The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: December 15, 1995
By Christopher Shea
Rochester, New York -- Robert Westbrook, chairman of the history department at the University of Rochester, ambles out of his office for a brief tour, to show what it's like to work at a financially strapped institution.
He pops his head into a colleague's office and points out a leaky radiator. It would have ruined the ceiling of the room downstairs, he says, if not for timely repair work by Christopher Lasch, the esteemed cultural historian, who taught at Rochester until he died last year.
Mr. Westbrook stops into an office used by teaching assistants and bends over a pile of early-1980s personal computers. With the help of a friendly member of the maintenance staff, the history department cannibalizes equipment that other departments discard. "These are museum pieces," he says, in a tone of mock wonder. A graduate student looks up from a book and grins.
Mr. Westbrook can joke, because he thinks good scholarship can be produced in less-than-plush accommodations. But the University of Rochester, which ranks among the top 30 or so research institutions -- but has never been a hot college among high-school applicants -- has decided that patch jobs and year-to-year fixes aren't enough anymore.
The result is a two-part plan to revamp the university that has stirred up the campus. Rochester is cutting four graduate programs and trimming several others. It wants the faculty to shrink in size to 306 from 343 members, relying on retirements and voluntary departures to get there.
That much is by-the-book "downsizing," although the departments slated for cuts are protesting hotly.
But the plan also calls for reducing the student body of 4,500 by 20 per cent over the next few years, in the hope that greater selectivity will lead to applicants with higher grades and test scores.
The part of the plan that affects undergraduates will cost money at first, but Rochester is gambling that it will have a long-term payoff. Better students will translate into more of those who can pay Rochester's $18,700 tuition.
"At the graduate level, we're trying to focus the place so that we can completely compete nationally," says Thomas H. Jackson, who has been Rochester's president for a year and a half. "At the undergraduate level, we want to jump-start the quality of the student body so that people notice."
Last year, Rochester also started offering applicants from New York State a $5,000 annual grant toward tuition, in a bid to lure good students who thought the cost was almost -- but not quite -- worth it. Rochester had been losing students to other private colleges and to the State University of New York, which charges about $9,000 a year.
Rochester's Eastman School of Music and professional schools won't be directly affected by the changes.
Other institutions, notably Bennington College and St. Bonaventure University, have gone so far in cutting back on faculty as to fire tenured professors. Many have tried to limit their tuition increases. Last month, Muskingum College announced a $4,000 cut.
"Among institutions with the highest national prominence, Rochester has probably put the most pieces on the table with its re-engineering," says David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Rochester is making its move before a full-blown crisis strikes, although financial strain has long been evident. Pay raises have been kept at 2 per cent or lower for years. In 1993, embarrassed departments were asked to cancel searches for new faculty candidates after advertisements had been taken out and C.V.'s solicited.
Four years ago, faculty members rebelled against a plan to cut several graduate programs, and the dean who had led the effort was fired. This time, even professors in the gutted departments realize that something has to be done.
The question now is whether the new cuts will hurt the university's reputation, offsetting any gains at the undergraduate level. Completely eliminated are graduate programs in mathematics, comparative literature, chemical engineering, and linguistics. Math is the hardest hit, losing 11 of its 21 faculty positions. To help with calculus instruction, the administration says it will turn to adjunct professors, with Ph.D.s but not tenure.
"I think that may affect our standing with high-school counselors and with parents who want to send their children to a good science-oriented university," says Sanford L. Segal, a math professor and chair of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate.
In addition, history, philosophy, mechanical engineering, and an earth-and-environmental-science program have had positions cut and some Ph.D. slots closed.
The heads of the affected departments already are lining up at the dean's office to haggle over the cuts -- which are based, the administration says, on the national reputation of each department, professors' publication rates, and the potential for improvement.
Asked how much room there is for negotiation, Richard N. Aslin, vice-provost and dean of the college, forms a zero with his thumb and forefinger.
The history of Rochester's fiscal woes has some twists. The oddest is the endowment, once huge, now barely adequate. In the early 1970s, Rochester had the third-biggest endowment in the country, topped only by those of Harvard University and the University of Texas. It then rode a very aggressive investing strategy right down a hole -- losing 40 per cent of its endowment in a year. It hit another bad stretch in the early 1980s. Last year, its endowment, at $656-million, was the country's 25th-largest.
To make up the lost revenue, Rochester began admitting more students in the 1970s. It grew by about 50 students a year from 1975 until this decade, trading larger class size for greater tuition revenue. The drop from 4,500 to 3,600 students will return the college to its 1975 size.
Rochester's biggest problem, however, has been the dwindling number of students who can afford to pay full tuition, a trend at many private institutions. The university thinks the root of its problem is its unsexy reputation. "We are not as successful at getting students as institutions that I think we match, pound for pound," says Mr. Jackson, the president.
The university's name often draws blank stares outside of New York, students say. "We have a huge insecurity," says Joshua Rovner, the campus newspaper's editor in chief. "We have a lot of students who were rejected at Cornell or rejected at the Ivies. They come to Rochester and like it, but in the back of their minds, they know it's not Cornell."
The problem is more than one of wounded psyches. When the best students pass up Rochester, the university finds itself with a disproportionate number on financial aid. Eighty per cent of Rochester's students last year were on some kind of aid, a figure far higher than those of its competitors. On average, those students get $13,000 a year in aid.
Rochester's solution to the problem seems at first like voodoo economics. The thinking is that a smaller student body with better S.A.T.'s -- a money loser on paper -- will attract more students who can pay full price. By giving away $5,000 per student, the college will replace those who need even more aid.
Mr. Jackson calls the proposals for undergraduate education "the non-obvious, intricate, and fun" part of his plan.
Mr. Rovner, the student editor, has already seen a ripple effect among high-school students. "I have a friend who is thinking of applying here," he says. "She heard it was going to be harder to get into, and that made it more exciting for her."
And the tuition grant, which is already in effect, seems to be working. Last year, Rochester's applications were up 15 per cent, and now they are up 20 per cent compared with the same point last year. The average S.A.T. score is up 34 points. The proportion of students on financial aid has dropped for the first time in 20 years. Despite the $5,000 grants, Rochester took in slightly more money in 1994-95 than the year before.
Students have some misgivings about the plan. Some think that the campus, located on the fringe of the city -- between the Genesee River and a large cemetery -- will feel too small with 900 fewer students. Some are worried that the pursuit of well- heeled students will hurt some groups of applicants.
"When you start talking about raising G.P.A. averages or S.A.T. averages, I worry that minority students will be left in the dust," says Curtis Sturdivant, a junior who is black. Rochester, where 14 per cent of this year's freshmen are black or Hispanic, has promised to remain at least that diverse.
The university also is tinkering with its curriculum, replacing broad distribution requirements with "clusters" of related courses in different areas. The goal is to emerge as the small research institution of first resort for many high- school students. "What I like best about the plan is that it is not just back-pedaling to save money," says Randall L. Calvert, chairman of the political-science department.
Rochester has months of academic wrangling ahead. The American Mathematical Society last week sent a team to ask how the university could eliminate a core graduate program like math.
The comparative-literature department wonders how it is going to handle demand for language courses among undergraduates, with 15 professors and no graduate students. The history department is bitterly resisting the suggestion that its solid reputation was due overwhelmingly to Christopher Lasch's presence -- the reason given for its cuts.
Everyone on campus is waiting to see how significant the exodus of professors in the affected departments will be. "One thing you can count on is that the people who leave will be your best people," says Douglas C. Ravenel, a math professor. Deadwood, after all, has no place to go.
But Rochester's financial condition itself was driving professors away -- more slowly, but across the board. Officials now say they hope that the remaining programs, and the college's reputation, will flourish. "It's suddenly harder to get into a school I'm already in," says Mr. Rovner, the student editor. "How great is that?"