Universities slash faculties and blame Covid

In May 2020, University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella released an update on school finances. Citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Garimella put forward a grim prognosis of declining enrollments, higher costs and stagnant tuition rates requiring cuts in wages, benefits and staff. In December 2020, UVM College of Arts and Sciences Dean William Falls continued with his recommendation to end 12 majors, 11 minors and four master’s programs, in order to make up a deficit of $ 8.6 million. But Helen Scott, an English teacher at UVM, points out that school administrators have alternatives to these “drastic measures”.

“As the president said in his 2020 financial report, ‘UVM’s financial state is healthy’ and the university’s net position has increased by $ 24 million,” Scott said, citing the University of Vermont annual financial report. “A $ 34 million rainy day fund has not been touched. The administration has thus fabricated a so-called budget deficit in the college, which allows them to argue that the CAS is not sustainable.

The University of Vermont is just one of many schools whose faculties accuse administrators of using Covid-19 as a false justification for attempts to impose long-sought budget cuts, even after receiving millions of dollars assistance related to the federal government pandemic. Faculties are now mobilizing their communities to oppose the cuts, which they say further impoverish educators and students.

Universities across the country have offered or instituted cuts since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, despite significant federal support. Aside from the previously mentioned cuts at the University of Vermont, professors and staff at Salem State University in Massachusetts have been subjected to weeks of leave; two entire colleges of William Paterson University in New Jersey were merged; and 41 full and tenure-track professors from St. Rose’s College in New York were dismissed. According to figures reported by the federal government, all schools received millions of dollars in Covid relief: UVM received $ 12 million, Salem State $ 14 million, William Paterson $ 22 million, and the College of Saint Rose $ 5 million.

Barbara Madeloni, host with Public higher education workers, a network that supports the organization of university workers, attributes the persistence of cuts despite funding to a much longer-term project to transform higher education into an industry run on the conditional debt of faculty and students, rather than a public good financed by taxes.

“We’ve been underfunding and funding public higher education for about 20 years now,” says Madeloni, referring to state and federal government funding. “It was a problem before the pandemic hit, and the pandemic crisis has been a place where there are universities stepping in and trying to take advantage of it and in doing so are changing the nature of what it means. to be a public university — to have full access for all students, to have a broad, deep and liberating education — and instead to restrict the goals and opportunities of public higher education to exercise a sort of system based on the market and commodities, rather than preserving it as a public good essential to democracy.

Some administrators even admit to having longer-term ambitions to transform their schools and deny their own previous arguments about the necessary cuts to Covid-19. The president of the University of Vermont and the dean of its College of Arts and Sciences explicitly cited the pandemic when discussing the need to cut in 2020, but school administrators now deny that the proposed termination of major, minor and master’s degree was in any way. connected to the Covid.

“There has been no reduction in staff or faculty related to the pandemic,” said Enrique Corredera, director of news and information at the University of Vermont. “We announced a hiring freeze and we redistributed the work done by temporary workers to permanent employees in order to protect their jobs. The proposed plan to phase out majors and minors with low enrollment rates at the College of Arts and Sciences is part of a university-wide initiative that is unrelated to the pandemic, not occurring not limited to the College of Arts and Sciences and has not resulted in downsizing.

Likewise, in an FAQ for students Released in March, Salem State University described its leave of faculty and other staff as steps taken “to address unforeseen budgetary challenges caused by COVID-19.” But now directors are characterizing the forced leave without pay as part of a long-term restructuring plan.

“The holidays were implemented campus-wide and included staff and administrators, many of whom took their two weeks in the fall semester,” said Corey Cronin, assistant vice president of marketing and operations. communications at Salem State University. “As we have shared publicly, the $ 3.3 million in leave savings will be used to offset large structural deficits in the years to come, and combined with federal relief funds, these savings will help us as we let’s try to avoid unintentional permanent job losses. ”

(William Paterson University and the College of St. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The nation.)

Administrators describe the cuts as necessary to preserve the financial well-being of their schools for years to come, but teachers fear these efforts are already undermining institutions. Rich Levy, professor emeritus of political science at Salem State University, says the cuts will result in smaller course catalogs and larger class sizes, making the school less attractive to new students. According to Kathleen Crowley, professor of psychology at the College of Saint Rose, this reasoning is true: After the school fired 23 professors in 2015, enrollments fell 10% the following year, a worrying pattern for the next semester of ‘autumn.

“A significant number of professors are leaving now, although they could have continued until the end of December 2021,” Crowley says of his colleagues at Saint Rose. “Given the situation, made worse by the pandemic, registrations for the fall are drastically down.”

Although the tenure system was designed to provide a high level of job security with the aim of promoting academic freedom, tenure does not protect faculty from dismissal if an institution declares severe financial distress. Working in a private school, the tenure-track professors of the College of Saint Rose face unique challenges: National Council for Industrial Relations c. Yeshiva University, a 1980 Supreme Court case, classifies tenure-track professors in private colleges and universities as executives rather than employees, thereby excluding them from the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act . Crowley points out that the move twice undermines organizing efforts in Saint Rose, leaving teachers without union contracts to protect their jobs. Instead, the faculty manual published by the college allows the administration to cut staff through “planned program cuts” – though Crowley accuses the administration of neglecting this process as well.

In public schools, such as the University of Vermont, Salem State University and William Patterson University, administrators have nevertheless attempted to undermine union contract protections by citing clauses allowing for dismissals due to crises. tax, negotiating resignations with individual instructors or eliminating entire departments, rather than specific positions.

In order to fend off these threats, professors and other university staff are organizing to oppose the cuts. Members of public higher education workers joined the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, including those with student debt, to hold a “Debt Disclosure Day” on April 15 to encourage faculty and students to investigate and publicize the amount of money their schools spend to finance loans from private lenders because of decades. long decline in public funding.

“We are building the power of debtors, from the bottom up, to eliminate all kinds of pernicious household debt, while organizing with other groups to fight for free public services and institutions accessible to all,” says Jason Wozniak. , an organizer of the Collective Debt. “In higher education, this means fighting for the cancellation of all student debt and for a free and restorative public university system.

There was also strong local opposition to the cuts. At the University of Vermont, for example, staff, students, and other community members came together to form UVM United against cuts, a coalition to oppose all proposed layoffs and layoffs. UVM United has organized parades, die-ins, trainings, press conferences, debates, letter-writing campaigns and petition campaigns to prevent the cuts proposed by UVM administrators. Their tactics also work: on May 10, United Academics, the UVM faculty union, ad that he had ratified a contract with the administration after 14 months of negotiations.

Yet Scott fears that as the pandemic passes, the overarching goal of restructuring will remain unbroken.

“The administration has shown it is prepared to deal with high levels of campus dissatisfaction and bad publicity, and has not backed out of its comprehensive restructuring plans,” Scott said. “In future battles for the soul of UVM, faculty, staff and students must strengthen our organizational strength in order to plan actions that will more than speak the truth to power.

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