Gravity of budget cuts weighs down college

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Operating with an already reduced budget, the College of Science and Mathematics will soon face additional expenses as it switches to Year-Round Operations and changes its general education requirements in Fall 2006.

College officials said that because of increased summer enrollment and new lab requirements for students, existing funds will have to be shuffled around to cover the costly program changes.

“It’s almost like digging a bigger debt as we grow,” said Jerry Stinner, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics.

The administration requested that the college increase its summer enrollment by 30 percent to improve graduation rates, Stinner said. He said the costs associated with scheduling classes for summer 2006 will be close to $90,000.

“We have to find instructors, schedule classrooms and we’re not sure students will flock here,” Stinner said. “My impression is that people are waiting to see how it’s going to play out in terms of student numbers.”

Changes in general education lab requirements also come with a price, Stinner said.

Students are currently required to take one three-hour lab, but starting next fall they will be required to take two three-hour labs, which will result in a huge surge in people taking lab courses, he said.

“Lab courses cost us money,” Stinner said. “Next fall we estimate it will cost $40,000 to $50,000 to teach additional labs, not counting the costs of setting up labs. No one has talked about how we’re going to fund this.”

One proposal being discussed is to raise student lab fees, said Kavoos Blourtchi, manager of academic resources for the College of Science and Mathematics.

“Lab fees have not been raised for the last 15 (to) 20 years,” Blourtchi said. “Students have to realize the costs of raw materials were a fraction (then) of what they are now. With inflation, $5 for a physics lab is almost unthinkable.”

Blourtchi said doubling the current lab fees, which range between $5 and $20, would be an appropriate measure, but ultimately a move that the Student Fee Advisory Committee would have to approve.

Such a proposal would be beneficial under certain conditions, said Steven Oppenheimer, biology professor.

“I think to maintain program excellence the fees are needed, provided they make it back directly to the grass roots departments that need them,” Oppenheimer said in an e-mail.

Lawrence Mack, a graduate student in physics and a former high school science teacher, said he knows how inadequate funding can affect the quality of an education. He said he was given a yearly $500 budget to acquire very expensive and non-renewable chemicals when he taught a total of five physics and chemistry classes.

Mack said certain steps should be taken before the lab fees are raised.

“It should be debated, and students need to be consulted,” Mack said.

Blourtchi said the base-operating budget for the college for the 2004-05 academic year was $12.3 million. This year it was reduced to $11.9 million.

He said the college had to cut $160,000 in funding for equipment this year, more than half of the previous year’s $305,000 allotment.

Biology professor Maria Elena Zavala said any budget cuts are especially harmful to science students and faculty because of their dependence on scientific equipment.

“Students need access to research facilities and time to work with faculty. They work on the apprenticeship method with faculty,” Zavala said. “Science professors and students usually can’t work home at home or in the library.”

Zavala said adequate funding is needed to update the department’s technological equipment if science students are to remain successful and competitive. She said budget cuts have a way of eliminating expenses that are seen as unnecessary, but which she feels are needed because they get students prepared by teaching them the fundamentals.

“That’s always been one of the strengths of the department: that we can get equipment,” Zavala said.

Diane Stephens, director of academic budget management for Academic Resources, said the university is in the second year of a three-year budget reduction process that was initiated in the 2004-05 school year. She said the deans of the eight colleges all agreed to take a 3.6 percent cut in their base budgets, which excludes salary for permanent faculty.

Since 2004, the university’s budget has been reduced by about $4.6 million, and an additional $1.5 million in cuts is expected for the 2006-07 academic year, according to Stephens.

“We are trying to preserve student instruction as best as possible,” she said.

Biology professor Randy Cohen said he has yet to encounter problems getting the minor lab equipment and chemicals he has requested.

He said there are fewer new computers being purchased and that there was a time when the department had no copy paper.

“But for me and what I’ve been doing, I’m still doing it,” Cohen said.

Stinner said it would be inaccurate to say the reduced budget has the college operating more efficiently because a quality science and mathematics education is dependent on equipment.

“A lot of it was bought 30 years ago,” Stinner said. “Stuff breaks down and it has to be repaired. We can’t afford service contracts to keep equipment running.”

Because of the importance of supplies and services, some money was juggled around to increase equipment funding from $319,000 in 2004-05 to $431,000 this year, Blourtchi said.

The money the College of Science and Mathematics has available for part-time faculty is nearly $200,000 less than the previous year, which was $2 million in 2004-05, Blourtchi said, adding that a 50 percent cut reduced travel expenses to $50,000 for the present year.

Stinner said cutting travel expenses is detrimental to faculty who often go to professional meetings where they present their scientific findings.

“It’s really deadly for new faculty,” Stinner said. “They pay out of their own pocket or they drop out of grant game, where they link up and collaborate with other professionals.”

Zavala said it is not unusual for faculty to pay for their own travel expenses.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Harry Hellenbrand said that with fee increases affecting students and budget cuts affecting faculty and staff, he’s surprised there hasn’t been more protesting.

He said the deans and the department chairs were given the discretion to decide how the cuts were to be implemented over the course of three years.

“Like all of us they have looked at relatively painless ways to do the budget cuts,” Hellenbrand said. “But, essentially we’ve run out of ways to do that.”

Julio Morales can be reached at Julio.morales.605@csun.edu.