Jordyn Kehle/The AS Review
With a struggling economy and 30 years of steadily declining state support for public universities, Western will see a dramatically different financial landscape than it has generally been accustomed to. When the final 2011-2013 Washington State Operating Budget is passed, Western will have experienced a 50 percent cut from state funding in less than three years.
Although the final budget has not yet been received from Olympia, Western has engaged in developing a clear plan for the university’s future in preparation for the major budget cut predictions. According to President Bruce Shepard in a letter addressed to the Planning Unit Leaders committee, there are two choices for the planning process.
“We can continue to stretch and erode all of our programs in an inexorable march toward mediocrity, or we can rethink and rebase our university in a way that will protect and strengthen the excellence of our core mission and allow Western to remain an outstanding academic institution in the future,” Shepard wrote. According to Shepard’s letter, he wants to make it clear that he is fully committed to the second option.
In choosing the second planning option, Western has embarked in a rebasing process of the university’s programs and departments. According to Shepard’s letter, “rebasing” is another way of describing the difficult and perhaps painful program reductions, eliminations and mergers that the university will have to consider.
On April 28, every dean, chair and director of each department on campus met and discussed possible rebasing within their respective programs as well as the university as a whole. The following weekend, the president, provost, deans and vice presidents gathered a final list of potential options and released it to the public on May 4.
Associated Students President Colin Watrin has been a consultant throughout parts of the rebasing proposal process.
“After talking about it for a while and seeing these kinds of proposals come in, we decided to not necessarily do as much of a confidential process and say, ‘It’s going to be more helpful in the end to just kind of get everything out there,’” Watrin said.
Watrin said there were proposals that were longer than the current one, containing lists of things that were brought to the table but deemed too much for the public to handle.
“Sometimes if you just even talk about a program being eliminated, what can happen is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Watrin said. “Even if you just talk about a program being cut, it can destroy the department or the major, even if it doesn’t end up being cut. Then you have to end up cutting it anyways because it starts to fall apart.”
The public document is titled, “Academic Affairs Rebasing Proposals Summary List” and can be found on the Office of the Provost’s webpage, listed under Academic Affairs Budget Information. The proposals within the document are presented by division and include short introductions regarding the specifics for each department addressed. The list of proposals continues to be conceptual until the final budget has been received from Olympia.
“To be honest, I think there is some misinformation floating around out there causing some conflicts between students, faculty and administration because it seems like everyone has a little bit different information,” Watrin said.
The proposed rebasing list has undoubtedly created a response from students, faculty and other members of the university, as many of them have noticed their respective departments may be up for elimination. Although there is not a set of formulaic criteria used to determine which programs may potentially be eliminated, there are several factors that are closely examined within each department.
Watrin said that some of the considerations include the number of students in a program, the cost of a program per student and whether there is an open faculty line. An open faculty line occurs when a faculty member retires and the university does not need to rehire for that position. For example, if a faculty member within a specialized program retires, the university may consider eliminating that program to resist hiring another faculty member.
“This means we don’t have to fire someone, which is a priority. It’s easier to not fill a position than to have to fire someone,” Watrin said.
Watrin said that the most outspoken feedback he has heard so far has been from students in the computer science program.
“They are one of the few areas that were specifically listed in those documents,” Watrin said.
To computer science major Forrest Smith, the news of his department as a potential cut came as a shock. “In the first minutes of class one of my professors broke the news to us. He had just come from a meeting with the department head, the dean, the provost and others,” Smith said. “It was all still very [speculative] then, even more so than now, but it still left the whole class in silence.”
Smith said that he was always good with computers. After taking an introductory computer science class his first quarter at Western, it really stuck with him, letting him know computer science was the way to go. Luckily, Smith is a declared major in the computer science program, which means the university has a legal obligation to him to be able to complete his major. The same goes for any other student currently enrolled in a major that may face elimination.
For students who were planning to declare a major found on the proposed elimination list, they face a more difficult situation than Smith’s.
“They are in a really tough situation—do you try to hurry up and declare for that major, but then will the quality of the program decrease? Do you try to switch majors, switch universities?” Watrin said. “Those are probably some of the students that are going to be most affected by this change.”
It’s not only students who will potentially be affected by these changes, however, but faculty and administration as well. Geoffrey Matthews, professor and chair of the computer science department, has been a part of Western’s computer science program for 26 years and may be facing relocation within the university.
Matthews said he has been told that some of the computer science faculty will be relocated to the math department, and some may go to the engineering technology department.
“A number of the faculty has told me that if this happens, they won’t stay,” Matthews said. “I would not enjoy just being a member of the math department. I’m a computer scientist and I would like to keep teaching that and doing research in that area.”
Also found on the proposal list is the possible elimination of three majors within Huxley College of the Environment, two majors within Woodring College of Education and the staff positions within the provost’s office, between many other department examinations and merges.
“I think people need to try to stay informed the best they can and ask questions,” Watrin said. “Keep in mind the larger perspective of the university and the quality Western is, and maintaining that in the future.”