Top USF faculty question budget cuts. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’

Department leaders wonder how much USF’s ongoing bid for rankings and preeminence is sapping resources that could be used elsewhere.
As USF tries to rein in spending, faculty leaders are questioning many of the budget cuts being proposed.
As USF tries to rein in spending, faculty leaders are questioning many of the budget cuts being proposed. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020) ]
Published Nov. 11, 2020

Top faculty members at the University of South Florida are pushing back against efforts to cut millions from the school’s budget, saying administrators have not shared enough information.

They also questioned whether the university’s strategy of boosting its rankings is worth the effort, contending the long-running effort is sapping resources that could be spend elsewhere. And they say the deep staff cuts being contemplated are at odds with the university’s values as outlined in its “Principles of Community,” a guiding document introduced last year by USF president Steve Currall.

“The rhetoric is all about a culture of transparency and caring, and my response is ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Alex Levine, chair of the philosophy department, said in an interview. “You can’t be talking about a culture of caring when you’re considering taking people’s livelihoods and tossing them on the street. That’s not a culture of caring.”

Levine is one of 20 department heads in the College of Arts and Sciences who recently outlined their concerns in a letter to the Faculty Senate.

In its efforts to streamline its budget by about $93 million over two years, USF has implemented a hiring freeze, made cuts to supporting units, announced the proposed end to undergraduate programs in the College of Education and identified targets for cuts to each college.

The university also rolled out a new early retirement program and is exploring the possibility of amending university regulations regarding furloughs.

University leaders are calling the process a “strategic realignment.”

Faculty Senate president Tim Boaz said USF got through major crises after 911 and the 2008 financial crisis without laying off tenured faculty, which appears to be a possibility now.

“I think it rattles people and causes a lot of concern,” he said. "Even short of people being laid off, the kinds of budget cuts being talked about are going to be very impactful in terms of our ability to do our work.”

The Senate recently sent a three-page list of questions to USF administrators asking for more information on how the university decided what to cut and and whether the deadlines for making those cuts were self-imposed.

In their letter to the Senate, the department heads decried the possibility that “any of our devoted colleagues, fellow educators and friends” could be dismissed when “it was not absolutely necessary.” They added: “Such a step would be inimical to a culture of caring, and indeed unconscionable.”

The letter further questioned whether the cuts were truly a response to a state request to reduce spending by 8.5 percent in light of COVID-19. It suggested the university’s finances were being drained by “strategic missteps” from chasing rankings that never brought in the promised benefits.

Though USF topped other state universities in performance-based rankings last year — having joined the University of Florida and Florida State University in achieving “pre-eminent” status in 2018 — it did not receive the level of funds that were supposed to come with that accomplishment.

This concern was highlighted in a July letter to the USF community from David Lechner, the university’s senior vice president for business and financial strategy, who foreshadowed some of the cuts to come.

“USF has made historical investments designed to increase student success, attract top faculty, bolster our rankings and improve support services,” the letter said. “We trusted that those achievements would yield additional funding commensurate with those successes.”

It said the university “invested beyond (its) means” even when a return on investment wasn’t a guarantee, but stated USF would continue to pursue those efforts. Currall reiterated that message at a board of trustees meeting Tuesday.

Levine, the philosophy department chair, said the university’s doubling down on climbing in rankings needed to be questioned. The state is not giving USF extra money to pursue that goal, he said, “so resources are being stolen from other things.”

Levine also questioned who actually benefits from external measures of institutional prestige.

“Up to a point, students benefit because the value of their degrees appreciate,” he said. But beyond that, he said, university leaders are the ones who gain through bragging rights.

"I do want my department to be the best it can be, but could care less if USF is Top 50 or Top 25,” Levine said.

He said he’s concerned about what the cuts could mean. The College of Arts and Sciences has been asked to cut its budget by a target amount of more than $10 million over two years, which could lead to steps like lowering the number of graduate assistants or adjunct faculty.

If that happened, Levine said, faculty would have less time for research, higher teaching loads, fewer students interested in doctoral programs and able to teach undergraduate programs. That could lead to lower tuition revenue and an inability to sustain a program, he said.

M. Scott Solomon, chair of the school of interdisciplinary global studies who also signed the letter, said USF administrators have made themselves available to answer questions and he’s hopeful faculty can see more information to understand the decision-making process.

“We have been trying to understand what are actually the metrics driving the decision-making,” Solomon said. “They have provided us with a number of metrics but it’s not clear which of those metrics are most important to them."

Solomon said he’s hopeful the situation is more fluid than originally anticipated and that the election outcome could lead to more federal relief that could ease the timeline of needed cuts implemented.

At a state Board of Governors meeting last week, members expressed empathy for what universities are facing. Board member Eric Silagy encouraged schools to tap into their reserves, a move traditionally frowned upon for fear of upsetting credit rating agencies. “There’s no reason to have a 7 percent reserve if you can never use it,” he said.

Boaz, the Faculty Senate president, argued that keeping universities' budgets intact are in the public interest.

“When businesses want to relocate here, they look at the quality of education systems,” he said. “These budget cuts hurt our ability to deliver the product (the citizens of Florida) expect from us. ... We cannot keep doing this job for less and less money.”