The College of Arts and Sciences is facing a long-term budget shortfall of $14 million and is cutting 25 teaching assistant (TA) positions next school year. The proposed TA cuts will take place in the departments of history, philosophy, anthropology, political science, geography, and sociology, ostensibly due to declining undergraduate enrollments across the social sciences. These cuts highlight serious problems within the university’s current budgeting system, and the administration should act to restore funding for TAs next year.

The College of Arts and Sciences’ TA cuts were first publicized by affected teaching assistants in the eleventh hour of spring quarter. It was only after unionized graduate students and their supporters decided to picket the administration June 2, that the beginnings of a public dialogue occurred over the proposed TA cuts in the social sciences. The administration blames the cuts on declining student enrollments of between 4 to 45 percent in various social science departments, although such data has not been shared with the wider university community for independent, public scrutiny.

Setting aside the lack of publicized enrollment data, the rationale for cutting TA positions is rooted in the university’s market-based, neoliberal budgeting model.

Under what is referred to as “Activity Based Budgeting” (ABB), net tuition revenue is received by different UW colleges and schools based on the specific classes that undergraduates enroll in, as well as these students’ declared majors. The number of students who choose a given major, in addition to the number of students who enroll in a department’s classes, therefore have big impacts on every departmental budget at the UW.

ABB was adopted by the UW in 2012, and is a feature of a broader neoliberal economic paradigm, which stipulates that resources should be allocated to academic departments based on students’ demand as individual consumers. Before the implementation of ABB, departmental budgets were determined based on the evolving priorities that faculty, administrators, and legislators believed to be essential in obtaining a higher education degree. 

Due to voters’ reluctance to approve more progressive revenue structures in Washington, such as transitioning away from a sales tax toward an income tax, state support for public universities, like the UW, has declined. And as tuition increases have made up for the gaps left by declining state support, neoliberal logics of funding departments based on student enrollments began to take hold. If students pay more to universities via tuition than governments do in state support, proponents of neoliberal budgeting models like ABB argue that academic departments should receive levels of funding commensurate with student demand for their courses. 

Even though tuition dollars are eventually distributed to the UW departments that students enroll in under ABB, different colleges and schools do not keep all of their students’ tuition money. Thirty percent of tuition revenue at the UW is taken away from colleges and schools as a “tuition tax” by the Central Administration. This tuition tax funds a range of shared university services including building maintenance, groundskeeping, the libraries, campus police, and the UW’s information technology infrastructure.

The administration also uses some of its tuition tax receipts to pay for a variety of strategic funding priorities. This past school year, the administration redistributed more than $8 million in so-called “Provost Reinvestment Funds” to pay for a wide range of funding requests from different university budgetary units.

Two structural features of the UW’s budgeting system are noteworthy to understand why the looming TA cuts in the College of Arts and Sciences are unjust. 

In the first place, the College of Arts and Sciences generates the vast majority of tuition revenue for the university, because it has the highest absolute number of undergraduate enrollments. This has been true throughout the UW’s 155-year history, ever since the university was originally founded as a territorial college with a diverse curriculum in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Secondly, UW colleges and schools can request and may be granted Provost Reinvestment Funds. If a request for Provost Reinvestment Funds is approved, then a budgetary unit will receive funding from the Central Administration on top of their ABB tuition revenues. This additional funding helps colleges and schools pay for new services, mitigates shortfalls in student enrollments, and funds other strategic initiatives that the administration deems worthy of subsidizing. 

Because the College of Arts and Sciences has generated the most tuition revenue for the UW since both the start of ABB budgeting in 2012, as well as dating back to the university’s original founding, student tuition from Arts and Sciences has been critical in cross-subsidizing every facet of the UW’s operations. Without student enrollments in the Arts and Sciences, it would be much more difficult for the UW to fund the strategic initiatives of other colleges and schools. 

But this is only part of the problem with the proposed TA cuts in the social sciences. The ABB budgeting model is based on individualistic, market-based, neoliberal ideologies, and the mission of public universities, such as the UW, is not to operate themselves exactly like a business. Conserving scarce resources through sound financial management is important in current climates of fiscal austerity. But a university’s budget is also a reflection of its institutional mission, and taking the principles of ABB to an extreme is not how either civil society, nor the private sector have historically valued higher education in the United States. 

The hallmark of advanced baccalaureate degrees is that college students majoring in the sciences take classes in the arts, or that undergraduates getting a degree in the humanities take classes outside their major, in the natural sciences and other disciplines. 

Living up to such ideals of a well-rounded education fundamentally requires the subsidization of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, regardless of how valuable undergraduates perceive these disciplines to be, or more accurately, how effectively other programs market and brand themselves to students in today’s neoliberal economy. 

Cuts to TA positions undermine the core mission of the university, especially as graduate students join the growing ranks of adjunct instructors who are taking on the teaching loads of college classes previously taught by tenured professors. 

Moreover, the TA cuts can be stopped. According to the College of Arts and Sciences’ budget submission for the next academic year, the college is carrying over a balance of more than $68 million. Within these carry-over funds, the college conservatively estimates it will have a reserve fund balance of nearly $12 million. My rough estimate of costs to restore 25 TA positions does not exceed $1.5 million, and is likely to be less than this amount. While the College of Arts and Sciences seemingly does face structural budget problems, due to declining enrollments under ABB, the administration can find enough funding to mitigate the proposed TA cuts for at least one more academic year.

In the meantime, there is also an opportunity to review ABB in its entirety next year. One solution to Arts and Sciences’ long-term funding problem, is to change the breakdown of tuition funding that colleges and schools receive, in terms of student credit hours versus major enrollments. Under ABB’s current system, after the Central Administration’s tax, remaining net tuition revenue is divided proportionally among colleges and schools based 60 percent on what classes students enroll in, and 40 percent on what majors students declare. 

Such an allocation favors professional schools with undergraduate programs, like the School of Public Health or the Evans School’s proposed public policy degree. This is because undergraduate students majoring in professional schools’ programs will typically complete a few introductory and capstone courses, but will take a majority of their classes in other departments, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences. Because ABB’s system allows professional schools to keep 40 percent of the remaining tuition (after the Central Administration’s tax) paid by students who major in their programs, these schools can generate a sizable amount of tuition revenue while teaching fewer required classes. Given that a student must earn at least 180 credits to complete their undergraduate degree at the UW, departments in the College of Arts and Sciences bear the brunt of per capita student instructional costs, regardless of whether an individual declares themselves as a Arts and Sciences major. 

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robert Stacey, should work with Provost Jerry Baldasty to stop the proposed TA cuts for the coming academic year. And faculty, administrative, and student leaders should closely scrutinize the current ABB breakdown of student credit hours versus major enrollments. One option that concerned stakeholders can consider is changing the breakdown of tuition revenue received by colleges and schools to 70 percent student credit hours, versus 30 percent major enrollments. 

Tuition revenue from the College of Arts and Sciences has effectively cross-subsidized the diverse functions of the university for more than 150 years. It is time for other UW colleges and schools to recognize this, and to not make gains at the expense of defunding the social sciences. 

 

Reach writer Rod Palmquist at opinion@dailyuw.comTwitter: @rodpalmquist

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