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Colleges Rethink Goals as They Cut

Financial necessity is forcing hard choices and introspection at public schools. Some academics embrace the challenge, but others are worried.

October 12, 2003|Stephanie Simon and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

AMES, Iowa — The heifer was groaning, her belly heaving. In her last contraction, she had pushed out the front legs of her baby calf. Then her labor had stalled.

Nick Slater, a college senior, squatted in the straw beside the Holstein. He picked up a chain wrapped around the calf's emerging legs. Gently, he began to tug. "You're almost there, girl," he cooed. "C'mon, babe." One final pull and the calf was born.

"Shake his head," barn manager Cece Hadaway instructed Slater. "Get those eyes blinking. That's right."

Generations of students at Iowa State University have learned the science and the sweat of animal husbandry while tending 375 cows in the dairy barn on the edge of campus. The students milk, mix feed, muck out stalls, even artificially inseminate heifers.

"I don't think any of what we do out here can be learned in a classroom," Slater said.

But the dairy barn is shutting down. Iowa State, one of the nation's top agricultural schools, can no longer afford to run its century-old teaching farm.

Many other public universities across the nation are struggling as well.

Though nearly all have increased tuition, and some have capped enrollment, administrators at state schools from Michigan to Hawaii say they are desperately short of money. They have canceled subscriptions to academic journals, dismantled sports teams, left faculty posts unfilled.

Now, with deep frustration, they are slashing course offerings and closing hands-on learning centers like the dairy barn.

In a recent survey of its members, the National Assn. of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges found roughly 20% of state systems made cuts this year that directly affect undergraduate academics. Many of the rest managed to maintain the curriculum only by sacrificing other services -- reducing library hours, cutting student counseling and restricting purchases of new lab equipment.

Critics say it's about time to start trimming college programs; they blame the budget crisis on a mad rush to provide everything to every student, from advanced Portuguese to golf-course simulators in the gym.

A few academics also have embraced the chance to refocus their priorities. After cutting four majors, including a popular program in exercise science, "we are a somewhat narrower institution, but what's left of the university is very strong," said Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Others worry that they are narrowing choices for students too much: "One of the features of a great university is that you should have a chance to take a seminar with the world's leading expert in James Joyce, or read Dante in Italian. But we have had to close more than 200 courses -- and we're just at the beginning of this process," said Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, deputy dean of the University of Wisconsin's College of Letters and Science.

California's two public university systems have so far avoided widespread cuts in the curriculum, in part because they increased undergraduate fees 10% to 15% last winter and raised them another 30% this summer. A few campuses, however, are scaling back their academic offerings.

Cal State Fresno, for instance, scratched 50 classes exploring subjects from race relations to animal lactation. The result: Even as they pay more for their education, students are finding it "much, much, much more difficult to get out in four years" because they can't enroll in the classes they need for graduation, said Neil Gibson, the student government president.

With near unanimity, college administrators blame state legislators for the cuts.

Funding of public universities has been sharply reduced in state after state in recent years, as lawmakers grapple with their own budget crises.

"In the 1970s and '80s, higher education was one of the top three policy priorities for both state and federal government. I'm not even sure we're in the top 20 anymore," said Dick Roberts, assistant vice president of the University of Arizona.

Public colleges in states as diverse as South Carolina, Ohio and Colorado now get more of their funding from tuition than from taxpayers, a dramatic shift that makes many academics uneasy. A handful of public institutions, including the University of Vermont and Penn State, receive less than 10% of their operating budget from the state treasury. More than half -- 56% -- count on taxpayers for less than 40% of their funding.

"Put it this way: Thirty years ago, the state of Texas funded 85 cents of every dollar we spent on our academic mission. Today, the state funds 34 cents on the dollar," said Kevin Hegarty, chief financial officer for the University of Texas at Austin.

Amid the grumbling, some educational analysts suggest the cutbacks may be for the best.

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