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Ayers paints realistic budget picture for board

By Carol Wood

Last October, the College of Arts & Sciences was one of the first of the University’s schools out of the starting block with budget cuts.

It was in an effort to get out ahead of the cuts that many suspected would soon be coming out of Richmond, said Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College, at a Sept. 3 meeting of the Educational Policy Committee of the Board of Visitors. In December, he froze 25 faculty positions along with almost all travel, in addition to reining in department operating budgets by 15 percent.

The school, which receives $70 million in state funding, had been asked to cut up to $991,949 of its budget for 2001-2002 and $3.2 million for the current fiscal year. Since 60 percent of the College’s budget comes from the state, it gets hit hard.

Ayers was careful to paint a realistic picture of the budget situation, warning board members that the long-term damage to the College could be immense – especially if the contingency plans for an additional 7 percent cut this year must be implemented.

“The timing and size of the cuts (for this year and next) make it very hard to plan,” he said, especially when trying to avoid permanent damage. He believes that it is crucial to restart the hiring process as quickly as possible and dangerous to build dependence on temporary faculty.

Despite the devastating cuts, Ayers said he and his colleagues are determined to continue to meet the curricular demands of College students. “Our primary goal is that students will not feel the brunt of these cuts. … The welfare of undergraduate students has to be our priority.”

Other areas to protect, he said, are staff and faculty — by avoiding any layoffs — and the quality of teaching. “That’s our trademark for the undergraduate experience and we don’t intend to put it in jeopardy.”

Ayers credits his staff with adroit management of the budget, as well as a keen understanding that the College cannot afford to become stagnant during the state’s financial crisis. So, in the face of losing some senior faculty to poaching institutions, Ayers fought and won to keep most of them in Charlottesville.

He emphasized that the quality of the staff and faculty is vital, and cautioned that it is crucial to continue to retain and to recruit top faculty. “The University should not sacrifice in this area.”

When many thought there would be no new initiatives, the College created this year’s already popular course on practical ethics, as well two new interdisciplinary majors, one in human biology, the other in neuroscience. Other projects to enhance the academic life of College students that were given the green light include:

• a pilot program with the School of Engineering to create an honors computer science major;

• an alliance with the McIntire School to provide more of its courses for non-business majors;

• creation of an office dedicated to undergraduate fellowships and research;
• the South Lawn Project.

And when faculty worried about class sizes increasing, Ayers said he and his staff have worked hard to maintain the 15-to-1 student-to-faculty ratios in the College. A recent report by the Office of Institutional Assessment and Study showed that only 7 percent of classes at the University have more than 100 students, he said, adding, “That is one of the great strengths of this place.”

Several board members asked if the College had reviewed its programs to see if there might be things they could cut permanently. When Terence P. Ross suggested operating more like a business would in tough times by “eliminating weaker units,” Ayers rejected the idea of jettisoning less popular departments for the sake of those in more demand. But, he acknowledged, some departments received no additional funds this year, while others – “doing the best job with the highest student demand” – received the lion’s share.

Ayers explained the cyclical nature of student demand, pointing to the after effects of last Sept. 11 and the increased interest in foreign affairs, languages and religion. “We have to be willing, occasionally, to tolerate what looks like a little inefficiency,” he said. “And to trust our students and our faculty to offer classes on the cutting edge.”

Ayers was quick to respond on questions of efficiency, noting that the University as a whole consistently is considered one of the most efficient operations in higher education. “In the College we have looked hard to find redundancies and to eliminate them. … There is no fat in the College.”


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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