In May of 2020, the University of Vermont’s president, Suresh Garimella, issued an update on the school’s finances. Citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Garimella put forth a bleak prognosis of lower enrollment, higher costs, and stagnant tuition rates necessitating reductions in salaries, benefits, and staff. In December of 2020, the dean of UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences, William Falls, followed up with his recommendation of terminating 12 majors, 11 minors, and four master’s programs, in order to close a $8.6 million deficit. But Helen Scott, a professor of English at UVM, points out that the school’s administrators have alternatives to such “draconian measures.”
“As the president put it in his 2020 financial report, ‘the state of UVM’s finances is sound,’ and the university’s net position had increased by $24 million,” says Scott, citing the University of Vermont’s Annual Financial Report. “A $34 million ‘rainy day’ fund has not been touched. The administration has thereby manufactured a so-called budget deficit in the college, which allows them to argue that CAS is not sustainable.”
The University of Vermont is just one of many schools whose faculties accuse administrators of using Covid-19 as false justification for attempts to push through long-sought budget cuts—even after receiving millions of dollars in pandemic-related relief from the federal government. Faculties are now rallying their communities to oppose the cuts, which they fear will further impoverish educators and students alike.
Universities across the country have proposed or instituted cuts since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of 2020, despite receiving significant federal aid. Aside from the previously mentioned cuts at the University of Vermont, faculty and staff at Salem State University in Massachusetts were subjected to weeks of furloughs; two entire colleges at William Paterson University in New Jersey were consolidated; and 41 tenured or tenure-track faculty at the College of Saint Rose in New York were laid off. According to figures reported by the federal government, all of the 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, a facilitator with Public Higher Education Workers, a network that supports organizing among university workers, attributes the persistence of cuts despite funding to a much longer-term project of transforming higher education into an industry run on contingent faculty and student debt, rather than a public good funded by taxes.
“We’ve been underfunding and defunding public higher education for a couple of decades now,” says Madeloni, referring to state and federal funding. “This was an issue before the pandemic hit, and the crisis of the pandemic has been a place where there are universities that are stepping in and trying to take advantage of that and, in doing so, change the nature of what it means to be a public university—to have full access for all students, to have a broad and deep and liberatory education—and to instead narrow the purposes and possibilities of public higher ed to exert a sort of market- and commodity-based system on it, rather than to preserve it as a public good that is essential to democracy.”
Some administrators are even admitting to having longer-term ambitions of transforming their schools and denying their own previous arguments about Covid-19’s necessitating cuts. Both the University of Vermont’s president and the dean of its College of Arts and Sciences explicitly cited the pandemic when discussing the need for cuts in 2020, but school administrators now deny that the proposed termination of majors, minors, and master’s programs were in any way connected to Covid.
“There were no pandemic-related staff or faculty cuts,” says Enrique Corredera, director of news and information at the University of Vermont. “We did announce a hiring freeze, and we redistributed work performed by temporary employees to permanent employees in order to protect their jobs. The proposed plan to phase out low-enrollment majors and minors in the College of Arts and Sciences is part of a university-wide initiative that is not connected to the pandemic, is not limited to the College of Arts and Sciences, and has not resulted in faculty reductions.”
Similarly, in an FAQ for students published in March, Salem State University described its furloughs of faculty and other staff as measures undertaken “in order to address unanticipated budget challenges caused by COVID-19.” But now, administrators characterize the forced unpaid time off as part of a long-term plan for restructuring.
“Furloughs were implemented campus-wide and included staff and administrators, many of whom took their two weeks during the fall semester,” says Corey Cronin, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at Salem State University. “As we have shared publicly, the $3.3 million in furlough savings will go toward offsetting significant structural deficits in the years ahead, and combined with federal relief funds, these savings will help as we try to avoid involuntary permanent job losses.”
(William Paterson University and the College of Saint Rose both failed to respond to multiple requests for comment from The Nation.)
Administrators describe cuts as necessary to preserve the financial well-being of their schools into the coming years, but faculty fear that those efforts are already undermining the institutions. Rich Levy, professor emeritus of political science at Salem State University, reasons that cuts will mean smaller course catalogs auend larger class sizes, making the school less desirable to new students. According to Kathleen Crowley, a professor of psychology at the College of Saint Rose, that rationale holds true: After the school laid off 23 faculty in 2015, enrollment declined by 10 percent the following year—a worrisome model for the upcoming fall semester.
“A significant number of faculty are leaving now, even though they could have continued until the end of December 2021,” says Crowley of her colleagues at Saint Rose. “Given the situation, compounded by the pandemic, enrollments for the fall are significantly down.”
Though the tenure system was designed to provide a high level of job security with the goal of promoting academic freedom, being tenured doesn’t protect faculty from layoffs if an institution claims dire financial distress. Working at a private school, tenure-track faculty at the College of Saint Rose face unique challenges: National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, a Supreme Court case from 1980, classifies tenure-track faculty at private colleges and universities as managerial staff rather than employees, therefore excluding them from the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Crowley points to this decision as twice undermining unionizing efforts at Saint Rose, leaving faculty without a union contract to protect their jobs. Instead, the college-issued faculty manual allows the administration to reduce staff through “planned program reductions”—although Crowley accuses the administration of giving this process short shrift, too.
At public schools, like the University of Vermont, Salem State University, and William Patterson University, administrators have nevertheless attempted to undermine union contract protections by evoking clauses allowing for layoffs due to fiscal crises, negotiating resignations with individual instructors, or eliminating entire departments, rather than specific positions.
In an effort to fend off these threats, university faculty and other staff are organizing to oppose cuts. Members of Public Higher Education Workers joined with the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, including those with student debt, to organize a “Debt Reveal Day” on April 15 to encourage faculty and students to investigate and publicize the amount of money their schools spend on financing loans from private lenders because of the decades-long decline in public funding.
“We are building power from the debtors, bottom up, to eliminate all sorts of pernicious household debts, while also organizing with other groups to fight for free public services and institutions that are available to all,” explains Jason Wozniak, an organizer with the Debt Collective. “In higher education, this means fighting to cancel all student debts and for a free, reparative public university system.”
There has been significant local opposition to cuts as well. At the University of Vermont, for example, staff, students, and other community members have banded together to form UVM United Against the Cuts, a coalition to oppose all proposed layoffs and program terminations. UVM United has organized motorcades, die-ins, teach-ins, press conferences, debates, letter-writing campaigns, and petition drives to prevent UVM administrators’ proposed cuts. Their tactics are working, too: On May 10, United Academics, UVM’s faculty union, announced that it had ratified a contract with the administration after 14 months of negotiation.
Still, Scott fears that, as the pandemic passes, the overarching aim of restructuring remains, unbroken.
“The administration has shown that they are willing to weather high levels of campus dissatisfaction and bad publicity, and have not pulled back from their overall restructuring plans,” says Scott. “In future battles over the soul of UVM, faculty, staff, and students need to build up our organizational strength in order to plan actions that will do more than speak truth to power.”