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With budget cuts, a UAA physics class has grown too large for any classroom

State budget cuts have already sliced deeply into the student experience at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Introductory physics, taught by professor Travis Rector, no longer fits in a classroom. He used to have 60 students in a section of the class and now he has over 200. They meet in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, a space used for rock concerts and music festivals.

Professor Travis Rector teaches Introductory physics in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at UAA in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"It used to be I could get to know my students. I could track their progress. If someone wasn't doing well, I could reach out to them," Rector said.

Now he doesn't know who they are unless they step forward asking for help.

"I often feel like I'm up on the stage doing my thing, and they're down in the audience," Rector said. "In this class, students just disappear, and I'll look at the grades and think that if the class was smaller, this is somebody I probably could have gotten to."

Many of us took huge lecture classes in college. But after the big lecture, the week usually included a smaller section led by a graduate student or other teaching assistant. Those helpers would also assist the professor in grading papers.

UAA has few graduate students to work as teaching assistants. Traditionally, nontenured professors, called term faculty and adjuncts, have led sections, but state budget cuts reduced their ranks.

To make the numbers work, departments cut the number of sections and add more students to each.

Tenured professors I talked to this week said the workload can become unmanageable. The only solution is to give each student less attention, reduce the number of assignments, so there will be fewer to grade, and put more classes online.

In the English Department, composition classes are larger and each of the remaining term faculty members instruct more sections. World Literature was taught at three times and now is taught at only one.

The cap on students for that class went from 30 to 60, said department director Dan Kline.

For students, fewer sections also means schedules are harder to put together. In the case of introductory physics, there is only one choice left.

The physics department provides prerequisites for 19 different degrees, mostly in engineering and natural sciences, Rector said. Students who cannot make a class offered in a single time-slot could be blocked from moving on in the sequence needed to complete a degree, adding a year to finishing college.

Professor Travis Rector teaches Introductory Physics in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at UAA in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The state Legislature cut the University of Alaska's budget 14 percent over two years.The UA Board of Regents requested an increase this year to implement plans for increased efficiency and future savings.

But Gov. Bill Walker proposed flat funding, and the state Senate now wants to cut another $22 million, which UA President Jim Johnsen said would be "devastating."

From the fall of 2014 to 2016, UAA lost 271 employees. UA as a whole lost 927 and suspended 50 academic programs.

Students know what is going on. The cuts have caused a loss of enrollment. Fewer students produce less tuition revenue.

The situation also harms the university's ability to recover when Alaska's leaders come to their senses and realize they have cut enough.

High-quality faculty are in demand in the booming national education market. Many could get better pay and resources at other universities, said Diane Hirshberg, director of UAA's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research and a professor of education policy.

"What I'm hearing is people who are doing what they can while keeping their eyes open for other opportunities, and feeling really bad about doing that," Hirshberg said.

Rector is one of those professors who gives UAA a good name. As an astronomer, he works with some of the world's most prestigious telescopes, in Arizona, Chile and Hawaii. In 2015, he published, "Coloring the Universe," a book containing his spectacular and well-known images of distant astronomical objects.

As a teacher, Rector knows how to break down complex scientific concepts into pieces anyone can understand. His students get the benefit of working with a scientific leader who cares about their welfare and takes the time to explain.

They get that benefit only if he has a reasonable workload. Physics isn't Rector's only class. Two years ago, he taught 80 students in all his classes, last year 150, and this year 300.

Now students who need help have to seek him out, because he cannot keep track of everyone as an individual. He said students are falling through the cracks. The rate of failing students has risen.

"I will be grading 300 finals next week," he said. "Unless they come to my office hours, they're not going to talk to me."

A year ago some Republican state senators said they wouldn't consider taxes until cuts had really hurt.

They're hurting now.

Alaska State Troopers have withdrawn from Girdwood and Turnagain Arm and are unable to keep up with drug issues in Mat-Su. Fewer prosecutors are on the job and don't have staff to pursue some valid cases. One prison has closed.

Snow removal on state roads was poor this past winter. With less money for hauling snow, Anchorage sidewalks were buried under giant berms and pedestrians had to walk in traffic lanes.

Ferry schedules are less frequent, public schools have fewer teachers, and university professors face huge classes.

Thanks for the hurt, Senate majority. That's enough now. You've proved your point. The courage needed to pass broad-based taxes should be lessened now, which was always the point — self-protection for legislators.

Have the cuts improved anything? Maybe government efficiency increased, but that's not easy to measure. And in a budget-cutting crisis, smart decisions to produce greater efficiency may not be possible.

But we can measure the harm. Our university has lost some of its ability to create opportunity for our young people and to build the workforce we need for a competitive economy after oil.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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