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USF ponders image, offerings as budget shrinks

Jason Bellino thought long and hard before deciding to return to the University of South Florida to pursue a graduate degree in geology.

The 29-year-old environmental science undergraduate wanted to make sure the additional investment in time and money would make him attractive to employers nationwide.

Now, a week before the start of fall classes, Bellino wonders:

How much different will USF look after suffering what amounts to a $50-million budget cut, which, among other things, has forced the school to rely more heavily on visiting and adjunct faculty?

It's a question that has been on the minds of USF administrators as they've struggled to plug the holes left by a $35.6-million loss in state funding compounded by an additional 4 percent reduction in spending.

"What became abundantly clear to me," USF provost Ralph Wilcox said in an interview last week, "was that we could not maintain the quality of our academic programs and sustain our research agenda by looking the same as we did before we lost that $50-million."

Nevertheless, Wilcox said, he and USF president Judy Genshaft "remained absolutely committed" to making sure students suffered as little as possible during the belt-tightening.

"We haven't shut down colleges, we haven't shut down any departments, we haven't closed any undergraduate or graduate degree programs, and we didn't lay off any tenured or tenure-earning faculty," he said.

But there will be changes, and some of them — including the elimination of 450 staffers and nontenured faculty positions — will affect students directly.

"I think students will see some larger classes," senior vice provost D. Dwayne Smith said. "They'll also see a reduction in the number of classes offered."

Staff cutbacks are likely to affect students in other ways, said Jennifer Meningall, vice president for student affairs.

"I think they'll see longer waiting lines for advising and fewer programs like lectures, study halls and concerts," Meningall said.

Although the Tampa campus has borne the brunt of the funding loss, regional campuses will suffer as well. USF St. Petersburg slashed $3.1-million from its budget, realizing about $1-million in savings with cuts on utilities, supplies, travel and equipment, and a reduction in contractual services.

And while the overriding goal was to "protect the academic experience as much as possible," students will see a 7 percent reduction in class offerings this fall, spokeswoman Holly Kicklighter said.

More troubling than a reduction in course offerings for Bellino, the student about to begin his graduate studies in Tampa, is the cutback in tenured faculty hires and the cancellation of nearly 100 ongoing searches for new professors.

The university was able to hire only 58 tenured or tenure-earning professors for the fall term compared with 140 a year ago, increasing its reliance on part-time visiting professors and adjuncts.

"The one adjunct I've had was really good, but I can certainly see problems where many of them would have other priorities," Bellino said. "A tenured faculty member will be more focused on the students."

Staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

Lawmakers trimmed $35.6-million from USF's state funding starting in July 2007. In June, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered all state agencies, including universities, to reduce spending by 4 percent in this fiscal year. Here is how the original $35.6-million is affecting each of USF's campuses:

USF Tampa: $23.3-million

USF Health: $6.7-million

USF St. Petersburg: $3.1-million

USF Sarasota-Manatee: $1.53-million

USF Polytechnic (Lakeland): $1-million

USF ponders image, offerings as budget shrinks 08/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 8:15pm]
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