It appears GW students are pampered. Freshman year, the University provided housekeeping for my 2,400 classmates, my roommate and me. As a student employee at the University, my base pay rate has shot up twenty-five cents. I’m now looking forward to seeing instant replay on the brand new Smith Center basketball scoreboard in November.
But I find myself – and many other students around me – dissatisfied and puzzled. This is because I know that these are not the budget priorities of a University proudly proclaiming its commitment to achieving “academic excellence.” These are not budget priorities of a University on a tight budget, in debt and faced with difficult choices about which classes to cut, which departments to merge and which professors to stress with larger course loads.
Budgets are difficult things. Many diverse elements at a large institution like GW will clamor for more funding to better carry out their particular mission; elements tangling from housing to emergency medical care, entertainment to a private police force. But as GW strives to become a top-tier academic institution, it is vitally important to this effort that all of us in the University community take a step back and look at our budget priorities to make sure that they are geared toward enhancing academic quality.
Ostensibly, the University has already done this. After months of study, it released in 2002 a strategic plan designed to achieve “academic excellence.” Many University administrators, especially the University’s chief academic officer, Donald Lehman, continue to cite the goals of the strategic plan as the force that animates their every decision. It is without a doubt the playbook from which Lehman is working, sending increased funds to those areas identified in the plan, and withdrawing funds from areas identified as underperforming.
But this year, academic departments are merged and programs that provide a much-needed diversity of intellectual conversation on campus are eliminated. Language professors are asked to take on greater course loads in the classes in which students need individual attention the most. Department chairs are told to improvise classrooms in department conference rooms because there is a shortage of classrooms on campus. The core academic mission of the University, to produce and disseminate knowledge, is put under strain due to a scarcity of funds. All of this is done while those departments responsible for the support missions of the University show little awareness of that scarcity.
So the question becomes one of broad budgeting priorities. There is little doubt that the aforementioned novelties enhance the quality of life at the University. With luck, a scoreboard with instant-replay capabilities might make A-10 officials more accurate, or will at least let me call them on it when they are not. Nonetheless, we can do without it if it means a greater focus on academic excellence. Is the University paying for things like a flashy new scoreboard and freshman housekeeping instead of preserving the integrity of a department like earth and environmental sciences, instead of funding new class sections at the rate of enrollment growth, or instead of increasing professor pay?
The best way to get the answers to these questions would be by putting two elected students on the Board of Trustees, who would be empowered to ask the administration to explain their budgeting choices in the context of our struggle to enhance academic quality, and vote against those choices if needed. But until that occurs, students should expect that their University president would want to make the case to them that the support expenses not essential to that struggle are somehow still necessary.
Such a culture of accountability will ensure that our long-term goals are not compromised, and that the University continues to show swift, upward momentum toward academic excellence.
-The writer, a former SA Vice President for Academic Affairs, is a sophomore majoring in international affairs.