about $2 billion in new taxes and fees. If it all passes, Oregon higher education could see a steadier budget than in states such as Washington.

Whether it remains this way is another question. Do you have faith in your field and its ability to retain public and private investment? If you’re not sure, you better start arguing for your existence now, before the decision is posed to legislators and administrators who will make the decision for you.

If you aren’t ready, it may not be the outcome you want, and then you will find yourself cast off the ship like Jonah in an effort to save the ship as a whole.