Faculty fears program cuts will slow progress

Opponents to the potential restructuring of USF’s Departments of Women’s and Africana Studies and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) are asserting that a loss of these units’ autonomy is contrary to the progression of the rest of academic world.

The proposals were made in conjunction with the recommendations of Provost Ralph Wilcox’s Budgetary Advisory Task Force Committee, which pinpointed areas where USF could save money amid a $55 million budget cut.

Some fear that disbanding women’s studies, Africana studies and ISLAC, however, sets the entire University in opposition to the hope of fulfilling its five-year plan of becoming a top-tier institution.

“The challenge is to try to align all of our programs in such a way that they really fit into the University’s mission,” Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost, said.

That mission, as laid out in USF’s five-year plan, focuses on moving into the realm of other prestigious research universities and joining the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Navita Cummings James, associate professor in the department of communications, said the loss of independence could hinder USF’s mission by discouraging top hires characteristic of excellent universities.

“If you want to get top faculty – if you want to keep top faculty – they want to work in a department.”

James said folding or combining units into another department strains the operation of the faculty and is a detriment to students.

“You can’t serve two masters,” she said. “We hurt the kind of knowledge that is being created when we move away from autonomous departments.”

Smith said he is not sure whether restructuring departments will affect USF’s goal of becoming an AAU-caliber research university, and that even in the best times, USF has had to decide how to stretch limited financial resources.

“We’ve been having to make hard decisions about where to invest scarce resources, and if we’re striving toward AAU, there are some departments and some disciplines that have simply had higher priority,” he said.

“The budget issue is driving a lot of this, but it’s not the sole reason for it,” Smith said. “This is probably an exercise that’s been hastened because of the budget situation, but it’s a discussion that we probably should be having anyway.”

Gurleen Grewal, associate professor of women’s studies, said other national and international institutions are just beginning to start women’s studies departments – including one in China, which created its first undergraduate women’s studies department in the fall of 2006. Instead of becoming part of a global community dedicated to discourse, she said, USF is opting to do the exact opposite.

In a nearly 300-page report issued in 2004 titled “Reinvigorating the Humanities,” the AAU advised universities that the “renewal of the humanities can lead to institutional renewal, and vice versa.”

The report recommended that university administrators “should make the humanities a major focus in institutional strategic planning, and should regularly emphasize to the university and the broader community the fundamental importance of the humanities.”

“USF is really emphasizing its status as a research institution,” said Carolyn Eichner, associate professor in the department of women’s studies. “They emphasize how they’ve gone up in the ranks over recent years and they’re aspiring for AAU status, so we’re hoping to show the administration that this is counter to everything they are striving for and how USF will look in the eyes of the academic world if they do this.”

Smith said the University has identified about 12 programs that contain 10 faculty members or fewer and said if they were combined or folded into other departments, USF could save as much as $2 million, according to one estimate.

“It’s absolutely up in the air right now,” he said. “I believe we’re at a signature moment for higher education in Florida (that will) determine whether or not Florida is going to really be a viable place for education.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about how can we get ourselves out of this morass, this financial morass that’s been thrust on us and come out in the long-run better for it.

“We’re really trying to encourage a lot of free- and creative thinking about how we can address the situation we find ourselves in,” he said. “I think we’ve really invited more discourse on the matter, which interestingly, has probably caused more anxiety.”

Smith said the dilemma USF faces is that every program perceives itself as having a high value and making a real contribution to the University.

“No one has put their hand up yet and volunteered to be cut,” he said. “How do we make cuts of that magnitude and not have a negative impact on some units?”

Smith said April may indeed prove to be the cruelest month yet in USF’s journey on the road to downsizing.

“We have projected (that) going into the month of April is going to be a very chaotic and probably unhappy time,” he said. “By the time the dust settles, there could be a lot of realignments.”