A town without students
Published: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.
The ghost town solution has some folks trembling.
University of Florida officials are floating a budget plan that would significantly curtail summer school, a proposal that could empty Gainesville of tens of thousands of residents come May. In so doing, most speculate UF would begin a chain reaction that could suck millions of dollars out of the local economy, hamper student graduation rates and leave some faculty looking for work.
"This would be a profound event," said Janie Fouke, UF's provost. "The impact on the students, the faculty, the staff, the community would be enormous."
The proposal, which UF officials describe as just one possible scenario, is designed to help the university weather the coming budget storm. Lawmakers expect an additional $2 billion budget shortfall this year, a dip that suggests colleges and universities will take another 4 percent cut from their state funding on top of the nearly 4 percent cut they endured this year.
At UF, the cuts could translate into a $16 million problem, and painful proposals like cutting summer school are now on the table.
Summer school is a major enterprise at UF, and to call that scorching three-month stretch a "break" in Gainesville would be a misnomer. UF, which hosts more than 50,000 students during fall and spring, still averages about 30,000 students over the summer. To place that figure in perspective, 30,000 students is close to the peak enrollment for Louisiana State University.
Based on a recent economic impact report conducted by UF economists, the university's summer students collectively spend between $75 million and $100 million in Gainesville over the summer.
The impact for UF isn't purely economic. Many UF students, who have come to rely on summer classes to get into crowded courses, could have their academic plans disrupted as well.
Albert Matheny, director of the academic advising center in UF's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, notes that summer classes also help students to spread out their course loads in the interest of protecting their grades. Pre-med students, for instance, often take organic chemistry over the summer instead of taking that notoriously difficult class alongside another hard science course like biology. Furthermore, the summer is a "safety valve" for students who may have done poorly in a class and need to retake it, he said.
"I don't know what shutting down (for summer) means," said Matheny, a professor of political science. "I've been here 30 years and I can't imagine what that really means."
Fouke, UF's provost, says the models UF officials have examined would curtail class offerings but not lead to a full shutdown of the university. UF's physical plant would continue to operate, and many employees would continue with business as usual.
Most of UF's roughly 22,000 employees are on 12-month appointments and would not be affected by cutting summer courses, according to UF's human resources office. The primary impact for employees would be faculty who planned to teach during the summer and student employees, such as graduate teaching assistants.
Fouke cautions that the summer plan, which was floated by UF President Bernie Machen in Tallahassee this week, is not an all-or-nothing proposal. UF could offer some courses but only serve particular segments of the student population - say, incoming freshmen.
In addition to the summer proposal, Machen suggested UF could shrink the size of its 2008-2009 freshman class. The resources simply may not be there to serve a standard class of more than 6,000 students, he said.
Reducing the size of the freshman class or slashing course offerings may sound like logical ways to cut costs, but both ideas present potential fiscal pitfalls of their own. Either scenario would translate into a reduction of tuition revenues. Furthermore, a potentially dramatic decline in credit hours taken on campus could lead to a reduction in money from the state, because credit hour production is part of the funding formula.
"Every single scenario is distressing to me," Fouke said.
The business community isn't too excited about these proposals, either. At Melrose Apartments, for instance, an influx of students during the summer has become part of the business model. The complex offers a limited number of 9-month leases, but Melrose Apartments can only do that because there's a predictable population of students who arrive in Gainesville during the summer who can fill those vacant units.
"The students run us," said Shelly Wells, property manager for Melrose Apartments. "Without students, we wouldn't have a business to run. I definitely would say that (closing for summer) is going to have a very large impact on the economy."
As for UF's on-campus housing, officials are also examining the potential fallout from a summer scale back. During the Summer B term, which begins in July and runs through August, dorms typically host about 2,500 residents. So how might the housing office make up for a reduction in rent revenues? UF officials are still working on that one.
"Everything is on the table, but no decisions have been made at this time regarding the summer term at the University of Florida," UF's housing office said in a prepared statement Friday. "Housing staff is modeling scenarios related to the possibility of the university not offering summer school classes and should have more specific information within the next two weeks."
There are also intangible impacts of these budget-cutting proposals that are worthy of consideration, according to Rick Yost, chairman of UF's Faculty Senate. With no raises for state employees this year, faculty salaries are already stagnant and remain below those of UF's peer institutions, he noted.
A hiring freeze implemented this summer, which now has no end in sight, has left faculty and staff scrambling to do more with less. As a result, maintaining morale is a challenge, and some of UF's most marketable faculty may be looking elsewhere.
"I think the impact on retention of outstanding faculty has to be a significant issue," he said. "You can't ignore it."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.
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