KNOXVILLE — Alfred Conley, a University of Tennessee housing employee, didn’t know why the large group had gathered outside the UT library. The message from the speaker was blurred from a distance, but he moved closer to the echo of screams and chants.
As Mr. Conley merged with the swarm of protesters, the message became clear. Signs read “Defend Public Education” and “Stop the Cuts.” He began to clap and shake his head in agreement.
“We can’t afford to pay our own bills,” said Mr. Conley, looking at the people around him. “Food goes up, gas goes up, rent goes up, light bill goes up, but our paycheck doesn’t go up. We have families and kids.”
Concerned about layoffs, salary freezes and future cuts to higher education, faculty and staff at UT and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga leveled harsh criticism Wednesday against UT President John Petersen and Gov. Phil Bredesen at a rally against state budget cuts.
The rally, attended by around 300 UT system faculty, staff and students at the Knoxville campus, presented a grim picture for the future of higher education if the state’s financial woes persist.
WHAT THE UNION WANTS
1. Use the state’s rainy day fund, which totals close to $1 billion
2. Close some exemptions to Tennessee’s sales tax
3. Close corporate tax loopholes
4. Increase taxes on Tennesseans earning $250,000 a year or more
“Our numbers are declining, our wages are falling, and our responsibility and pressure is increasing. We are all hurting here, and we are being asked to sacrifice more,” said Jon Shefner, president of the Knoxville chapter of the United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America, the union of UT faculty and staff that organized the event.
Dr. Petersen said Wednesday that he had no comment because UCW-CWA is not a university organization. Gov. Bredesen was traveling in Germany and unavailable for comment.
Earlier this year, $56 million was cut from the state’s higher education budget, and another $17 million was cut from the UT system’s budget this month when the state's business tax revenue fell far below expectations.
Faculty and staff are angry and bracing for more cuts to come, said Shela Van Ness, the president of the UTC chapter of UCW-CWA and a speaker at the rally.
If cuts persist, campuses can expect larger classes, fewer classes and graduation delays as many students are unable to find the courses they need to finish college, she said.
Campuses also will begin outsourcing more jobs, she said. At UTC, administrators already have discussed outsourcing housekeeping and groundskeeping, Dr. Van Ness said.
“Outsourcing is not going to save much money, and it leaves a lot of people either unemployed or working part-time jobs,” she said.
Dr. Shefner said a salary freeze was in place this year and many expect it to continue through next year as well. Many good faculty members are talking about leaving the UT system because they won’t be able to sustain themselves and their families in the current economy without a salary increase, he said.
“With rising prices, a pay freeze isn’t a freeze. It is a pay reduction,” he said.
Dr. Van Ness said the UCW-CWA, which has 750 members statewide, is calling for Gov. Bredesen to use untapped resources before trimming UT funding any further.
During their speeches, union leaders called for Nashville politicians to eliminate some of the exemptions in the sales tax, dip into the state’s rainy day fund and raise taxes for Tennesseans who earn more than $250,000 a year.
“With rising prices we’re getting soaked,” Dr. Shefner said. “It’s pouring in Tennessee, governor; open that rainy day fund.”
Also, speakers called for Dr. Petersen to curb spending in the UT president’s office.
“Is it really necessary to have something like 16 or 18 vice presidents at a high salary?” asked Dr. Van Ness. “What the heck do they all do?”
Delphine McClelland, a senior in forensic anthropology, was one of several students at the rally who spoke of students having to stand in classes and friends struggling to get the courses they need because of slimmer offerings.
Increases in tuition have made it difficult for her to pay for school, she told the crowd. Yet, she said she can’t get a loan to help and the hours at her on-campus job are dwindling since departments are looking to shave costs.
“There are a lot of students in the same position I am in,” she said. “Stand up and tell Nashville to stop the cuts.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...