People aren't happy at Georgia Southern University. From administration to students, nobody wants state budget cuts at GSU — but how can they be avoided?
Students, faculty and staff tackled that question and vented their frustrations at a rally Tuesday morning at Sweetheart Circle to protest the possible cuts.
Calling the cuts “unjust,” senior philosophy major Andres Montes, one of the rally's organizers, said the protest was a historic moment of unity for the university community.
“Our education, our future is in jeopardy,” he said to the crowd. He questioned specific programs the state is spending money on, and suggested that Georgia would be better off investing in education programs than new buildings.
“They're trying to take away our education,” he said.
In the face of a severe budget shortfall, state legislators are discussing hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state's higher education system, including slashing $25.7 million from the $88 million GSU receives from the state.
According to GSU President Brooks Keel, those cuts would result in more than 100 faculty being fired, dozens more positions allowed to end through attrition, consolidation of colleges inside the university and entire programs being cut.
Cuts also include six furlough days for staff; decreasing funding for outreach programs like the GSU Museum, PAC, Botanical Gardens, Continuing Education and Raptor Center; and reducing the athletic department's budget by $1 million.
Those cuts could end up being even deeper. Newly-released figures show an unexpected 9.9 percent drop in state revenue for February. With the numbers looking grim, one of the speakers at the protest raised the possibility of tax increases.
State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) has proposed a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes to raise money. North Carolina, Arizona and Connecticut have already raised taxes to deal with severe budget shortfalls.
English professor Clifton Price worries that he won't be able to make a difference to his students. He said he's worried about keeping his job, but also that he can't be an effective teacher under existing cuts, let alone any more that may come from the state.
“If the budget cuts come through and I retain my job, this is going to be the average size of my freshman composition class,” he said, looking at the crowd of about 100 people.
Price is teaching more students than ever before in his classes. “They are getting screwed,” he said. “They should take another professor, a professor who is not overworked.”
More than anything, students have to get a quality education for their futures, he said. “I might lose my job, but I can get another one,” Price said. “I've already been educated.”
The cuts will even hurt people who have already graduated, Price said, by devaluing their diplomas as institutions' standards have to drop.
Montes urged support for Keel, who was in Atlanta during the rally representing GSU. Price agreed.
“Keel doesn't want this any more than I do or you do,” he said.
The speakers told students to contact state legislators and have their friends and family do the same.
Montes said that education is needed at a basic level in the state. “To fix state problems, we need people who are educated,” he said. “What is the foundation for health care, what is the foundation for these other things? It's education.”
Robert Costomiris, a philosophy professor, also laid out some of the cold hard realities for the students, faculty and staff gathered at the protest. Georgia's budget has to be balanced, he explained, so the state has to either cut funds or find the money somewhere else.
“We're not s afraid of a tax hike as (state legislators) are,” he said to applause from the crowd. “We're willing to get behind what education costs.”
Corey Briley, a philosophy major and one of the protests' organizers, told the students to keep up the fight. “Please don't let this die here,” he said. “Go home and do something about this.”
Gov. Perdue has called higher education “the crowning jewel of Georgia,” Briley said. “It's time for them to start acting like it.”
Faculty, staff and students should be angry and ready to take action, he continued. “Mediocrity is the greatest enemy facing our university right now,” Briley said.
History professor Kathleen Comerford said that her contacts with state legislators hadn't been encouraging. Only about half responded to her e-mails, she said, and several just wanted to change the subject to salaries at colleges.
“Seventy percent of the people who work for the university system make less than $50,000 a year,” she said. “Don't let them change the subject.”
GSU spokesman Christian Flathman said that the area's state legislators - Jack Hill, Jon Burns, Butch Parrish and Bob Lane - have been strongly supportive of GSU. According to research from the university's Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development, Georgia Southern pumped more than $700 million into the economy of Bulloch and eight surrounding counties in 2008-2009.
Montes extended an invitation for legislators to come to GSU and see what's happening. “We send them to Atlanta to represent us,” he said.
Sophomore Taylor Dull came out to the rally at the urging on one of her professors. The fashion merchandising major is concerned her program may end up on the chopping block because it doesn't have many students.
“I don't want my major to disappear,” she said. Dull said she came to Georgia Southern because it was one of the few schools with a good fashion program that wasn't prohibitively expensive.
The protest was followed by a hours-long sit-in near the Russell Union Rotunda. Students sat on the grass with signs to protest the budget cuts.