Things have pretty much gone to shit at the University of Vermont. The latest installment features the announcement of a plan to take a meataxe to humanities instruction. A total of 24 academic programs are to be cut, totaling roughly one-fifth of the College of Arts and Sciences’ course offerings. The administration thoughtfully unveiled the plan via mass email because that’s the way Ebenezer Scrooge would have done it if he’d had email, right?
That very same day, after metaphorically turning out the lights in many a campus precinct, UVM President Suresh Garimella posted the cheery tweet reproduced above. Tone-deaf much?
The plan has not been received well, to say the least. The UVM-related Twitterverse has been ablaze with recriminations. Nearly 2,000 people have signed an online petition to reverse the cuts. Campus reaction has been muted because, well, the students have been sent home and teaching is being done online.
Hard to put together a protest under those conditions.
UVM administration has often seemed out of touch and, shall we say, uncollaboriative in management style. Garimella, an engineer by trade, has been in office for less than two years, and his hiring was seen by many as signaling a turn away from the humanities. This year has seen contract talks with the faculty union go nowhere. The administration was forced to rescind planned cuts in lecturers and adjunct faculty after it was met with an uproar.
So, you’re expecting me to slag the top brass and brand Garimella as an enemy of the humanities, right?
You’d be wrong. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
The University is facing financial catastrophe due to Covid-19. The programs on the cutting block have ridiculously small enrollments. Faculty have staunchly resisted change of any sort, regardless of financial realities. UVM Dean Bill Falls made a deliberate decision to announce the cuts without warning because faculty have been obstructionist in the past. Seven Days:
[Falls] reflected on how he warned faculty about declining enrollments in 2018, urging them in a memo to consider consolidating departments. But after meeting for an entire academic year, a faculty committee rejected the idea, Falls said.
And there’s the rub. Even before Covid, UVM faced some tough choices. And the faculty, by and large, haven’t been helpful in identifying how best to meet the challenges. Instead, they’ve been obstructionist.
The programs on the chopping block have “have graduated or enrolled an average of fewer than five students over the last three years,” according to Falls. That’s absurdly small. Even if the university were flush, it’s legitimate to ask if such programs are really doing a service besides guaranteeing employment to some professors and staff.
The university is far from flush. It’s facing an unprecedented $8.6 million deficit in the current fiscal year, and nobody knows how long the pandemic will go on. Given the severity of the situation, I have to agree that painful cuts will be necessary.
The failures of the state must be addressed as well. UVM has been underfunded, as has public higher education, for decades. Jeb Spaulding, then-chancellor of the Vermont State College system, in a January opinion piece:
Back in 1970, roughly 15% of state general fund revenues went to support higher education. Now about 2% of state general fund revenues go to support higher education; moving the needle to 3% would provide the funding we are requesting. In 1970, Vermont ranked 28th in the country in terms of higher education support for higher education per capita. Now we rank 48th.
Poor state funding has left UVM extra-vulnerable to catastrophes like this. If the Scott administration or state lawmakers want to avoid painful cuts at UVM, they can do something about it. Find more money for UVM.
Yeah, let’s just assume for now that that’s not going to happen.
The big question is, how does UVM work its way through a true financial crisis and somehow re-establish good will with faculty and students? This process is likely to erode the little trust that still existed. I’d advocate for a cooperative approach: The administration opens the books to the faculty, outlines the scale of needed cuts, and asks for their ideas. If you don’t want us to cut underenrolled programs, give us some real alternatives. Get creative.
No academic program has an inherent right to exist. If all these programs aren’t attracting students, what have they done about it? What are they willing to do right now, in the throes of financial crisis?
If the faculty union and senate are serious about avoiding undesirable cuts, can they identify alternatives? If not, they can’t really blame the administration for taking the steps it sees as necessary.