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By JonMarcus
Williamsburg, Virginia
chillingdeluge poured from thick black clouds
above the College of William andMary, whose campus,
darkened to a bleak gray, seemed deserted but for the
occasional unlucky student splashing through the mud to
The mood indoors matched the weather. Along with
other Virginia public universities, William andMary had just
suffered a seven percent cut in its state appropriation. The
university also depends in part on an endowment that had
lost an evenmore dramatic proportion of its value. Increasing
numbers of students, whose parents were suffering layoffs or
business reversals, were asking for more andmore financial
aid. And donors, their own investments drying up, had less
and less to give.
“We really are a good case study for the perfect storm,” said
the university’s president, Taylor Reveley, as rain coursed down
outside the windows of his office in a stately building that dates
from 1723. “And we’re still early in feeling the full force.”
The university has so far responded with small steps.
It has shaved $2.1 million from its $245 million budget by
delaying a three percent pay raise that was to have taken effect
in November, and by doing such things as canceling library
database and journal subscriptions. It imposed but then largely
lifted a hiring freeze. It considered but decided against a mid-
year tuition hike. And it has promised no layoffs on the main
campus, no salary reductions, and no cuts in student aid.
“If what we’re looking at is another bad 18 months—that
is, finish this academic year and then one more year that’s in
the ditch—we’ll try not to cut into muscle and bone,” Reveley
said in his folksy manner. “If instead we’re looking at an ever-
deepening recession for three to five years, that’s going to force
some very difficult decisions. Nobody knows right now. What
we’re trying to do is proceed on the assumption that this is
going to last 18 months, and that will be it, and I think that’s
what everybody else is doing too.”
This seems widely to be true. Universities also have
joined the line of bankers and automakers asking for money
from the federal government—$1.8 billion for new science
and engineering faculty, $150 million for research into
energy alternatives, huge increases in tuition grants, and an
unspecified amount for infrastructure, according to a wish
list submitted by the Association of American Universities.
Otherwise, even as corporations furiously shed jobs and
try to increase productivity, university officials seem to be
hoping they can ride things out. After all, they have survived
economic downturns before.
But a chorus of voices is warning that this recession will
affect higher education in ways that require considerably more
drastic action than trimming at the margins or asking for a
March 2009
Hard Times
Tuitions rise, services cut, as university officials try to ride out a severe economic downturn
handout from the feds.
Deferring the inevitable,
they say, is to be in
“In this financial
crisis, it cannot be
business as usual,” said
Stephen Golding, vice
president for finance
and administration at
Cornell University. “The
nature of this challenge
is so much greater than
any of us have seen
in higher education
before. If we’re going
to continue to teach, if
we’re going to continue
to do research, if we’re
going to continue to
provide students access
to our institutions, we have to stop doing other things that
don’t support the core mission.”
The new problems come on top of existing financial
demands, such as billions of dollars in neededmaintenance,
tightened credit, and unfundedmandates such as
requirements for security around research labs. But behind
their sense of urgency, and a frustration with the mission
creep and academic arms race that has left it even harder to
contain costs, higher education finance leaders see something
surprising in this latest financial predicament: opportunity.
“The phrase I hear people around
here use is, don’t waste a crisis,” Golding
said. “Let’s go after things we’ve known
are among our inefficiencies andmake
them better.”
Many critics “would suggest that
higher education is a bit slow to change
and respond, given its very traditional
and academic nature,” said Daniel
Hurley, who is watching this scenario
play out in his role as director of state
relations for the American Association
of State Colleges and Universities.
“There is nothing like a recession to
instill a greater sense of urgency. Rather
than whine about the cuts in state
support, let’s look at the flip side: What can we do to make
ourselves stronger?We need to seek, and seek very actively, the
silver lining in this economic downturn.”
Golding, who previously worked in the private sector
Taylor Reveley, president of the College of William and
Mary, a Virginia public university with 7,700 students,
says if the recession lasts longer than another 18 months,
“that’s going to force some very difficult decisions.”
Many are warning that
this recession will affect
higher education in ways
that require considerably
more drastic action than
trimming at the margins
or asking for a handout
from the feds.
Tom Cogill for CrossTalk