By Nick Mitchell
The University of Texas prides itself on being one of the highest quality educational institutions both in the United States and worldwide. As students we share in this pride and benefit from our school’s reputation as we enter the workforce. It is enormously important then that we do all we can to preserve our Universities place amongst the elite Colleges of the world. We do this both for UT and for ourselves. Today the University of Texas is at a crossroads. We are quickly running out of the resources we need to fulfill our mission, and as the University scrambles to fill in the holes we risk violating our academic integrity and duty to serve both the Austin and the scientific community.
During the 2011 session, the Texas Legislature cut the University of Texas’s operating budget by nearly 100 million dollars. This caused a 16.5% decrease in state funding in the same time period that enrollment increased to unprecedented levels. Almost every student at the university can feel the fallout. We now have fewer classes, and the ones we have fill up faster than ever. Freshmen are forced into taking classes outside their major as they wait for enough seniority to register earlier. Ethnic studies programs have had their funding cut by as much as 40%, and some graduate programs have disappeared altogether. Together these factors have been adversely affecting our University’s academic standing. When asked if our first-class status was at risk, President Bill Powers responded, “The answer is yes. It is being threatened. Even in good times, even just at the margins, the opportunities to really soar are limited by a lack of funding.” There is a new legislative session beginning in 2013, and if anything the capitol has become less friendly to education in the past two years. What takes place in the capitol next semester has the potential to drastically change the course of education for every student at U.T. and across the state.
Students in the College of Natural Sciences have been insulated from the worst of the budget cuts and staff reductions; however some concerning trends have arisen in the past few years. More and more the College has come to rely on corporate funding for our labs, developing and testing products for business and the government. These labs range from pharmaceutical development to contracts with DOW chemical to military research in physics. There is no evil in working alongside business and using their money for research, but alongside this move towards corporate research we have begun to let basic scientific research atrophy. These non-applied labs have seen their funding stagnate as the money stream has dried up, making it harder and harder to create the base of scientific knowledge needed for further developments. While it may not be glamorous, science would be far different if Darwin didn’t spend time looking at birds, or if Mendel decided his talents were better used outside of the pea garden. It is absolutely vital that we fight for this basic research so that we can set the groundwork for the scientific revelations of tomorrow. This cannot happen if we continue to allow the Legislature to cut our resources at every opportunity.
Furthermore, the College of Natural Sciences is not an island unto itself. We are given prestige by the entirety of the University we attend. If we allow the College of Liberal Arts to fall into disrepair and decay, we will pay for it too as our Universities national ranking plummets. The CNS is one of the largest colleges on campus, and it is also one of the least political. This is understandable. Science shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but reality is forcing our hands. The testimony of students and undergraduate researchers will be vital next semester on Capitol Hill because our voices are so seldom heard. We have the opportunity to make a well-reasoned argument that what is good for UT is good for business and good for science in Texas. If we don’t take that opportunity the University we graduate from may be very different than the one we applied to.