Schools in energy states flourish

Science programs in many state schools are feeling the pinch of hard times, but there's an exception to the suffering: Universities in big energy-producing states are thriving, with some even gaining a competitive edge over their hurting counterparts by luring senior level faculty. Times are tough at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). After taking a 5.

By | March 18, 2009

Science programs in many state schools are feeling the pinch of hard times, but there's an exception to the suffering: Universities in big energy-producing states are thriving, with some even gaining a competitive edge over their hurting counterparts by luring senior level faculty. Times are tough at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). After taking a 5.8% hit in their approximately $750 million budget last year, they are facing an 8 to 20% cut in state funding this year, said William Dunne, the dean of the college of arts and sciences there. His college houses many of the biological sciences, and 33% of its $114 million budget comes from the state, he said. In response to the cuts, UTK is hiking tuition by 9%, eliminating lecturer positions, and asking tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach larger classes with more lab sections. The school is also cutting funds for graduate assistantships, Dunne said. Yet universities in energy-producing states seem to be bucking the overall trend, with robust funding and lots of new programs in the pipeline. Some are using their edge to build new facilities, improve their faculty, and increase their research profile.
UNT Wills Library
Image: afroswede/flickr
In oil-rich Texas, for instance, surging energy prices over the past several years helped fill the state coffers, and at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, "it's basically business as usual," said Warren Burggren, the dean of the college of arts and sciences. Budgets have been increasing for the past several years, he said, though after energy prices dropped in October, the university has been asked to "do an exercise" evaluating how it would weather a 2.5% cut in their $700 million budget. The college of arts and sciences has a $65 million budget, with half coming from state funding. Yet despite this, because of the national economic stimulus bill passed last month, "it looks like there's going to be a lot of additional money for funding scientific and technology research" in the form of both money from Texas's educational funds and from additional NIH grants, he said. UNT is currently building an 80,000 square foot life science building. The school is also spending $25 million on six new science and engineering clusters, including ones on developmental physiology and genetics, plant signaling, and autism. To fill them, it is luring several senior scientists from other institutions. The gloomy climate at other schools has caused a surge in the number of applications for positions--many from top notch, tenured candidates, he said. "People are seeing it's fun to be here, and it's not fun to be other places," he said.
University of Wyoming
Image: omnivoreceo/flickr
Wyoming, which boasts huge coal, natural gas, uranium, and petroleum deposits, has also been graced with times of plenty. State funding to the University of Wyoming in Laramie has been growing for several years to $418 million this year, with 46% of this money coming directly from the state. "Over the last year our budget has increased over $100 million," said Bill Gern, the vice president for research. The university is currently building a computational sciences center --which will fund some work in biological computing--and a new engineering and sciences building, he said. A recent drop in energy prices has forced the school to consider a potential 5 to 10% budget cut for next year. But because of the earlier windfall from rising energy prices, they've been able to bolster programs in several departments over the past several years, especially ecology and natural resources and neuroscience. They've also created a new PhD program in molecular and cellular life science, he said. Like UNT, they have snagged top research scientists from other schools recently, "and I think that's because of softening budgets in those other states," he said. North Dakota's economy was also booming last year, due in large part to rising food prices and a high demand for the coal, oil and gas, and wind energy produced in the state, said Paul LeBel, the interim vice president of the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks. In fact, he said, the state government is operating with a $1.2 billion surplus. In light of the economic meltdown, though, the state is stockpiling money in a rainy day fund. "So even though the surplus looked very good even three or four months ago, it turns out they're probably not going to be as generous as they were going to be previously," said Barry Milavetz, UND's vice president for research.
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Image: tuey/flickr
Still, UND has seen only a 1.5% decrease in its $330 million budget for this year, of which 28% comes from the state. It has kept its hiring and growth stable, and has no plans for significant cuts. The university has also used some extra funds to sweeten salary packages offered to stellar new hires and has managed to attract several. So far, however, unlike his counterparts in Texas and Wyoming, Malevitz hasn't seen a spike in applications from the most competitive candidates. "I think our salaries are still on the low end of competitiveness," he said. Of course, energy prices have plummeted since the economy went south in October 2008, so these schools may still have times of scarcity ahead. Yet most are optimistic about their long-term prospects. Despite falling energy prices, energy is "going to continue to be required, so we think were going to be more buffered from these economic effects, much more than states where they're peeling off thousands of manufacturing jobs," the University of Wyoming's Gern said.
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Avatar of: Keith Koster

Keith Koster

Posts: 2

March 18, 2009

California has huge oil reserves however politics will not let allow them to be tapped
Avatar of: ERIC J MURPHY


Posts: 18

March 18, 2009

Uffda. It is rough being a faculty member and researcher at a university 70 miles from the northern border and in the middle of the country. On a good day, we have about 645,000 people in our state, generally in the spring and fall during planting and harvesting, respectively. We are blessed with winter storm warnings and severe thunderstorm warnings on the same day. I have seen it as high as 103 F and as low as -47 F (no, that is the air temperature not the dreaded added wind chill). But, we have money, lots of it according to my colleagues in many other states. \n\nNow the jokes about being at the University of North Dakota are less and the realization that we have an expanding University with increasing salaries is becoming recognized. We just hired two new faculty members in our Department, each of whom is getting a competitive package. Now the jokes at national meetings about whether we have electricity and indoor plumbing are less frequent and as colleagues complain about salary cuts, I can proudly add that we are getting raises this year and next year. All of a sudden many of my colleagues at other institutions think it isn't so bad being at UND. \n\nIn August of 2006 on the cover of The Scientist was a picture of a wishbone, with those of us in the Northern Plains getting the short end of the wishbone. (The Scientist, 20(8)2006). An article in that publication noted that there were significant inequalities in science funding and alluded to researchers in our region having a significant reduced ability to acquire funding to further our research endeavors. One of my fellow faculty members was quoted as saying in reference to faculty at the University of North Dakota competing with major players, "They've got tanks for weaponry, and we've got BB guns." Now I guess we have the financial capacity to keep our institutions of higher education in a growth phase, to keep faculty, and to have faculty raises. My how times have changed.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

March 18, 2009

I've lived in Texas, for years, and what one may get in more job opportunities may well be offset by less progressive culture and more contentious politics unique to that state and other states in the South. Texas is home to former President, George W. Bush, and Wyoming is home to former Vice-President, Richard Cheney. Neither would be a good environment to do embryonic stem research, I'd think.

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