USF budget review group questioned

The financial fate of the University is decided in part by a committee whose recommendation process is widely unknown.

Labeled by the administration as a revolution in faculty involvement, the Budget Priorities Advisory Task Force offered recommendations as to which academic departments should be reduced or reorganized and which should receive more funding.

“We are the only Florida university that has engaged the faculty to this extent,” said Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith. “We didn’t dodge the controversy – we wanted the faculty to have significant input.”

Some faculty members, however, feel they were not given a voice in the process and have spoken out since the task force’s report was made public in February.

Kim Vaz, chair of the women’s studies department, is one such faculty member. Nobody from women’s studies was on the task force. Vaz said that had her department been represented on the committee, the recommendations could have been more informed.

“That’s what we study,” she said. “We study inclusion. We study justice. We study fairness.”

Decisions concerning the budget should be made by the end of the month, Smith said, but the process that created the report began several months ago.

When talk of budget cuts began last summer, former Provost Renu Khator, along with the Faculty Senate, decided strategic budget cuts should be made rather than broad reductions across all departments.

“(Broad budget cuts) say that everyone is going to get whacked regardless of their role or centrality or contribution. It’s a way to ensure mediocrity,” said Dale Johnson, co-chair of the task force and professor of physics. “When you cut across the board, it’s the least intelligent way to make budget cuts.”

On July 11, Khator formed a committee that would advise the provost’s office when budget reductions were made.

Faculty Senate President Michael Barber appointed Johnson and John Ward as co-chairs of the committee.

Khator, Smith, Barber, Johnson and Ward then handpicked 35 members of the task force based on several criteria, Smith said. Members would be drawn heavily from the Faculty Senate, the faculty members on the committee would be tenured, and the committee would represent both disciplinary and demographic diversity.

Khator chose members from several sources. Candidates included all Faculty Senate members from academic affairs on the Tampa campus. USF Health and the regional campuses were excluded since they operate on separate budgets and would make reductions independently.

Department chairs also made recommendations, Smith said, and the Provost’s Office offered candidates it felt would strengthen the committee. Former student body president Barclay Harless assigned five students to the committee and the president of the Staff Association also assigned five members.

“The ultimate group that emerged are some of the true, solid citizens of this University,” Smith said.

Once formed, the task force broke into 11 subcommittees that evaluated the various colleges in the University. To ensure that favoritism was not a factor, members of a subcommittee could not evaluate departments in their own college.

Each department was evaluated in four categories: centrality, quality, demand and viability. The departments were rated on a scale of one through five, but the number ratings did not necessarily correspond to the level of budget reductions. Recommendations for reductions were at the discretion of each subcommittee and did not need to correspond to a certain score.

Vaz has major concerns with the selection of task force members and the criteria that were used to evaluate the departments. Her department, women’s studies, is recommended for drastic funding cuts.

“We were not invited to offer recommendations (for committee members) from our department,” she said. “We would have never allowed ourselves to be voiceless in that way.”

Two departments that were recommended to be absorbed or even cease to offer a major, women’s studies and Africana studies, both lacked representation on the committee. The task force originally included a staff member representing Africana studies, but she was removed from the committee some time after her name appeared on the Aug. 2007 Task Force member list. Smith said that some members left the committee for “various reasons.”

Vaz is aware that a faculty member from her department could not have aided in its own evaluation. However, she wanted her department to have a presence while the rating criteria were determined.

“You can write the (rating criteria) to favor any kind of entity. It’s a matter of the definitions to begin with,” she said. “It is important for all voices – all perspectives – to be represented at the table when categories of evaluation are going to be written. The person who writes the rules wins.”

If members of the task force were chosen based on prestige and reputation, as Smith suggested, then Vaz is not surprised that her department was overlooked.

“It just patterns what goes on in larger society. Those same attitudes get reflected in an institution,” she said.

Johnson maintains that his committee did not have a mindset that favored any departments when it began its task.

“They were a very thoughtful group of people who took their job very seriously,” he said. “They certainly didn’t go in with any preconceived notions.”

Department chairs were invited to voice their concerns in writing, Smith said, and about half responded.

While he acknowledges the concerns of the faculty, Smith said it is unlikely that everyone will be satisfied with the results of budget reductions.

“Every department thinks they are worthy. But we don’t have the option of taking the money and spreading it to everyone,” he said. “We are well past cutting any fat out of our budget. We are talking muscle and bone at this point.”

When final decisions regarding the budget are made, the Budget Priorities Advisory Task Force report will be only one factor in the provost’s decisions.

“Our recommendations will certainly be a determining factor, but not the deciding factor,” Johnson said.