TAMPA — Inside the Africana Studies Department at the University of South Florida, the mood is grim.
"People are visibly stressed," said Reginald Eldridge, a master's degree student. "They are not smiling as much."
As the state's universities brace for unprecedented budget cuts, several departments at USF, including Africana Studies, are concerned they may be fighting for survival.
The two departments to come out of the major social movements of the '60s — Africana and Women's Studies — know that they are traditionally targeted whenever cost-cutting measures loom.
While no official decisions have been made, never have they felt this threatened or lost, Eldridge said.
"There's been so much talk and speculation," said Eldridge, who led a group of more than 150 students in a protest to protect these programs on campus last week. "We don't know what's going to happen."
USF administrators have told employees that in this difficult time, they are committed to retaining all tenured faculty and all tenure-earning faculty; and preserving all undergraduate and graduate degree programs, said Provost Ralph Wilcox. Those programs include Africana and Women's Studies.
Still, the state's contribution to USF has been cut by $19-million this year, and USF is bracing for an additional slashing of 5 to 10 percent of its budget beginning this summer. That means the Tampa campus must meet the needs of 40,000 students with $34-million less next year, Wilcox said.
"Clearly there are ways to reduce some expenditures which will have an impact on the student experience and faculty productivity," Wilcox said. "It's regrettable, but we're all tightening our belts."
Already, USF has frozen $13-million in jobs, which make up about 100 faculty positions and 50 staff positions, Wilcox said. In a normal year, those openings would already have been filled as the university geared up to offer a full summer and fall schedule.
In addition, expect to see fewer class offerings, more students in each class, a reduction in student services and the possibility of closing low-use buildings, he said.
No final decisions will be made as to where to cut until the Legislature makes its recommendation to the governor, possibly as early as the end of the week.
But in preparation, USF leaders are reviewing a committee's examination of departments to find ways to save money. The Africana and Women's Studies departments did not fare well in the committee's findings.
The report said student interest in the programs was lacking and recommended offering them as minors, not majors. The report said the number of undergraduate majors in Africana Studies in 2006 was 25, but the department disputed that and said majors in 2005-06 numbered 35; Women's Studies granted 11 bachelor's degrees and three master's degrees in 2006-07.
When all departments were given the opportunity to respond, they did so with fervor.
Deborah Plant, chair of the Africana Studies Department, said its programs are in demand, despite a lack of funds to promote it.
"In times of budgetary crises, institutions tend to do the typical and the expected in perpetuating the marginalization of the historically marginalized and under-supported," she wrote. "What if our administrators could be inspired to see that doing 'what is always done' does not inspire progress?"
Kim Vaz, chair of Women's Studies, argued that a merger or a dispersal of the Women's Studies faculty to other departments would essentially mean that Women's Studies will not exist.
"The major and graduate programs derive their strength from faculty who teach and conduct research with a common focus and vision," she wrote.
Wilcox said the task force's recommendations influence only a part of the decision-making process, although, clearly, some departments can be consolidated administratively. Also, some departments have made their own recommendations. The College of Education is looking to consolidate its Adult Career and Higher Education and Educational Leadership departments.
Because the future is so uncertain, morale on campus has taken a hit.
"There is deep concern, and frankly suspicion, because (students) recognize the scope of the reductions," he said. "These are not easy times. It's not fun to be a student or professor who is distracted from what they do best."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or [email protected]