March 8, 2011

After Proposed State Cuts, CALS Grapples With New Budget Realities

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After Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a budget for New York — slashing nearly $13 million from all four statutory colleges at the University — the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is grappling with a steady decline in state support and a possible shift toward an endowed college model.

CALS is projected to lose close to 10 percent of its New York State funding in the 2012 fiscal year, according to Margaret Ferguson, associate dean for finance and administration.

The college received approximately $52 million in statutory funds last year, but after a mid-year budget reduction and additional proposed cuts, the college will lose approximately $5.1 million in the 2012 fiscal year, Ferguson said.

Since 2008, CALS has experienced a 32 percent cut in state funding. The upcoming fiscal year’s projected $46.5 million in state aid stands in sharp contrast to the $68 million CALS received four years ago, Ferguson said.

In addition, CALS is slated to lose $2.2 million in earmarked funds for research projects, Ferguson said. This year’s total budget reduction, including those figures, could amount to a nearly 15 percent cut to CALS’ state funding, she said. In response, CALS will cut 18 research programs, including Agricultural Teachers, Geneva Equipment and the Seed Improvement Project.

“[The budget cuts] hit our college very hard,” said Max Pfeffer, the senior associate dean of CALS. In response, the college had to reduce some research support for professors and programs. “This is particularly challenging to applied research,” he said.

Due to a long-term trend of decreasing state funding, CALS will increasingly resemble the privately endowed colleges at Cornell, Pfeffer said.

“[CALS] has to look to the private sector more. Private donations and tuition becomes a more important part of our funds,” he said.

According to Pfeffer, tuition increases outpacing the rate of inflation will affect the socioeconomic diversity in the statutory colleges. “It will be an increasing challenge for us to maintain a diverse student body and provide access to programs,” he said.

Pfeffer said CALS will try to minimize layoffs where possible. However, he has already said that some technical staff who operate laboratories or special operations on farms will be laid off.

Despite staff downsizing, faculty retention and recruitment will remain a priority for the college, according to Pfeffer.

Since the median age of a CALS faculty member is 58, “the bulk of our faculty is near or at retirement age,” Pfeffer said. If the budget continues to fall in the coming years, the administration’s ability to hire new faculty will be limited, he said.

Across both the Ithaca and Geneva campuses, faculty and students cited fewer research opportunities and a decline in morale as consequences of the recent funding cuts.

Prof. Tom Burr, director of the Geneva experiment station, listed some of the 18 groups that will be cut. He stressed, though, that all CALS programs will suffer in some way.

“But they’re all affected by the cuts,” he said.

According to Burr, funding reductions will affect the types of work faculty in plant pathology, entomology, food science and horticulture can do both in Ithaca and Geneva.

“This will impact the number of faculty members and staff members that previously were supported by state funding,” he said.

Looking to the future, Burr expressed concern that there will be a “phase-out of technician support” and eventually, none of the CALS faculty members will have state-funded technicians in their laboratories. Underscoring the importance of technicians, he explained that they assist in critical programs to the food and agriculture industries across the state.

Currently 41 out of the 52 Cornell graduate students in Geneva are funded by grants, but Burr said this number will decrease in relation to the cuts.

Senior Associate Dean of CALS Jan Nyrop expressed concern that the overall budget cuts would affect non-related programs.

“All of these programs have interconnections,” Nyrop said. For example, he said the loss of researchers who work on Pro-Dairy — a program slated to be cut — will invariably affect the graduate program in animal science.

Budget cuts will limit CALS’ ability to offer field research programs, which he considers essential to teaching students, Nyrop said.

“All of these reductions simply reduce our capacity to be effective in [undergraduate and graduate] education,” he said.

According to Nyrop, field research programs not only add depth to the CALS educational experience, but they work to resolve real life issues.

“We as a society face immense challenges. Around agriculture, it is how are we going to feed everybody at a level that we want. … Yet, our capacity to deal with these problems is being eroded,” Nyrop said.

Pfeffer said he worried that the drop in funding will undermine CALS’ public mission.

“[The cuts] begin to eat away at what our college stands for — being publicly engaged in the university community,” he said.

Caitlin Etri ’14 said one of the main reasons she came to Cornell was for the education program, a major in CALS that was cut earlier this year. Reflecting on the administrative decision to cut the education department, Etri said she worries that other students will experience similar program changes.

“All of a sudden, the Dean sent out an e-mail saying ‘oh, we’re going to cut [the education department] mid-year,’” she said.

There are no plans to consolidate or eliminate any current departments or programs in CALS, Pfeffer said.

Other students expressed concern that widespread budget cuts could affect their undergraduate experience at Cornell.

“I am concerned that in the future there’ll be less opportunities to become involved in research,” Alexander Thomson ’14 said. “I just started working at the Brooks Equine Genetic Lab … and the funding we might need to take these projects in a new direction might not be available.”

Pfeffer remains optimistic about CALS in the upcoming year.

“We’ve been carefully managing our budget,” he said. “We’ve built up an operating budget, so we can weather these cuts without too much disruption at least for this year.”

Pfeffer said, however, that if cuts continue in the next few years, CALS will have difficulty adapting. Nyrop echoed this uncertainty about the future.

“We had cuts last year, we’re bracing cuts for this year and we don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” Nyrop said.

Original Author: Max Schindler