While we wait for the release of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, it’s essential that everyone in the greater New Orleans area who has a stake in the future of the University of New Orleans understand that the looming budget crisis will not force this university to close. Let me explain why.
Like any other Louisiana public university, UNO can be closed only by an act of the state Legislature, and it is unthinkable that such a bill would pass in the coming legislative session. I say this not because it is politically unfeasible, but because our legislators already know that the closing of any university would not help narrow the $1.6 billion budget gap, which will be their first priority in this year’s session. Because the state appropriation to UNO and other institutions has been so drastically reduced over the last several years, the relatively small amount saved by removing UNO’s annual appropriation from next year’s state budget would be offset by the university’s substantial debt obligations, which the state would then incur. Shutting us down would not help the state out of its fiscal crisis, then, and it might actually worsen matters, while creating many other messy problems too numerous to list here.
All speculative talk about the imminent demise of UNO therefore needs to stop. Likewise with the corrosive thought that UNO might be fiscally bled to the point that we will be persuaded to give up and ask that the institution be closed. We will never do this. UNO was the first institution in New Orleans to re-open after Hurricane Katrina, and since 2008, it has carried on through years of deep budget cuts. We have been forced to retrench with every means available: by surrendering faculty positions when they are vacated by resignation or retirement, by cutting operating budgets to the bone, by denying our faculty members a pay raise for eight long years. The faculty and staff of this institution are no pampered elite; they have tenaciously endured a long budgetary siege with no end in sight. And in their abiding commitment to our students, they will continue to do just that.
Make no mistake, however. If a budget cut to public higher education materializes in anything like the huge scale that has been suggested, UNO will be damaged — not utterly beyond recognition, but deeply and devastatingly. Through a radical restructuring, we will be forced to cut deeply into our academic programs and personnel merely to survive and continue to serve our students. Many graduate programs in the city’s only public research university will be in jeopardy; class size, already pushed up by recent budget cuts, will rise even higher, and course offerings and study opportunities will be slashed.
Several years ago, we were exhorted to “do more with less,” an expression which is a contradiction in terms. You cannot do more with less; you can only do less. But we have been captive to that slogan for years, complying with cut after cut, until we have finally arrived at this point: We cannot take one more cut. Since 2008, UNO has lost 183 full-time faculty members, a loss of 39 percent, which is far in excess of the 19 percent drop in our student population over the past six years. As for our support staff, President Peter Fos does not exaggerate when he publically notes that he is running out of employees to terminate. Our backs are to the wall.
The university that has granted more than 80,000 degrees and can legitimately claim to have built the middle class of this city deserves the budgetary stability it needs to sustain its mission: educating the sons and daughters of Louisiana, conducting cutting-edge research and contributing to the vibrant culture and economy of the city and region. Most of all, our students, to whom we have devoted our careers, deserve something better than the harshly constrained academic future that I have described here. They deserve much more from a state that year by year seems to want to provide them less.
Peter Schock has served as chair of the UNO English Department since 2004. He also serves on the University Budget Committee.