April 1, 2009

Engineering Prioritizes Instruction And Research in Face of Budget Cuts

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This is the last article in a series examining the effects of the University’s budget cuts on individual schools and colleges.

When President David Skorton announced Cornell’s financial cuts in the latter half of 2008, the University’s colleges were faced with the difficult task of reducing their budgets by 4.8 percent. For the College of Engineering, like the other colleges, meeting the cuts has been a particularly troublesome burden.
Interim Dean Christopher Ober, who took on the position on Jan. 1 after Kent Fuchs was named provost, stated in an e-mail that the college is facing a budget shortfall of $6.5 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. He emphasized that the college is committed to protecting teaching and research; as a result, non-academic departments were faced with larger budget reductions than the academic departments.
Ober admitted that there was difficulty in finding ways to reduce the budget.
“Like the rest of the University, most of our budget goes to faculty and staff salaries,” he stated, “But engineering has one of the smallest staff-to-faculty ratio of any college in the University; in other words, our staffing is already lean. So finding areas to cut back is difficult and painful.”
Responding to the cuts, the College of Engineering convened a Budget Advisory Task Force in November that would evaluate the budget and recommend how best to adjust for the reduction. According to Ober, the task force and college leadership decided to enact a hiring pause, allowing several vacancies to continue while also halting six faculty searches. Several facilities projects were halted, and discretionary spending was reduced. The engineering college also reduced payroll expenses voluntarily, wherever possible. Additionally, the college increased enrollment into the Masters of Engineering program and introduced a new Masters of Science option.
Prof. Andy Ruina, theoretical and applied mechanics, has had difficulty understanding the logic behind some of the budget cuts. Ruina’s department was absorbed into the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the start of 2009 amidst controversy, and he is still unsure of the motivation behind it.
“For me, there’s a special confusion about TAM, my department. I’ve heard that the cutting of TAM was not part of the budget cuts, but it seems to be flying as part of the budget cuts,” he said.
The TAM merger aroused concern over the potential that other departments in the college could be cut or merged. Ober, however, did not indicate there was any such cut or merger looming, though he emphasized the need to reduce expenses and find ways to increase revenue.
He explained that he is convening a task force to review the college’s “academic priorities” while looking at potential adjustments to invest in “strategic initiatives” while still “reducing expenses.”
“We will also be identifying potential areas for revenue growth,” he added.
Ruina also noted that he would like to see some salary cuts.
“I’m waiting for faculty salary cuts,” he said. “The vast majority of faculty would rather [have] cuts in salary over anything else in the college”
It is not yet known what impact the budget cuts will have on the curriculum of courses offered by the College of Engineering. The college has worked to minimize the impact on the curriculum, but much depends on how the University’s financial situation holds over the coming years.
“At this time I do not believe our budget adjustments will have any material impact on next year’s course offerings,” Ober stated. “Our departments are working hard to ensure that the curriculum is not negatively impacted.”
Ober noted that how the other colleges in Cornell perform will have an impact on the College of Engineering’s curriculum as well because Engineering undergrads are required to take certain courses outside the engineering college.
Ruina explained some of his predictions for the budget cuts impact on courses.
“I think it will tend to cut smaller classes and more advanced research courses. Also, classes that have multiple lectures will have their lectures combined into one,” Ruina said, “Undergraduates will have to deal with large lectures, and less lab-project experiences. There will also be less access to off-topic, non-mainline courses.”
Outside of the classroom setting, Ruina said that undergrad research and project teams, a primary source of experience for students, have been impacted, although the ultimate extent of the impact cannot yet be determined.
“There’s probably going to be a reduction in the number of project teams, but this is more a loss [as a result] of industry gifts,” said Prof. Lance Collins, S.C. Thomas Sze director mechanical and aerospace engineering.
A major source of funding for the project teams comes from gifts provided by various companies. For instance, the Cornell 100+ MPG team, which seeks to develop a car that will average more than 100 miles per gallon in fuel consumption in order to win the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize Competition, receives sponsorship from General Electric. Many of the corporate sponsors for project teams have been adversely impacted by the economy. As a result, their willingness and ability to fund the project teams has decreased.
“Some [companies] have pulled out completely, which is worrisome, but others are still in,” Collins said.
Despite the problems that the college has had to deal with as a result of the economic crisis, there have been some positives as well.
“A portion of the [Federal] stimulus package goes into federally funded research, so that offers a great opportunity for our research,” Collins said.
The Engineering college is in a good position to participate in research generated by the federal stimulus package, according to Ober.
Ober admitted that it was difficult to be optimistic in the given climate, but maintained that there were advantages to the situation. Specifically, he noted that the college was likely to be more efficient and focused, as well as more creative in finding solutions to the problems it faces.
“The University has enhanced its commitment to undergraduate financial aid, which should prove to be an advantage in continuing to recruit top-quality students during this economic downturn,” he added.
“Cornell is in the same boat as any major university with [its] endowment, and this is not the best of times by any means,” Collins said. “But we’ll eventually come out of this, and the key is that we maintain everything so that we can take advantage when things get better.”