The University of South Carolina’s long-term effort to position itself as a world-class university will come with some short-term pain.
The state’s flagship university has told each of its departments – from academic colleges to janitorial services – to trim their upcoming budgets by 3 percent.
The savings – about $17 million – would flow to a so-called “excellence fund” to recruit top-tier faculty members and to invest in new and existing academic programs and research opportunities.
The approach is unprecedented under USC’s current administration, in place since 2008. But USC leaders say the GOP-controlled S.C. Legislature’s refusal to spend more state money on higher education has forced the school to get creative in its push to improve.
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“This is the reality of the modern era of higher education,” USC Provost Joan Gabel wrote in a May 9 letter to faculty, obtained by The State newspaper. “We must rely on each other, not state government. And we must work through short-term sacrifice to fund our way to long-term excellence.”
‘Universally positive ... but there is some pain’
The cuts have not been fun, several college deans told The State this week. But deans say they have found the savings without hurting academic efforts, and that they have faith in the excellence fund.
USC’s College of Information and Communications, for example, is shedding a little more than $300,000 by reducing subsidies to some programs and taking a harder look at costs of travel, graduate assistants and adjuncts, outgoing Dean Charles Bierbauer said.
“We’ve been able to do it, I think, judiciously,” he said. “There may be other units for which the 3 percent is ho-hum, and there may be units for which it’s, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
The College of Engineering and Computing will absorb its roughly $1 million cut by shifting how newly hired professors use their startup research dollars, Dean Hossein Haj-Hariri said.
The School of Music plans to trim about $300,000 by not filling one vacancy – other staffers are picking up the slack – and filling another with a teaching-only instructor not paid for research, Dean Tayloe Harding said.
“Getting over some initial difficulty is going to be great for the university,” Harding said. “It’s seen as a universally positive thing, but there is some pain.”
USC’s esteemed Honors College will have to cut funding for its “community-building exercises” but not academic programs, Dean Steve Lynn said. He did not say how much the cut would cost.
“Obviously, we would want to enhance the faculty and research without taking money from other places,” Lynn said, “but this move is a statement of our priorities, and educating students and advancing knowledge and opportunity – those are clearly the right priorities,” he said.
USC declined to provide the dollar amount each department was asked to cut, saying that would be inappropriate until the school’s overall budget is approved by USC trustees next month.
The State reached out to all 16 academic deans, receiving comment from about one-third of them.
Already a top-tier research university according to the Carnegie Foundation, USC wants to get better.
The 3-percent budget reallocation is one part of a revamped, five-year strategic plan drafted by the provost’s office over the past year with input from USC trustees, deans, faculty and alumni, Provost Gabel told The State.
That plan, still in draft form, lists several goals, including “assembling and supporting a world class faculty,” spurring innovation and expanding collaborative research and teaching.
“We think when we’re better, the state is better because our students are better, our research is better,” Gabel said. “We can do what we do for South Carolina in the best possible way.”
But those efforts cost money, Gabel said, and state money for higher education has lagged – in South Carolina and across the country – since the budget cuts of the Great Recession.
In a recent national survey of public college provosts, four out of five said they believe new money for academics would have to come from a reallocation of existing dollars. USC agrees.
A 3-percent reallocation can raise enough money to start those improvement efforts without hurting individual colleges, Gabel said.
“This is in the margin of belt-tightening,” Gabel said. “We’re not furloughing. We’re not shutting anything down. We’re belt-tightening so that we can gather the resources ourselves to make this strategic investment.”
USC says the reallocation is not motivated by a long-standing desire to be invited into the exclusive Association of American Universities.
That association’s 62 schools – including Yale, M.I.T. and the University of North Carolina – pride themselves on securing government research funding, hiring top-tier faculty members and producing highly-cited research.
“We want to be an AAU university. We do want that,” USC Board of Trustees chair John von Lehe Jr. said. “However, the way to go about becoming an AAU university, as I understand it, is more general than this.”
‘No shortage of ideas’
USC has not yet decided how the reallocated money will be spent. That task will fall to a committee that advises the provost and university president Harris Pastides.
Gabel said USC could hire “a few” top-level faculty members – expensive and in short supply – with the excellence fund.
USC also could use the money to invest in future areas of need for South Carolina, such as health sciences and biomedical engineering, spokesman Wes Hickman said.
Deans already are considering how their colleges could benefit from the “excellence fund,” while some worry investing too much of the money on new professors and initiatives could miff current faculty.
The central fund could be used to create research partnerships between colleges, engineering dean Haj-Hariri said.
He envisions partnering with USC’s College of Education on a program that would integrate science and engineering into middle school teachers’ lessons. Or, perhaps, the money could go toward offering computing courses to USC’s business students, he said.
“There’s no shortage of ideas in the university, but implementation requires some investment,” Haj-Hariri said. “You’d have to hire somebody to help get it off the ground, maybe a couple of students.”
Harding says the School of Music could use the money, for example, to launch a summer arts camp for middle- and high-school students in rural South Carolina, with plans to study the program’s effect on school achievement and dropout rates.
But some of the excellence money should be spent supporting current faculty and research, some deans said, or USC will risk alienating those professors.
Gabel said USC thinks the world of its current faculty and wants “to make sure we invest in them, too.”
What they’re saying
USC academics deans weighed in with The State about whether USC’s 3-percent budget reallocation is a good idea.
‘A very positive move’
“I see this initiative as a very positive move for the Graduate School and the overall academic and research mission of the university. Any proposal to recruit new faculty and enhance research will increase opportunities available to our graduate students.” Graduate School Dean Cheryl Addy
Creates ‘some financial pressure’
“While the reallocation places some financial pressure on the Darla Moore School of Business, 3 percent is manageable. However, the Moore School’s academic activities match many of the potential uses specified for the funds, whether they are allocated to high-demand fields for employment, to reducing class sizes in high-demand courses, to enhancing student leadership training and experiential learning opportunities, or to increasing research opportunities by leveraging additional external funding.” Darla Moore School of Business Dean Peter Brews
“If you’re always paying rent all the time, you can’t buy a house. This is the down payment to buy the house.” College of Engineering and Computing Dean Hossein Haj-Hariri
‘We can be greater’
“My hope is that the state government and our supporters will realize the significance of this reallocation: We’re a very good university. We can be greater, and that will benefit everyone in the state and beyond.” Honors College Dean Steve Lynn