Feeling the Squeeze

By Alvin P. Sanoff

Illustration by Edel RodriguezEven before the economy began to stall, many states were spending less on higher education, forcing engineering schools to rely more on research dollars. Will teaching suffer as the belt-tightening continues?

Engineering schools at public universities around the nation are entering a period of belt-tightening as states faced with a sputtering economy cut back on higher-education expenditures. “We can look for tough times in the next year or two,” says Nino Masnari, dean of the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University.

Ohio, North Carolina, and Alabama provide an early warning of what engineering schools in a number of states can look forward to should the economy continue on a downward trajectory. Over the past five years, the higher-education budget in Ohio has, on average, increased by 5.6 percent a year, according to an Illinois State University study. But because tax revenues in this fiscal year have fallen short of projections, growth in state support has been trimmed to 2 percent and the outlook for the next fiscal year is, at best, more of the same.

Marek Dollar, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Ohio's Miami University, says the less-than-expected increase in state support puts in jeopardy ambitious plans to double enrollment in his school over the next five to seven years. “Our success,” he explains, “depends on a constant stream of state money.”

Dollar is especially worried about his ability to recruit faculty members, because money for salaries comes primarily from state funds. Many engineering schools face fierce competition from the private sector when hiring Ph.D.'s in such hot fields as computer engineering. Private industry can offer candidates on the order of $100,000, far above what Miami can afford under the best of circumstances. “If we don't get significant increases from the state our ability to attract good faculty will be diminished,” says Dollar.

In North Carolina, Masnari was faced with a midyear budget reduction of 1.9 percent resulting from revenue shortfalls. As a consequence, he has had to delay new initiatives and defer planned maintenance. While the impact thus far has been modest, Masnari worries that if the economic picture gets worse and requires additional budget reductions, “it could have a significant negative impact” on North Carolina State.


Serious Consequences

The problems that deans in Ohio and North Carolina are grappling with seem manageable compared with those faced by deans in Alabama, where the governor has put into effect a 6.2 percent reduction in education funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. A similar reduction is expected next year. At the University of Alabama at Huntsville's College of Engineering, the cutback has meant a freeze on all hiring and on purchasing equipment, including such basics as computers. Jorge Auñón, dean of the college, says that “technology is advancing very fast and if you don't have the computers to do the job” then you are at a serious disadvantage. Auñón says that the budget cutbacks will likely lead to increased tuition and there is even the possibility of faculty pay cuts, especially if a pending lawsuit forces the state to rescind reductions that were made in state funding for grades K-12.

While schools in some states have already gone under the knife, engineering programs in Oregon, South Carolina, and a number of other states are awaiting possible surgery. Thomas Keinath, dean of the College of Engineering and Science at Clemson University in South Carolina, says there is talk of cutting the state budget by anywhere from 8 to 12 percent. But, he adds, “our president is insistent on us moving forward to advance the stature of Clemson and he is focused on minimizing the budget cut's impact on the academic side.” To offset cuts, the university would raise tuition. “That would leave us intact,” says Keinath.

In Oregon, anticipated cuts in basic state support for higher education may be partially offset by special funding for engineering and computer science programs. The budget now under consideration by the legislature contains a $20 million appropriation to enhance engineering and computer science programs. Ronald Adams, dean of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, says that this line-item appropriation—a substantial portion of which would go to Oregon State—reflects “the governor's goal of doubling the number of engineering and computer science graduates in Oregon over the next five years and his desire to establish a top-tier engineering school in the state by 2010.” Oregon State has been chosen to be that top-tier school. Still, Adams worries that if shortfalls in tax revenues lead to a substantial cutback in basic state support, that could reduce some of the benefits the school would reap from the special funding for engineering and computer science programs.

Even before the economy began to head downward, many states were taking a more conservative posture toward funding higher education. More than half the states allocated fewer new dollars for higher education in the current fiscal year than they had the year before, according to data collected by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. Even in states where funding in recent years has kept pace with or exceeded the rate of inflation, state dollars have accounted for a shrinking proportion of the operating funds of engineering schools. State support has “gone down, down, down,” says Richard Miksad, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. Today, revenue from state taxes accounts for only 5 percent of Miksad's budget. At the University of Texas at Austin, state support accounted for about 40 percent of the budget 15 years ago, but that figure has dropped to about 25 percent today. Deans at a number of engineering schools say that because state funds account for a declining proportion of their budgets, they now consider their universities “state-assisted” rather than “state-supported” institutions.


Shifting the Burden

No longer able to depend as much on state support, engineering schools are becoming increasingly reliant on research money. “Essentially, the discretionary money to invest in faculty travel, laboratory improvements and the like has to come from research support because the state doesn't give us what we need,” says William Swart, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at Virginia's Old Dominion University.

Some in academia worry that the time spent raising research dollars means that faculty have less time to devote to their students. Wallace Fowler, ASEE president and an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says that schools “depend on faculty to get grants and contracts. When you do that you are selling your time and effort, and then people wonder why faculty members don't spend as much time in the classroom.” Adds Lyle Feisel, dean of the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SUNY Binghamton: “We have over the years moved toward a faculty who are in the business more for research than for teaching and, as that happens, undergraduate programs are not receiving the emphasis you would like them to have.”
Income from donors' gifts provides another vital revenue stream for public engineering schools unable to win more funds from their states. “Raising outside funds from donors has become as important at public universities as it has been at privates,” says Dean Ben Streetman of the University of Texas at Austin. “We have established a number of endowed chairs that supplement salaries beyond what the state provides.” Without such an infusion of private funds, say deans, it would be far more difficult to retain and recruit highly qualified faculty members.

Research support and donor gifts could become even more important to public engineering schools over the next few years if the economy shrinks and there are more—and larger—cutbacks in state funding. The prospect of even less support from their states worries deans. Says Virginia's Miksad: “You mess around with the public higher-education system and you are messing around with the whole future of the country.”


Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.