Teaching in the Face of Budget Cutbacks

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 27, 2010 9:52 am

Like most state schools, University of Washington is in the process of absorbing a series of budget cutbacks. These cuts are part of a long trend of reduced state support, as can be seen in this plot dug up by my colleague Gordon Watts, but have been accelerating recently in response to the state’s economic troubles:

UW budget cuts

While the University historically has been able to handle the slow erosion of state support in a manner that allowed for continued quality in the educational experiences of our students, the latest cuts are now at a point where they are having a direct impact on the students (beyond the steady increase in tuition and fees, needed to make up for the declining share of state support). As detailed in an article in today’s Seattle Times, class sizes are growing, and students have less direct access to their instructors.

This quarter, I am living with the “new normal”. Click below the fold if you dare.

I’m currently teaching a >250 person introductory astronomy course — a class I usually love to teach. However, this is the first time I’ve taught it with reduced staffing. Traditionally, we’ve taught the class with 5 TAs, each of whom would handle 2 sections of 25 students, meeting 2 times a week. During those times the TA’s would clarify information from lecture, introduce supplementary material, and walk the students through labs. This quarter, however, we have 4 TAs, handling more than 60 students each. This may not sound like a huge change, but it has set off a cascading chain of decisions that clearly diminish the student experience, while adding increased challenges for the instructors.

For example, we do not have the classroom space to allow two large (>30 person) sections to run simultaneously, so the TAs now only meet with their students once a week. The one meeting must be spent working on the labs, so in addition to losing 50% of their contact time with the TAs, the students have lost 100% of their free discussion time. If they’re struggling with the material, their only option is to work it out in office hours. However, many of our students are working to put themselves through school, or have family commitments, or commute long distances, making this a tough option for many of them.

To increase the students’ interaction with the course in the face of reduced instructional time, and to decrease the workload on the TAs, I’ve also moved a large amount of material on-line. The university has developed a superb suite of tools to help develop on-line material, yet the process remains incredibly time consuming (as you might have guessed by a notable lack of blogging this month). Some aspects of having an on-line component are a net positive. I get many more opportunities to assess student learning, and the students are finally being forced to do the reading in advance of lecture, guaranteeing that they’re making much more sense of my rather high baud rate delivery. However, it’s added a nightmarish degree of overhead on my end, even beyond developing the material. Suddenly, I’m responsible for >250 students’ computer crashes and email failures. In addition, whereas the TA’s were traditionally the primary point of contact for assignments, now I am. This means that instead of 5 people dealing with 50 students’ assignment difficulties, 1 person is dealing with 250 of them.

I would write more about this, but it appears that the service that handles the on-line labs has just crashed, 45 minutes before a lab is due. I need to go answer the 15 frantic emails I just received while writing this post.

  • Sad Physics Student

    I am at a state university in Maine that graduates about 5 physics majors a year. (We only have an undergraduate program). All of my Physics 200+ level classes fall well below the schools new minimum 12 students per class rule. So, the head of our department has to battle the higher up administration every semester to not have all of my classes arbitrarily canceled. =(

  • http://muon.wordpress.com/ Michael

    Wow, your situation sounds terrible. I am also a physics professor, but I am luck to be teaching a graduate course this year and not one of the big introductory courses. I think you deserve a medal, or at least a healthy pay increase. 😉

  • Julianne

    I actually don’t consider my situation to be terrible at all. I like teaching intro astronomy — in exchange for 10 weeks of effort, I can take 250 students and teach them that the world isn’t magic, and that they have the intellectual power to understand why things are the way they are. While the hours are considerable, they’re flexible (outside of lecture). I’m well paid, and have job security. I also like working with our particular students — I’ve had offers to move to private, well-funded universities, but I actually prefer serving the students who probably need me even more.

    My gripe is that with the latest cutbacks, I know that the students are not getting the same caliber of course that they would have gotten one year ago, at least at the introductory levels. In the upper levels, we’re still doing ok — we’re a small-ish department, but not so small that we face what S.Ph.S. above is facing. Students in more populated science majors with significant lab components (chemistry, bio, physics) are getting shafted even beyond the intro classes. How can a student have a meaningful lab experience with half as many bench hours a week? The only way to preserve the quality of education is to switch to a competitive major (i.e. restrict the number of majors, and let in students to the major by application only). But then, look at the big picture of what this means — we do all this work to promote science education in the schools, and then when the number of chemistry majors doubles, we can’t actually afford to train them properly at the college level. It’s insane!

  • locke

    The situation in Washington state is actually very nice compared to that in my state (which is going to remain nameless to protect the guilty). We’ve suffered 15% cuts over the last 18 months and we can expect cuts of about 10% over the next year. A colleague just walked into my office and said the governor in now calling for 25% salary cuts across the board for all state employees. (which is hard to credit, but the fact that such proposals can see the light of day is of course very troubling). Which of course is the trouble with posts like this (as Julianne realizes): someone else is always MUCH worse off than you. Still, my largest lectures are limited to 46 people in intro astronomy and my labs (real 3 hour labs (max), no silly recitation sections) are limited to 20, so there are also people worse off than me (I teach the same number of total students as Julianne, to a good approximation).

  • Julianne

    That’s what I mean by “the new normal”. Now that we show that yeah, we can teach more students with fewer people, well, that’s what’s expected. And, since some states are even worse off than Washington, we’ll be adopting your model soon too. The kind of quality that used to be available in state schools will now be confined to the private universities, and those who can pay for them. That’s a shame.

  • jrad

    In 2008 I was an astro 101 TA at a state school in southern california. Our 101 was being taught by 5 people each semester, and the labs were not linked to the lectures. This meant that the 30 students in my once per week (which is NOT enough time) lab section could be learning about stars/galaxies/ptolemy at the same time. Worse yet, many students had taken the 3credit lecture years before hand, and were taking the 1cr lab to fill out gen-ed reqs. One such student came to the realization in the 10th week of lab that “stars are actually other suns”… something that i would assume had been covered years prior.

    I asked the dept chair if we could *please* link the labs & lectures. He responded “no, we can’t risk losing any FTE”.

    “Are we more concerned with asses-in-chairs than quality of education?”

    “I’m not going to go into that”

    This was before the budget-apocalypse which is threatening to close the entire astro dept at this particular school. I hope and pray that UofWashington does not have to ever go down that road.

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    @Julianne: Per the chart shown, total revenue per student remained roughly constant at $16,000 2009 dollars. I do not see the problem – cuts in state funding appear to have been picked up by increased tuition cost ? (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether students paying more is good or bad). It seems the problem is not on the revenue side but on the cost side – clearly your costs are growing faster than inflation if you are feeling squeezed while your revenues keep pace (not you personally, the school).

  • charon

    @7: last I heard UW departments were required to cut about 10% of spending (for academic departments – cuts more like 15% for administrative, etc.). Two years of massive tuition hikes went into effect, offsetting some of the lost state money, but definitely not all. And the next state budget proposal threatens to be much worse. Labor-intensive groups (like universities and government agencies) don’t see the same productivity/efficiency gains private sector companies that are much more technology-dependent do. But UW’s problems are definitely not on the cost side.

    Now, JD knows a lot more about this than I do, and keep in mind that these are numbers I heard thrown around 6-9 months ago…

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben


    Education is a labor-intensive industry and that means that its costs are pressured upward by the economy as a whole, which is a mix of capital- and labor-intensive. Technology improves productivity per employee in capital-intensive industries, but not so much in labor-intensive: a prof can only teach so many students per class before quality suffers, a doctor or nurse can only see so many patients per day, a musician can’t play a concert any faster. This means that (typically) costs and salaries in labor-intensive industries go up faster than productivity to keep pace with the larger economy. This is a known economics problem explained nicely by James Surowiecki: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/07/07/030707ta_talk_surowiecki

    For example, consider the graph suggesting that tuition+state funding is flat in constant dollars since 1990. If a constant fraction of funds goes to employees and the student/teacher ratio is constant, that implies that teacher salaries were flat in constant dollars – nobody got a raise higher than inflation over 20 years. If you think about what happened in the real estate market over the same time, that would imply profs fell far behind in their ability to buy houses in the Seattle area. Enough of this and the university can’t recruit employees anymore. Of course, it is also true that the array of services and bureaucracies that universities are expected to provide increases with time, and that soaks up some of the money too.

    Beyond that, there’s the more important question of whether the states *should* be starving their universities. We know now that we’re making curriculum decisions that result in inferior quality of education. I think it’s BS to assume that the USA can’t afford to provide quality higher education. People (legislators, voters) just don’t want to inconvenience themselves by actually paying to provide it.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Using #7’s numbers, those 250 students bring in $4 million per year. Assuming 8 classes, that’s half a mil per class. Put the prof on 100k and the 4 TA’s on 15K each (let’s be optimists here), and you’re at 160k So 32% of tuition goes to teaching the class. What happens to the other 68%?

  • neil

    Sorry, academics.
    You have made an couple of strategic errors. The most important is not making science and technology appear crtical to our society.

    Why? Because, unlike law, medicine,and social sciences, your deliverables have transformed society without burdening the world with constant ‘upgrades’ (lawyers), bad business practices (medicine), and theory-du-jour (social sciences).

    Please toot your own horns more.

    That said, you are passengers in the SUV of institutions. Pare down to a Prius. (and eject some of your passengers)

    And by the way, what part of sports scholarships makes sense?

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    @ben: I’ve just scanned that article and read your reply but I must disagree. “To keep pace with the larger economy”. But the larger, theoretically more productive, economy has resulted in downward pressure on prices (in general); something which, outside of salaries, the universities should benefit from in terms of non-labor overhead. And just because wages in that other economy can still potentially be raised without having a negative effect on the price of a good or perhaps even during a small slowdown, you would need to argue that those wages are moving significantly higher than inflation. I dont’t think you can find evidence for that in economic data which shows a long term declining real wage in USA. I also find his argument regarding consumer expecations as non-relevant to the issue of cost of labor.

    As to housing prices outstripping the ability to pay, I think that is the case in many markets and is more a reflection on the flood of liquidity allowing people to chase far more home than they could buy under normal financial conditions (among other ancillary reasons).

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    @10: Have you written or evaluated a grant budget? Each salary has to be multiplied by about 1.5x to cover benefits and overhead. It’s the same for teaching salaries. “Overhead” includes both legitimate expenses and presumably some university bureaucratic fat, but the point remains: dollars per student has to pay not only the prof and TA’s salaries, but the benefits, the cost of building, maintaining, and keeping the lights on in the classroom, the lab setup tech, the secretary who deals with undergrad issues, and so on.

    @12: You’re not disagreeing with me, but with a known economic phenomenon that affects labor-intensive industries. Comparing to the US average wage trend has too many confounds because of the changing mix of jobs in the US over the last N decades (manufacturing vs service, union vs not, skilled/unskilled, different educational levsls, etc). The house prices are just an example that is easy to relate to. Consider jobs that have similar demographics, e.g. a long term trend in professor salaries vs. people who work in the high-tech industry. I don’t have the numbers, but suspect that tech salaries have done more than just COLA increases.

    The basic issue is that in a system that demands growth, trying to run an institution on a budget that is flat in constant dollars means you are at best keeping up with COLA, and thus falling behind everything else. Imagine a company whose revenues only kept pace with inflation.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar