Flagstaff, AZ – Grad student Valerie Kurth pulls a handful of dried grass out of a paper bag and puts it on a scale. She's studying the amount of carbon in the environment.
She usually talks over her progress with her advisor. But he's left NAU for a job in California. The forestry department decided not to fill his position to save money. So Kurth and five other students are left without an advisor.
KURTH: He's a really great resource and he was always available if we wanted to knock on the door and now we have to call him and wait. No one else has his expertise in soils on this campus so it's a big loss.
Grad students like Kurth get part of their tuition waived for research work and teaching. Other universities including U of A and ASU grant their graduate students full tuition waivers. Kurth worries NAU won't consider full waivers with the cuts.
KURTH: We've been lobbying for that but I feel like with the budget cuts it's definitely going to take a very low priority. It's too bad because I think it's important to be competitive and attract good students from all over.
Hundreds of students and staff recently filed into the new High Country Conference Center to hear NAU President John Haeger talk about the economy and how it might affect them. He power pointed through dozens of graphs, charts and diagrams to show the university's past and present and to attempt to predict the future. But Haeger says a lot of questions remain.
HAEGER: We don't have final answers on anything because we don't know what's actually going to happen a month from now, or six months from now or a year. We don't really know what will be the impact of the recession for instance on enrollments next fall. What will be the impact of statewide enrollments will they go up or down? To what extent will families be able to afford higher education? What will be the impacts on financial aid? All of those remain open questions.
What Haeger does know is this:
The state is dealing with a 1 point 2 billion dollar budget deficit. Legislators have cut 50 million dollars from state universities already. Haeger says with a Republican shift in the state's leadership the universities are anticipating an even bigger cut.
So far to deal with the shortfall Haeger has frozen all new hires. That includes not filling major positions like vice president of administration and finance. He's also frozen more than 40 teaching and staff positions. Despite those actions, Haeger's optimistic.
HAEGER: At a time when the economy is down if we're working together as an institution we can continue to build we can continue to hire faculty but we will when we emerge be a different and stronger institution.
It's the "different" part of that equation that has some people worried. Jim Allen is the executive director of the school of forestry.
ALLEN: One fear is the gradual erosion of our resources and our capabilities particularly research. Research is tightly linked to our grad program and the strength of that. If you're not doing much research you can't attract good grad students it's a negative feedback loop.
NAU's forestry program ranks among some of the best in the country. So Allen and others are very protective of its reputation. At the undergraduate level Allen's concerned about the potential for larger class sizes. So far most NAU classes remain capped at about 40 students.
But right now the department is working without two faculty and two staff positions that must go unfilled to meet budget goals.
ALLEN: It puts a little strain on our current faculty. At least in one case the faculty mem going to now teach a course that one of these people used to teach he's going to have to invest a lot of time to get up to speed on the material it's not easy to casually pick up and teach a new course.
Allen fears more strain on faculty and staff if bigger cuts are made.
Ninety five percent of the college's budget is personnel. Barry Lutz is the interim dean for the college of engineering, forestry and natural science. He says that makes it more challenging to make cuts.
LUTZ: It's extremely difficult what our strategies have been very clear I've been working closely with all our department chairs to come up with something that protects people and does minimal damage to academic programs where do we get the money from how do we do it we're not going to fire people.
At least not yet.
Haeger says if the state decides to cut 10 percent from NAU's budget, then he may have to hand out pink slips. But he won't know how deep a cut the state will make until legislators are back in session. And looking ahead to the next fiscal year lawmakers project an even bigger deficit - 2 billion dollars.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.