Emily Knox is the last one left. She's a freshman majoring in women's and gender studies at the University of New Orleans (UNO), but as far as the school is concerned, the program no longer exists. Knox will be allowed to finish her major, but with dwindling course options, increased class sizes and limited resources, she may not finish where she started.
Knox and a few other students hold a banner representing their doomed program. Along with them, gathered in front of the University Center, are hundreds of students, faculty and staff. Several carry a black banner reading "Who Dat Fighting Against Budget Cuts? We Dat," painted in broad white strokes. Most wear black armbands with white letters spelling "UNO." Some wear veils. Some carry tombstones: "RIP Paralegal Studies," "RIP Division I Athletics," "RIP Masters of Geography."
Student Ryan Bascle stands on a bench, speaks into a megaphone and leads the crowd chanting, "1-2-3-4, we won't take no cuts no more, 5-6-7-8, we need funding from the state," followed by, "When I say cut back, you say fight back," to which the crowd roars its reply.
The Free Agents Brass band surrounds a coffin leading the funeral procession. Its grand marshal Jennifer Jones, a 1981 graduate of the university, dances in front.
Last week's Save UNO Jazz Funeral and Protest, a grassroots, tongue-in-cheek mock funeral procession for the university, rallied the UNO community's voice against statewide budget cuts stripping the university of millions of dollars. The school now braces for another round of cuts as the state faces another crippling budget shortfall. Students and faculty joined to reclaim the university they feel is the state's last priority.
"I'm only a freshman, and my first semester here, all I hear is budget cuts. I didn't come to college for that," Knox says. "I may transfer later on if this is the way it keeps going. If they don't have my major and they don't have the classes I need. ... I just want to make the most out of it."
The latest round of cuts came at the end of 2009, before the 2010 spring semester. The Louisiana State University System (LSUS) absorbed $39.1 million of the $83.9 million in reductions among the state's university systems (LSUS is the largest). UNO, part of the LSUS, had $3.8 million hacked from its funding. Since the beginning of the academic year, the school has felt more than $13 million in cutbacks. Administrators and faculty scrambled to make decisions — employees were laid off, vacant positions were eliminated, programs closed, courses combined, and operating and travel expenses, salaries, benefits and repairs were significantly slashed. For a university still enduring post-Katrina reconstruction and the only university still not registering pre-Katrina enrollment numbers, more cuts only add insult to injury.
Since 2008, Louisiana has felt more than $250 million in cuts to higher education, and now the state forecasts budget shortfalls in the billions. UNO could be on the chopping block for another devastating round of cuts within this fiscal year, which began July 2009.
Carrie Bailey, a political science senior who returned to the university following its closure after the 2005 floods, addresses the post-parade rally: "At the end of a jazz funeral, there's usually a celebration, right? We have nothing to celebrate."
Steve Striffler, UNO Latin American studies chair, anthropology and geography professor and Save UNO Coalition member, says the group's long-term mission is to push for state constitutional reform. The state constitution does not protect education and health care, and "whenever there are cuts, those are the first two places that need to be cut, which is counterintuitive," Striffler says. "Those should be the last two places to be cut. ... There's this idea that the cuts thus far have made us leaner and more efficient, and at the other end of things, we'll become sort of better institutions, in a way you'd hear that rhetoric apply to businesses. Efficiency is one thing, resources are another."
With fewer professors teaching fewer courses with larger classes, there is little opportunity for students to interact with professors, because they can extend office hours only so far — buildings and offices close early so the university can save on utilities.
Cuts trickle down to even the smallest considerations: Students must pay to use printer paper from the library, bed sheets double as projection screens for PowerPoint presentations, and necessary books and academic journals often aren't available.
Save UNO held its first meeting after Striffler sent an email to 10 other faculty members at the beginning of the semester following the mid-year cuts. Striffler, who joined UNO staff in 2008 from the University of Arkansas, feared the university's lobby in Baton Rouge wasn't enough to get the attention of legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal. More than 100 people showed up at the meeting, including faculty, students and alumni. UNO Students for Social Justice, led by women's and gender studies senior Jessie Jacobs, co-organized the protest with Save UNO, establishing a student- and faculty-led effort to address the budget cuts. They fear there won't be anything left to cut in the near future.
"Those of us who graduate will make it out by the skin of our teeth," Jacobs says.
"I hate to use the word belt-tightening because it implies there was at one point a lot of resources," Striffler says. "If you've ever been to UNO, you know this is not Tulane, and you know that immediately. You can come here and get a rigorous education at a reasonable price, but I think that's certainly being threatened."
With a tuition increase of 5 percent last semester and an anticipated additional 5 percent increase before the end of the school year, Striffler and Jacobs fear students are paying more for less. With many students working full-time or taking advantage of the proximity of the university in their hometown, Rafael Delgadillo, UNO alumnus and coordinator for Puentes New Orleans, a Latino community development organization, says the university — "the definition of opportunity if there ever was one" — is losing its essential component: affordability.
"With our region still in recovery, the choice to invest in our education would seem an assuring and defining demonstration of confidence by our state's leadership," he says. "Instead, over the last five years, cynical leadership has overseen devastating budget cuts statewide."
The cuts were a long time coming, according to political science department chair Christine Day, a member of the UNO faculty for 22 years.
"It starts with Katrina," she says. Her department, along with psychology, lost the most faculty members per capita in the wake of the 2005 floods. Though it gained some new staff, pollitical science has not reached its pre-Katrina size. Day says optimism was high among faculty as the school rebuilt following the storm, but the Board of Regents, the organizing body responsible for planning higher education budgets, determined that the university's funding for the following year would be based on post-storm, 2005-2006 enrollment, "which was when UNO's enrollment went from 17,500 to 7,000," Day says. "We took a huge hit we never recovered from."
"After Katrina, we started building, and we were optimistic, felt like the university was headed in the right direction," says anthropology department chair David Beriss. "Then bang, Hurricane Jindal hit. ... The (school administration) is meeting a political situation in Baton Rouge that says 'We will do anything, short of raising taxes or raising money to balance this budget. If that means getting rid of universities, so be it.'"
Departments were forced to lay off adjunct professors, and all open positions were eliminated. Night classes were moved to other buildings, but Day says she still walks her building at night and shuts lights off in some of the classrooms.
Beriss says he is "deeply concerned" his program's future is in jeopardy. He joined UNO in 1997 with seven full-time anthropology faculty and adjuncts. Now his department is down to three tenured faculty and one instructor, even though there are still 1,000 students each semester.
His department's mission has been to research urban anthropology and archeology in New Orleans, but he can't hire a teaching archaeologist. The department lost two — one retired before the levee failures, the other after post-Katrina restructuring. Beriss says dean of Liberal Arts Susan Krantz has kept the department's future a top priority, but it's just not in the budget.
"Historic urban archaeology is part of the historic preservation mission of the university," Beriss says. "We can't fulfill it, and it's killing us. Every week I have students come into my office and say 'I'm interested in archaeology.' I can't offer the courses. I got nothing. No money to hire adjuncts, no money to hire a tenured-track archaeologist with a research program devoted to New Orleans. Here we have a growing major, in demand, and our mission is to be the urban anthropology program of the Gulf South, and we can't do it. Even if I had a budget line, I would need to persuade someone (whom) I would hire that they're going to have a job long enough to get tenure."
The protests aren't falling on deaf ears, however. James Perry, executive director of the Fair Housing Action Center and a 2000 UNO graduate, sees promise within the student movement. Perry says the university is in a state of emergency, but the campuswide movement shows promise for budget reform.
"This is proof we have the makings of great change in Louisiana," he says. "We're ready to take the bull by the horns and make it happen."
His father, retired literature professor James Perry Sr., was one of the school's first African-American professor — the university itself was the first integrated public higher education institution in the South. Perry says his father often saw similar cuts throughout his career with no increase in his salary.
"When I was here they were making cuts over and over again, and we didn't do anything to stop it. We didn't take a stand," he says, urging the UNO community to write to legislators and the governor's office.
University librarian Connie Phelps also sees hope for the school. She lost 19 vacant positions last year, and library hours were shortened. The library's academic journal budget was slashed more than $2 million. But after complaints and protests from the UNO community, administrators allowed Phelps to fill four of the positions, and the library continued its regular hours.
Phelps hopes the voices at the rally are loud enough. "And please be kind to the staples and the three-hole punch," she says. "When they break, they're gone."