As a result of a substantial budget deficit in the program, 37 graduate assistant mentor positions in the University Studies department will be cut next year. The decision came after Shawn Smallman, interim vice-provost for instruction and dean of undergraduate studies, announced that the $224,000 in University Studies graduate student Sophomore Inquiry stipends would have to be cut because of the general deficit the university is in.
Smallman said that the university no longer has fund reserves to pull University Studies out of a perpetual deficit – currently between $800,000 and $1 million – like it has in previous years. He said that because of the budget deficit, there are not enough funds to continue the program.
”It’s no secret that PSU’s funding has not increased over the last few years. It’s been decreasing,” Smallman said. “It’s hard for me, knowing that my first major decision in the [University Studies] program is getting rid of the graduate assistants.”
The Sophomore Inquiry classes will now take a new form. Classes will be instructor-based only, lasting for a two-hour block like other PSU classes. Previously, the Sophomore Inquiry classes had an hour-and-15-minute block with a University Studies faculty member and an hour block with the graduate assistant mentor.
Smallman said he made the official decision yesterday, and is announcing it in a memo sent out to University Studies faculty, staff and graduate mentors today. The graduate mentor positions in the Sophomore Inquiries will be the only part of the University Studies program affected and will not impact anyone involved in the program this year.
Britt Godchaux, a Sophomore Inquiry mentor, said the main concern she has with this news is the negative ramifications it will have on the program and in turn the students.
”It seems, not just under this context, that there isn’t a whole lot of investment in the students,” Godchaux said.
Smallman said there is the possibility that three to four graduate assistant positions may be kept within the program to work in undetermined parts of University Studies. The decision comes on the heels of the newly created University Studies Council – a group of faculty and staff appointed to evaluate and reassess the University Studies program.
The cost saved to the university from stipends alone will amount to $224,000. Some graduate assistant positions include tuition remissions, which total nearly $230,000.
Godchaux said that she wishes she had a general education program like University Studies when she was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. She said that mentors not only function as instructors, but as peers to the sometimes-confused lower-division students. Godchaux said she thinks students should have been consulted in this decision.
Godchaux said the graduate mentoring program is so important to University Studies that this change will be devastating, not only to University Studies, but to the university as a whole. She said the university spends money on things that are not as important as the mentoring program, such as the Portland State marketing campaign that includes the newly designed PSU logo and website.
”Student learning is a little more important, honestly,” Godchaux said.
Godchaux said the University Studies program was designed as a student-centered learning experience, and turning the courses into this format will impair that. She said that the mentor sessions are typically small, usually having only 12 students in each.
”It would be taking a class that’s supposed to be engaging people in a lot of different levels and making it a lecture format,” Godchaux said.
Godchaux said she has seen many positive experiences between mentors and students that next year will be lost. She said apart from her own experiences, she has heard anecdotes from students who assert that sophomore mentors have saved them from the point of dropping out. Godchaux said that mentors not only instruct students, but also help them with personal problems, and help them meld into university life.
Naomi Marshall, a Freshman Inquiry mentor relying on the tuition remissions to attend school, said that she would not attend PSU as a graduate student next year if PSU does not offer the graduate mentor program. Marshall thinks the university will experience a decrease in student enrollment when the decision is announced.
”We are constantly bragging about the university growing,” Marshall said. “I don’t see it growing without support.”
Smallman said the University Studies Council is going to take a comprehensive look at University Studies this year, specifically at the middle of the program. He said that this will be the last big shift in University Studies for a while.
”If you look into the future, there will be more issues,” Smallman said.
Smallman, who formerly taught Sophomore Inquiry courses, said he understands how useful the program is. He said this is his first major decision since taking his office a month ago and it was difficult.
”I’ve worked with so many graduate mentors, I know how they’ve contributed,” Smallman said. “I don’t want the mentors to walk away from this thinking their work is not valued.”
Godchaux said that she is not sure if her work is appreciated by the administration.
”It’s a question if the work I’ve been doing is being respected and honored,” Godchaux said. “I don’t really know.”