In focus: How one department coped with budget cuts

The Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department’s annual reception, once an elaborate affair, has been pared down to half its former size. Guest lecturers invited by NELC, who numbered up to a dozen in previous years, have become scarcer around the Hall of Graduate Studies. The department has also had to delay hiring more language lectors, trim its copying budget and cut down on office supplies to make ends meet through three successive rounds of budget cuts as Yale tried to fill in a $300 million budget gap.

Like all other Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments at Yale, NELC has had to make serious choices about how to preserve its academic programs while also cutting its budget. And the choices it made provide a peek into what departments across the University have done since Yale’s endowment tumbled 24.6 percent in fall 2009.

Though Yale is now emerging from two years of relative frugality, the 2009 decline in the endowment prompted Yale administrators to warn all departments they would have to make serious budget cuts. Construction projects would be frozen. Faculty hiring would be slowed. And Yale’s cluster of Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments would have to trim whatever fat they could, from the crackers and cheese at receptions to entire jobs.

For NELC, led through the cuts by acting chair Benjamin Foster, the cuts were nothing new — the entire department almost fell victim to severe cutting in the early 1990s — but they did prompt careful reevaluation of the department’s academic offerings and expenses.

Like every other FAS department, NELC has had to slash expenses by 7.5 percent, then another 5 percent, then another 7.5 percent over the past year.

“Hopefully for the next year there will be no further cuts,” current department chair John Darnell said. “I think at this point we’re about as lean as we can get. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what we have in the department coffers, and at this point we don’t think we can operate with less than that.”

Foster’s department is on the smaller end of Yale departments: It has seven tenured professors, two tenure-track faculty and 14 language lecturers, according to its website, as well as a small contingent of graduate students and undergraduate majors. Founded in 1841, NELC is a catchall department for Assyriology, Egyptology, Arabic and Islamic studies, Semitic and Ugaritic studies, Hittitology and the contemporary near east.

At the time, Foster — who became acting chair in July 2009, when Darnell went on sabbatical to conduct research in Egypt — said he believed NELC could only survive a few modest cuts.

“We’re a small department with a small operating budget,” Foster said in September 2009, during the second round of across-the-board budget cuts, which the University mandated after the first round of cuts failed to fill in the budget deficit. “We can’t cut anything significantly.”

The only area Foster thought he had room to cut was in language instruction, the area where the department is most important to undergraduates, he said. Instead of slashing the academic offerings, Foster reexamined everything from paperclips to the annual department reception to guest lecturers — what former Deputy Provost Charles Long has called “things that are nice to do, but if you have to cut, unnecessary.”

NELC’s modest cuts, including to guest lecturers and the lavish reception, did not amount to much, Foster said, and beyond them, it was becoming difficult to keep academic offerings at the same level without being able to hire more professors.

“It’s chickenfeed compared to the leaky faucets in the rest of Yale — a trifling course in Aramaic doesn’t add up,” he said. “Our basic concern is that we’re supposed to be good at what we’ve always done, but we’re not being given the faculty support.”

The next round of cuts came in spring 2010, when the University sought to erase its remaining $100 million deficit (a budget gap Provost Peter Salovey said is now more or less closed). This time, instead of asking for across-the-board cost-cutting, the Provost’s Office asked for a combination of belt-tightening, dipping into departmental rainy-day funds and replacing some funding from the Yale operating budget with departments’ own endowed donations. With these measures, departments were supposed to slash a total of 7.5 percent from their general appropriations funding.

NELC was able to get away with about $40,000 in budget cuts, including the savings from the retirement of Maureen Draicchio, the department’s longtime senior administrator, who had been the NELC registrar and business manager for 53 years before retiring this past summer. Her responsibilities were divided between a temporary registrar and another part-time business manager, Foster said. Other savings came from cutting the $1,200 copying budget in half.

Unlike other departments, NELC preserved most of its endowed funds, several of which are worth thousands of dollars. At least one, a donation dedicated to the publishing of manuscripts on Keronite Judaism, is worth over $100,000, Foster said. By resisting the administration’s push to reevaluate such funds — which come with legal documents specifying how the donor wants the gift to be used — and repurpose them for other expenses, Foster gave up only about $110 a year from a fund designed to promote Hebrew culture, he said.

More troubling were the cuts to graduate school admissions imposed in February, NELC director of graduate studies Eckart Frahm said. Darnell said the department accepted just three graduate students with a target enrollment of two, down from the usual five with a target of four. Since fewer students are coming into the department, some of NELC’s disparate fields will suffer, especially since the disciplines are highly specialized and related to one another only geographically.

Still, in one area, at least, University and NELC administrators have succeeded in shielding the department’s offerings from the recession: Three undergraduate NELC majors interviewed said they had not noticed any significant changes in NELC’s academic programming.

“We’re continuing onto the budget for the next year primarily by dipping into department reserves,” Darnell said. “I can’t really see how we’re going to effectively transfer that into a third cut. Hopefully it will not come to that.”

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