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Eroding Our Intellectual Infrastructure

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PZ Myers, my colleague at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has an excellent and perceptive piece on his blog Pharyngula.  From that post:


One of the challenges facing the country right now in this time of economic crisis is that we're also about to be confronted by the result of a decade of neglect of the nation's infrastructure, in particular, the chronic starvation of our universities.

It's an insidious problem, because as administrations have discovered time and again, you can cut an education budget and nothing bad happens, from their perspective. The faculty get a pay freeze; we tighten our belts. The universities lose public funds; we raise tuition a little bit. A few faculty are lost to attrition, and the state decides to defer their replacement for a year or two or indefinitely; the remaining faculty scramble to cover the manpower loss. We can continue to do our jobs, but behind the scenes, the stresses simply grow and worsen.

I can testify to this from personal experience. My biology department struggles every year with the routine business of retirements and sabbatical leaves — we have absolutely no fat in this group, with every member playing an essential role in the curriculum, so every departure, even temporary ones, increases the strain.

We have to frantically rearrange schedules to cover our deficits, we have to drop courses for a year (so the students have to juggle their schedules as well), and we hang by our fingernails waiting for the administration to do basic things, like approve temporary hires or allow us to do a search for replacement faculty. Since the state is contributing less and less every year, we will soon reach a point where we simply won't be allowed to replace essential personnel, and then the whole system is going to break down.

The University of Florida has reached that point. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been told to cut 10% from its budget. Since the biggest chunk of any university's budget is salaries, that means a lot of people are going on the chopping block — and the administration has decided to simply get rid of entire departments wholesale, including geology. Think about it: a college of science that simply cuts off and throws away an entire discipline. Is that really a place that is supporting science and education?

Now it's true that if all we aimed to do was churn out pre-meds, we could dispense with geology; heck, we could toss out all those ecologists, too, and hone ourselves down to nothing but a service department for instruction in physiology and anatomy.
But we wouldn't be a university anymore. We'd be a trade school.

The United States is supposed to take some pride in its educational system — at least, we're accustomed to hearing politicians stand up and brag about how our universities are the envy of the world. It's a lie. We're being steadily eroded away, and all that's holding it up right now is the desperate struggles of the faculty within it. We're at the breaking point, though, where the losses can't be supported much more, and the whole edifice is going to fall apart.

The next layer of the problem is the state government. They keep seeing the educational system as a great target for saving money with budget cuts, because the effects will not be manifest for several years — and so they steadily hack and slash and chop, and the universities suffer…and now they're at the point where they begin to break, and they keep cutting. 

It's not just Florida, either — your state is blithely gutting its system of higher education, too. Minnesota, for instance, has cut investment in higher ed by 28% between 2000 and 2007, while raising tuition 68% over the same period. We haven't been given less to do, either — our workload increases while salaries fail to keep up with inflation. This is happening everywhere. We are all Florida.


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