Despite growing class sizes, Cornell has continued to reduce its non-faculty workforce due to budget constraints since 2008, leaving some Teaching Assistants feeling overburdened by classroom duties.
Over the last three years, Cornell has reduced its academic non-faculty staff, which includes T.A.s and Research Assistants, according to Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources.
In November 2008, Cornell’s academic non-faculty staff totalled 1,206. By April 2011, however, the number of academic non-faculty had been reduced to 1,111 employees, according to a report by Cornell’s Division of Budget and Planning.
Opperman said that the reduction in the non-faculty workforce at Cornell is the result of attempts to balance the University’s budget after the national financial crisis of 2008 led to serious funding constraints.
“Reduction of the academic non-faculty workforce is one of the many aspects of a multi-year plan to bring … the deficit budget [back into] balance,” Opperman said.
Despite these cuts, the University has not reduced the size of its faculty.
“Cornell does not intend to reduce the academic faculty. As of November 2011 the faculty number is back to 1,597 from 1,564 … Though there has been a reduction in the staff workforce including non-faculty and non-academic workforce,” Opperman said.
Dean of Faculty Prof. William Fry, plant pathology and microbe-biology, noted that class sizes have been increasing at the University, although professors prefer to maintain smaller classes. He said he hopes for continued faculty renewal despite the current financial crisis.
“There is no room for growth in the New York State budget for statutory colleges,” Fry said. “I hope for significant philanthropy.”
Opperman said that Cornell always had the intention of restarting the faculty renewal process after a hiring freeze in 2008.
“Cornell has adopted many measures, such as the Administrative Streamlining Program, to regain its financial stability,” Opperman said.
Non-faculty academic staff are not the only University employees who have been hit by the recent budget shortfall. Across the University, non-faculty positions have been cut while, in some cases, new faculty hiring has continued.
Over the 2009-10 fiscal year, Cornell cut 672 staff positions — approximately nine percent of the total 7,000 non-academic workers at Cornell, The Sun reported in February 2010. The College of Architecture, Art and Planning reduced its support staff by eight percent from the 2008-09 fiscal year to 2009-10, according to Cornell’s 2010-11 Financial Plan, and some colleges, such as the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the College of Engineering, cut their staffs by approximately 14 percent over the same period.
According to Tianli Zhao grad, a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Economics, the reduction in non-faculty academic staff has had a negative effect on T.A.s and Research Assistants. Zhao said that T.A.s are overburdened by large class sizes.
“It would be really great if we could employ more T.A.s to help with the office hours,” Zhao said.
According to Zhao, having 30 to 35 students in one discussion session is manageable. However, the 100-to-one students to T.A. ratio can become strenuous for the graduate students during office hours, especially during finals week.
“The discussions sections are not the sole factors in teaching; the office hours matter a lot, too,” Zhao said. “I could feel a definite strain during the exams week when a lot of students would come to the office hours.”
Zhao also said that occasionally, increased T.A. obligations can limit the time graduate students are able to put aside for research projects.
In addition to alleviating workload, increasing the number of T.A.s and Research Assistants could indirectly provide financial aid to graduate students via the wages they earn from the job, according to Zhao.
“Due to tight financial concerns, less graduate students are being provided financial aid by the University,” Zhao said. “It would be great if the graduate students could be provided some financial aid as guarantee when they enter the program as a T.A. or R.A.”
According to Zhao, Cornell should refocus its spending to help T.A.s, rather than continuing to take on expensive building projects.
“Since 2007, Cornell has undertaken many big construction projects, overlapping with the growth of the financial crisis,” Zhao said. “My personal feeling is that Cornell should rethink the allocation of their financial resources.”