Tough economic times are forcing so many colleges and universities across the country to cut costs and adjust their ambitions that the shape of higher education may be significantly changed as the 21st century dawns.
In these days of uncertainty, Yale University is planning major cuts to close a projected gap in next year's budget; Columbia University is laying out a strategy to meet deficits that could reach $87 million in 1993, and Stanford University has imposed cuts of up to 13 percent on administration and academic expenses to trim its budget $43 million over the next two years.
The cuts at most universities would be so severe that they would reach deep into classrooms and research labs, challenging the institutions' commitment to excellence, yet presenting both opportunities as well as obstacles.
Students and scholars in 2001 are likely to see large research universities such as Yale and Columbia shrink and become more specialized, experts say.
Teachers at elite private institutions and state-supported ones alike will be handling more courses. Tuition will be substantially higher, with financial aid scarcer.
This combination will push a degree further out of reach for high school students from poor or minority families, whose ranks will have grown faster than those of white students from middle-income families.
In all, the academic scene of the early 21st century will be slimmed down, transformed not in evolutionary ways but under the lid of a financial pressure cooker. Some of the changes may be for the better. A few educators believe they may even alter the basic shape of the university.
"I think we're into a decade now that will be tougher than any we've had since the 1930s," said Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. His organization is convening a two-day conference in Washington beginning Wednesday at which more than 450 presidents of private colleges and universities will discuss the future of higher education with government officials, including Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.
It will be by far the largest such gathering of college presidents ever, which is evidence of their concern.
"What we're witnessing is the death of the 19th-century research university," said David S. Kastan, chairman of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, referring to the old Germanic model of a rigidly structured university with a multitude of academic departments divided on strict lines, the mold for most U.S. universities.
That system is withering, Kastan said, as universities are forced to consolidate departments.
For instance, Yale, facing a deficit of more than $8 million in its $799 million budget for next year, plans to eliminate 10.7 percent of its faculty positions, merging three engineering departments, while combining physics and applied physics and eliminating linguistics.
Such actions save money. Kastan pointed to an unintended benefit: they may also remind universities that much contemporary knowledge crosses over traditional boundaries.
Others see the current troubles as potholes in a long road of change. Herbert A. Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who is a member of both the faculty and the board of trustees at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says, "A decade from now, we're going to look a lot like the way we look now. Maybe we'll be a bit leaner, maybe a little poorer, maybe the elbow patches on our tweed jackets will be a little more patched, but essentially we'll be what we are now."