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Shawn Vestal: Facing budget hole, WSU picks pockets of grad students

Here’s a fun thought, regarding Washington State University’s plans to climb out of a $30 million budget trench: Some graduate students will probably be taking on more personal debt to help cover the costs of administrative overspending.

Having scoured the institution for savings – rooting among the couch cushions of untouchable salaries, travel budgets, symposiums, football chefs and the procession of receptions requiring fruit water and cheese trays – WSU administrators have decided to take $387 per month out of the pockets of graduate students in the College of Engineering and Architecture who receive a stipend for teaching or research.

Meanwhile, a new six-figure administrative hire has been ranked as indispensable.

If you were to invent a discouraging parable about the priorities of modern-day higher education, you could not devise a better one: Punish the 25-year-old master’s and doctoral candidates who help teach undergrads, while adding one more soft feather to the nest of bureaucracy teetering at the top of the institution.

Oh, and cut the performing arts program while you’re at it.

WSU President Kirk Schulz has come up with a broad but vague plan to eliminate the shortfall that relies on ordering 2.5 percent budget cuts next year in all university departments. (This includes athletics, which is running a much larger deficit than 2.5 percent, of course, but which is said to be on a separate budgetary diet.)

This is intended to reduce spending by $10 million each year for three years, when the university will be back in the black. Schulz did not devise the stipend cut; that came from administrators in the College of Engineering and Architecture, in response to his directive. The cuts would affect about 350 teaching and research assistants, starting in January.

Schulz’s response to a question from student journalists about the cuts last week might make you wonder whether he realizes he’s the, you know, president.

“I think we’ve got a department that made that choice,” he said in the interview, which was streamed live. “I’m not arguing whether it’s a good or bad choice. I might have my own personal opinion on that. But I don’t think this is the type of thing you’re going to see all of a sudden everybody at the university is going to decide to cut graduate stipends in mid-year. That is a departmental decision, and I think I’m not going to encourage other programs to pursue that.”

Schulz has pointed out that the deficit is not his creation. It’s a legacy of the late Elson Floyd, an ambitious and beloved president, as well as one whose administration spent money like an 18-year-old with his first credit card. That didn’t apply only to the seeming free-for-all in athletics. The reserves dwindled, and projects were started without sustainable funding.

So changes are necessary, and Schulz raised the issue publicly not long after he took office. In the big picture, neither the grad student stipends, nor the plan to hire a new administrator, is a huge amount. But the institution is revealing its hierarchy of priorities as it decides which ox to gore, and which not to.

It ought to leave the grad students’ ox alone.

A graduate student with a teaching or research stipend receives $2,057 a month currently. (It’s $2,207 for doctoral candidates). In two schools within the College of Engineering and Architecture, those minimums will be cut to $1,670 and $1,844 respectively, according to the Daily Evergreen.

Mary Rezac, the new dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture, said that she is working to find other possible sources of funding to offset the stipend cuts. She said that in her college there are also people losing jobs and undergoing other effects from steps to halt the overspending.

The reason the teaching assistants were selected for some of the cuts was because it was one area in which the college had been overspending, both in terms of the number of TAs and the size of their stipends, she said.

The leadership of the Graduate and Professional Students Association at WSU has been meeting with Schulz and other administrators, raising their concerns. While the current change is limited in scope, they’re worried about protecting stipends as WSU looks for more cuts in the years to come.

“We don’t want to see this become a strategy going forward for other departments,” said Joshua Munroe, the vice president of legislative affairs and a PhD candidate in political science.

Munroe and his fellow GPSA officers understand the need for savings, and said that the stipends that are being reduced are among the more generous ones on campus. But students came here expecting to be paid that amount. Losing several hundred dollars a month with little notice is a big blow to their budgets, one that is most likely to be made up with more borrowing.

Across the university, many changes are still to be specified, but among the other cuts are reductions in retention counselors who work one-on-one with students who might be at risk of dropping out. Positions will be left dark. Job losses seem certain. Among the ideas for bringing in more money: Enroll more international students, who pay much more in tuition. Fundraise. Expand online courses – become the next Southern New Hampshire University, in essence.

Schulz has said that plans to hire a new administrator overseeing equity and diversity will go forward. That person will be paid between $175,000 and $210,000 annually. It’s true the university has faced intense debate and controversy over issues surrounding racism and free speech. Is it also true that there is no one in the vast reaches of the university already who might be up to this task?

That may not be the ideal approach. Universities prefer to show their seriousness, after all, with national searches and new 10-word vice presidential titles. But it’s a time for sacrifice at WSU.

Just ask the some of the students.


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