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WCU in ‘flux’ as it braces for state budget cuts

Proposed budget cuts at Western Carolina University are beginning to affect students like Will Furse, who says he won’t graduate on time if summer classes are cut.

The senior construction management student knows he has little influence over the situation.

“There’s nothing that can be done,” he said. “That’s what sucks.”

If it were left up to Furse he said he would cut pay for executives, but doubts Chancellor John Bardo will see it that way.

Bardo has asked each department to come up with scenarios that trim their budgets by 3, 5 and 7 percent. Bardo is preparing the university for state budget cuts likely coming down the pipe, although no one knows yet exactly how much that could be. Bardo wants the scenarios back by March 1.

While Bardo has pledged to defer to the recommendations of deans, the cuts likely mean the loss of professors, which translates to fewer classes and larger class sizes for the courses that are left.

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The scenarios will be presented to the university’s Strategic Planning Committee for feedback, said WCU Provost Dr. Kyle Carter in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

The university will remain in a holding pattern, however, until state budget cuts — and the federal stimulus package — shake out. Bardo said he will be making a trip to the legislature this week to learn more about the proposed budget cuts.

Until there is a firm number passed down from the state, the university is in “flux,” said Bardo. By coming up with different scenarios of what might happen, hopefully people won’t be surprised, Bardo said.

“We’re trying to be as straight as we can with folks,” he said.

Bardo in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News last week that “A campus is only as good as its faculty,” but layoffs will likely be unavoidable.

“Depending on the magnitude of the budget reduction we could see layoffs,” Carter said.

Some teachers on year-to-year contracts have already been told they might not have a job next year, Carter said.

“My English teacher told me last week she might lose her job,” said Vanessa Abney, a junior. “A lot of teachers are being let go. My friend told me his teacher in theater got fired.”

Losing teachers is hard on students, Abney said.

“Some of us get close to our professors,” she said.

The class schedule for fall 2009 has already been put together with the assumption that there would be fewer faculty and larger class sizes. The current plan calls for 7 to 10 percent fewer classes than this year, Carter said.

Some teachers on year-to-year contracts don’t have their names on the new schedule and they take that to mean they don’t have a job. But if the budget situation improves, WCU will go back and add classes and keep teachers on board, Carter said.

Student Pamela King said if teachers are laid off at the end of the year it will mean larger class sizes, which she would dislike. Even if class sizes increase, WCU will still have smaller classes than most other schools in the state, Carter said. Fifty percent of WCU’s classes are capped at 35 or less, he said.

Carter said the university is “doing all it can” to protect the quality of education. He said the cuts will not be across the board but targeted and that no final plans or decisions have been made, despite some professors being left off the fall class schedule.

There are 582 full-time faculty at WCU. Under a 7 percent budget cut, 31 of them could be laid off, Carter said. He would not identify specific departments that may be cut, saying he would prefer to tell the faculty before they read it in the newspaper.

WCU receives about $95.5 million from the state annually, Carter said. Carter said the stimulus bill may help the state with Medicaid costs, improving the state’s budget situation and lessening the blow of cuts. The hope is that there is a clear picture of the stimulus bill in about a month.

Among other unknowns: Carter wonders what effect the economy will have on students enrolling in college, saying some may hold back because they can’t afford the tuition of $4,400 for in state and about $13,600 for out of state.

The university has already enacted one round of cuts after the state pulled 6 percent of the budget, or $5.7 million. The university is dealing with that by cutting travel, postponing purchases and leaving vacancies open.

Nonetheless, a new dining hall and residence hall remain under construction on campus because those buildings are paid for by fees generated by housing and meals, not state money.

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