The New Reality

Emory faculty respond to a tranformed economic world

Vol. 11 No. 5
April 2009

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The New Reality
Emory faculty respond to a transformed economic world

Schools adjust to hard times

“To suddenly have to do a complete, 180-degree about-face and think about where we can slow down, where we can cut, and constricting ourselves while trying to maintain some of our momentum and simultaneously go in the opposite direction—that's quite disconcerting.”

We are very stretched in a number of important areas. Our challenge is to find the right balance between reductions in staffing versus reductions in the collections.”

Conflict of Interest and Ensuring the Public Trust
Historical perspectives and current concerns

Hearing the Music
A composer considers audience response

Making Love to the World
The practices that sustain research


The dismal facts are these: In the second half of 2008, the value of Emory’s endowment and investment portfolio fell around 25 percent—more than $1 billion. A revenue decline in the tens of millions is expected next fiscal year. The university has had to slash $10 million from its current operating budget, with $50 to $60 million more to be spread over the next few years. The Strategic Plan Fund will contract by $30 to $35 million. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall for the current fiscal year and has cut significantly from the current budgets of its three schools. Emory College faces a several million dollar shortfall next year and has eliminated or pared down half a dozen programs, resulting in layoffs. More job losses are certain. Two of Emory’s nine schools—the Goizueta Business School and the Candler School of Theology—will experience reduced budgets next fiscal year. The graduate school will radically reduce its new admissions. At Oxford College, five full-time and four part-time staff positions will be eliminated, and four temporary or vacant staff positions will be phased out.

And on it comes, a torrent of cheerless news with no discernible end or even slight relief in sight, accompanied by messages from university leaders that Emory has no choice but to adjust to an economic environment of relative scarcity not confronted for years.

The numbers may fluctuate as the economic crisis evolves, but decisions will continue to be guided much by the pursuit of Emory’s broader mission, according to top administrators. “Each school and division must assess what core activities are essential and must work to eliminate or reduce those activities and programs that will not advance the Strategic Plan,” wrote the university’s Ways and Means Committee in a February 10 letter.

“There will not be a school or administrative unit that will be immune from the impact of this,” says Charlotte Johnson, senior vice provost for administration. “There’s a level of uncertainty: where is the bottom, and how much of an institutional adjustment do we need to make ourselves sustainable? And there are certain things that we should simply stop doing—programs that we can no longer afford because they do not support our core missions.”

Shifting mood

Last fall there seemed to be a sense, or at least hope, that Emory’s prosperity—its large endowment, a generally well-off undergraduate population, a high ratio of applications to spaces, low debt costs—might insulate the school to some extent from the larger economic mayhem. Amidst warnings of shifting financial priorities described in an October 8 letter to all Emory faculty and staff from University President Jim Wagner, there was also affirmation: “The good news is that we do face these challenges with strength, both in program quality and in financial stability.”

Since then, departments and programs across Emory have been told to make significant cuts. “We went into the fall semester knowing that economics were tough but not assuming anything drastic was going to happen,” says Bobby Paul, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, “Then all of a sudden, over the course of a couple of weeks, we were faced with an entirely new economic reality.”

In mid-November, that new reality emerged in Emory College as a directive for department chairs to cut non-personnel budgets by 10 percent, suspend most faculty searches, and cut temporary faculty budgets in half. It was a startling development for a university accustomed to steady, reliable growth.

Some of the low-hanging fruit wasn’t too painful to pluck. Food became an early and predictable casualty. (Some faculty quipped that Emory could solve all of its financial woes by reducing the generous spreads laid out at meetings and events.) Growing anxieties were inversely mirrored in the menu at monthly breakfast meetings among department chairs, program directors, and deans, which diminished from bacon, eggs, and toast to bagels and cream cheese, and eventually just coffee. Potluck became the norm for holiday parties. The music department began printing double-sided copies of sheet music and cutting back on post-concert receptions, and the main library decided to close one of its infrequently used entrances and reduce the number of copiers. All of it was small change.

Uneven pain

In December, Paul convened a faculty economic advisory committee of six former department chairs and Eric Weeks, associate professor of physics and chair of the Emory College Governance Committee. “There’s been a lot of talk about how best to manage tough decisions and share the pain,” Weeks says, “but unfortunately it’s hard to avoid cuts that will have an uneven impact.”

The university does not dictate to any given unit or school how it should manage its decreased finances. Instead, financial limits are handed down to the various divisions by senior leadership, explains Mike Mandl, executive vice president for finance and administration. Working within those constraints, deans and managers decide how to construct their individual budgets. “There are certain elements of the budget that are centrally provided, but 80 to 90 percent of it is developed within a given school,” Mandl says. “It is up to each one to determine how to distribute expenditures within that.” As a result, the adjustments differ from school to school.

Consider the substantial cut in temporary faculty. While it applies to all departments within Emory College, the consequences will fall harder on some departments than others. The English department, heavily reliant on temporary faculty, had to abolish four freshmen writing sections in the spring 2009 semester. More may be dropped next year. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be able to teach all the students who want or need to take that course,” said Bill Gruber professor and chair of English. “It means, however, that we will have to offer students fewer choices in terms of fitting this course into their schedules. We have been thinking about larger class sizes next year.”

In contrast, the sciences rely much less on temporary instructors. “In the physics department, our temporary faculty teach popular elective classes but aren’t crucial to covering our core curriculum,” said Weeks. In addition, most graduate students in science departments are supported by externally funded research grants.

One of the most disquieting developments has been the 13- to 15-percent cut to next year’s graduate student stipend support budget. The Graduate School typically supports stipends for 925 to 950 students, according to Ulf Nilsson, the school’s communications director. Next fall, the number of new admissions is expected to drop by at least 25 to 30 percent, or approximately 120 students. Because of varied funding structures, the reductions will be felt differently across schools and programs. The business doctoral program, whose new admissions will drop from ten to five, is supported entirely by the business school. In the history program, where the Graduate School directly funds all graduate students and authorizes admissions numbers, new admissions will plummet from eleven to four. Some of the sciences have more flexibility. “They receive block funding from us, and how many students they can admit using that money depends a little bit on how they’re able to combine it with revenue from other sources,” says Nilsson.

To Gruber, the loss of graduate students represents a “very serious blow, one from which, if it were to persist, I’m frankly not sure we could recover. It seems to me that it drops us below the ability to sustain a vibrant and healthy program. It will hurt in attracting new students, in retaining faculty, in attracting new faculty.” The English program was already among the smallest among peer institutions, he adds.

Courageous scholarship?

Within the overt macro consequences of budget deficits and cost cutting lurk more intimate and essential influences that are no less damaging: fear, loss of morale, indecision, paralysis. Prudence and vigilance are natural reactions in uncertain, threatening times, but could they also be counterproductive?

“People might think they’re just being conservative, and that’s probably a good thing to do in tight times, but I think a lot of times people act out of fear: what if it doesn’t get better, what if I lose my job, what if I have to sell my house, even if that’s not a possibility,” says Barbara Rothbaum, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery program.

Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry, wrote about this in the December 6 New York Times: “Everyone I know is scared. Workers’ fear has generalized to their workplace and everything associated with work and money. We are caught in a spiral in which we are so scared of losing our jobs, or our savings, that fear overtakes our brains. . . . Ultimately no good can come from this type of decision-making. Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode of progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.”

Anita Corbett, associate professor of biochemistry, recognizes the dynamics that Berns and Rothbaum describe. She has observed that some of her colleagues are not too eager to venture into new lines of inquiry. “You have to worry about whether your core research is going to stay viable and whether you’re going to be able to get funding for it,” Corbett says. “I think people have been really reluctant to undertake those new kinds of things. We’re in a phase where the NIH and other funding sources want to fund translational research and interdisciplinary research, and those involve taking risks
and stepping outside your comfort zone.” Corbett also notes a connection between risk and creativity: “Probably the time when scientists are the most creative and thinking outside the box is when they’re taking risks.”

The temptation is to pull back and hunker down, and institutional behavior can reflect those individual motivations, says Jeff Rosensweig, associate professor of finance. “However, there may be great opportunity for those universities who still have resources, albeit diminished, such as Emory, to aggressively seek new frontiers. We could scour for leading faculty who are being devalued at institutions that suddenly are resource poor. It’s also a great time to blow up some of the twentieth-century models used by most universities and be truly innovative.”

Others have encouraged Emory to adopt an aggressive institutional mindset. At an Emory College faculty meeting in February, Alex Escobar, a senior lecturer in biology, said that the school “Could be operating from a model of abundance, not scarcity. The bold thing to do is to spend, expand, pick up faculty from other places.”

“I think there are lots of other ways that one could weather this,” says Pat Marsteller,” a senior lecturer in biology and director of the Center for Science Education, one of the programs being reduced. “Although the president [of Emory] says this is not a storm, it’s a climate change, I don’t believe that. There is going to be a recovery. I see the stimulus package coming through that could have lots more money for research universities if they play the game right.”—S.F