BURLINGTON — Over the last few months many students, faculty and administration have expressed concerns about the current budget situation of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Vermont. According to a Feb. 13 fact sheet sent out to students from Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Falls, the college is experiencing a $1.3 million dollar budget shortfall this year due to decreased enrollment, and a larger deficit is projected for next year.
English Professor and South Burlington resident Todd McGowan said there is concern over decreased student enrollment in the college, but he also shared some intra-curricular ideas to respond to it.
“We have a proposal,” McGowan said. “We are thinking about grouping things together, not necessarily departments, but different programs that will give faculty a chance to team teach cross disciplinary classes that might be more exiting to students, and also create interdisciplinary majors that we wouldn’t have thought of before.”
McGowan has been teaching English at UVM since 2002.
Fewer students driving costs
According to the Catamount Data Center, the number of undergraduate students pursuing majors in the UVM College of Arts and Sciences decreased by 909 students since 2009.
McGowan praised the way the college administration has been responding to issues of decreased enrollment, which includes brainstorming newer, more attractive class selections and changing student credit hour requirements for Arts and Science degrees.
“Part of what the Dean has done is that he’s lowered major requirements already, so the most you can have for a major requirement is 30 hours, it used to be 33, which gives students more flexibility.” McGowan said. “Now, since your major requirement is 30, you have one more class you can take elsewhere. I think the aim of this is to maximize students’ flexibility and their options to craft their own way,”
Vice President of Finance Richard Cate acknowledged decreased student enrollment in the college as a national trend that many universities face.
“We are constantly trying to find ways to increase enrollment. The first one, which is being undertaken now, is in terms of really trying to get faculty more involved in the recruiting of new students,” Cate said. “I know some of them have told me that they’re writing letters to accepted students, trying to convince them to come to the college. I know that another strategy is to keep the students we have, and the term for that is retention, in terms of making sure that students’ needs are met so they want to stay here.”
Arts and Science Dean Falls and Associate Dean Rory Waterman have released many decisions regarding cuts and downsizes within the college this past year, specifically in terms of increased course capacity sizes in many introductory level courses.
“To date, we have been canceling increasing numbers of under-enrolled courses,” Waterman wrote in a Jan. 27 email addressed to college faculty and staff. “We see no other choice. If we run these courses at a financial deficit, we will simply have to cut elsewhere. We need departments to think creatively about how to attract students to their courses,”
In a Feb. 8 email to college faculty and staff, Falls noted increasing capacities for freshman and sophomore-level courses.
“We have asked all departments to increase course capacities to 60 for 0-level (0XX) effective Fall 2019 to address inequities across departments and provide students with greater access to 0XX courses,” Falls said.
Incentive Based Budgeting
While responding to external factors like decreased enrollment, faculty members also said that the current Incentive Based Budgeting concept the university follows contributes to unequal money distribution between colleges with results that discourage future students from attending.
“There’s a national trend, and then there’s how you respond to the national trend and one of the ways we, as a university, responded to it is to try to encourage kids to go away from Arts and Sciences.” McGowan said. “I think one of the main ways that we have done it is through Incentive Based Budgeting, a kind of budgeting model that rewards colleges for how many students they teach, and you get a special reward for how many students from other colleges you can bring over into your own classes,”
Cate describes Incentive Based Budgeting as “a concept of budgeting that, at this point is probably something about 40 percent of higher institutions have … I think that the model is really just a formula for allocating money, it doesn’t generate the money. The underlying problem here is that our tuition is high, and therefore we cannot increase it as much as we may need in order for everyone to have enough money.”
Improve the offerings
Sarah Alexander, a professor of English and president of United Academics, UVM’s faculty union, maintains that in eliminating some of the college’s courses and reducing the amount of paid faculty, the university undermines a lot of the reasons UVM attracts students in the first place, as well as its potential to deliver a well-rounded education.
While Alexander noted that the declining enrollment in the College is partly a byproduct of increased interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields and similar majors, she does not see shrinking funding to the College as a useful means of stoking interest in its offerings.
“Why strip the curriculum if it’s already less attractive than it used to be?” she said.
Slimming down offerings in the College would only exacerbate the dwindling interest students have in its programs, particularly in the humanities and liberal arts, Alexander said. To increase the amount of students enrolled in Arts and Sciences courses, and the amount of money the college generates, the university should protect the curriculum, she said.
She points to an uptick in arts and sciences enrollment in 2010, which coincided with an increase in funding to the college, as proof that beefing up its educational opportunities make it more attractive to prospective students.
Much of the university’s funds come from out-of-state enrollment, and by reducing the diversity of courses and size of faculty, the university discourages a key demographic of students – students from other states in the Northeast interested in a classic, well-rounded college experience – from enrolling at UVM, she said. This would only worsen some of the college’s financial troubles, she said.
“Now is the time to be making programs that are of interest to students, not to completely destroy the curriculum, which I think is happening in departments like English and classics,” she said. “If we no longer have the liberal arts here…we’re not going to be able to attract students from Massachusetts to come up here to go to school.
Even if some programs don’t generate revenue for the university, Alexander still feels they should be preserved for their educational value alone, she said.
“We’re responsible at the university for producing and disseminating knowledge,” she said. “We’re not responsible for creating profit.
Student activists in the Coalition for Students Rights organized a Teach-in on April 3 to voice their disagreement with the current budget model. They also criticized UVM’s recent spending on infrastructure and administrative positions. UVM’S largest-ever capital project, a new STEM building, and $3 million sky bridge were built within the last two years. The University also has plans to build a new multi-purpose center, aided by a $15 million gift from Vermont philanthropists Rich and Deb Tarrant. A 2018 UVM statement celebrates this gift as the largest capital gift in its history. The project is anticipated to be completed throughout the 2020-21 school year.
Student activists also critiqued UVM’s increased administrative spending. UVM employs 36 deans across its seven schools and colleges. Additionally, according to information on the publicly-available “UVM Annual Lists of Base Pay,” base pay for the top 50 positions employed by UVM (who are mostly administrators) has increased 34 percent in the last nine years, which is double the rate of inflation.
Student activists reaffirm UVM’s status as a state school to defend the importance of a reasonably priced liberal arts education. During their teach-in, the Coalition for Student Rights stated, “[UVM] is a state school, and as such must guarantee a strong liberal arts program.”
McGowan said that faculty share the student’s concern about higher costs.
“A lot of faculty members here are very concerned about the tuition and the percentage of Vermonters at UVM. The first is way too high, and the second is way too low,” said McGowan. “It does actually affect South Burlington.”