‘A Tremendous Amount of Fear’: Will Major Cuts Threaten Research Universities’ Work?

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Image: Casey A. Cass, U of Colorado
The University of Colorado at Boulder campus, where administrators have proposed cutting back on tenured faculty and increasing the number of lecturers.

By Lindsay Ellis

Flagship research universities across the country are bracing for a grim 2021, moving toward program closures and tenure-line reductions in the face of major budget shortfalls. Such steps, if realized, could mark a significant shift at institutions where it is not uncommon for tenured research scholars to teach undergraduate classes.

The moves would narrow the wide scope of programs at these research universities, institutions distinguished by their breadth of instruction and scholarship. Several of the proposed cuts, including in Hawaii, Vermont, and Colorado, are in arts and sciences programs.

James W.C. White, the interim dean of arts and sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, last week proposed to replace 50 tenure-track faculty lines with 25 contract instructors, investing the savings in more staff, research support, and faculty retention, among other things. (The university sought the retirement of 60 professors earlier this year.)

In a message to campus, he said without those retirements, the university may have needed to cut programs. Swapping tenure lines with instructors, White told The Chronicle, could also build up reserves “that could be used next time we had an economic downturn so that we could avoid program elimination, we could avoid layoffs.”

The plan sparked concern from professors and other instructors. Robert Rupert, a philosophy professor and chair of the arts and sciences council, told The Chronicle that the college financially supports other colleges, wondering why the dean couldn’t have argued to hang onto more of the college’s money. Others also cited the importance of research conducted by tenured faculty to the state.

“It departs from a certain perception of the university, or what a top-tier university would be,” Rupert said, adding that the state doesn’t “have any other school that fits the description of a high-powered research university. Colorado would be without one.”

Patricia Rankin, a physics professor who has led the arts and sciences council’s budget committee, said White’s proposal was a prudent measure. Still, she said, there could be long-term consequences to science if undergraduates have less research experience.

White said that he, too, was concerned about what the proposal would do to Colorado’s identity as a research university.

Considering what to do was a “sobering moment,” and he said he approached the provost with a big question. What were the “boundaries” of a strong research university? In other words, what did they need to maintain research excellence?

He said he had few options. He said he can’t control how much of the college’s revenue is reallocated elsewhere. Tuition can’t support everything, and unless the state raises appropriations, he said, “we have to seek other ways” to move forward. Next week he will host a Zoom meeting with the faculty on the budget and his proposal.

Public research universities largely came into the pandemic fiscally stronger than their regional counterparts and many private institutions. But Covid-19 pressured them on every front.

States lost tax revenue and warned of steep cuts ahead. Hospital revenue from nonessential procedures evaporated. Their enrollment was increasingly coming from out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition — an uncertain revenue stream in a major recession and in a pandemic that restricts travel. Money from housing, parking, and athletics, especially football, fell. Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday predicted that research money would decline as federal agencies or other research funders faced tough times.

First, colleges tried to stop the bleeding. Colorado and other public research universities, including the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, gave professors incentives to retire. Other universities enacted furloughs and layoffs.

Rutgers University has laid off nearly 1,000 people, and at least 6,000 more have entered programs that include furloughs to cut more costs. “It’s been incredibly devastating,” said Donna Murch, an associate history professor at Rutgers’s New Brunswick campus and the secretary and treasurer of that campus’s union chapter, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors.

Now universities are looking ahead. At the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, officials on Monday announced more than $20 million in cuts over three fiscal years, including about $5 million from the College of Arts and Sciences. The University of South Carolina has not announced any formal steps, but a “committee of nine” has been evaluating possible academic reorganizations that would increase revenue and cut costs.

At the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a centralized university-budget group evaluated program data over the summer, releasing recommendations this fall about individual degrees or academic programs that could be merged or eliminated. In August the board for the university’s system put forward a resolution declaring a financial “state of emergency.”

The state of Hawaii has lost tourism dollars, a crucial business, amid the pandemic. More clarity on how those losses will affect higher-education appropriations is expected this month. Until then, professors are working with few specifics.

It’s clear to faculty members, who formally censured the provost at Manoa for not adequately including them in planning, that the university seeks a long-term plan that cuts costs, said Paul McKimmy, chair of the faculty-senate executive committee.

Michael S. Bruno, the provost, did not respond to an interview request through a university spokesman.

Tenure should protect professors from dismissal except under certain circumstances, like when a university is at risk of closure or a department is eliminated. Professors in three University of Vermont departments last week learned that such a step is on the table.

Paul Bierman and his colleagues were invited last week to an unexpected meeting. Bierman, a geology professor, knew finances were tight, and he expected to hear news of an incremental cut.

What he heard next floored him: His entire department would be eliminated.

If Bierman and his colleagues weren’t reassigned to another department, they could be laid off. The classics department and the religion department were also on the chopping block, though the religion department’s minor would be retained. Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, proposed the elimination of 12 majors, 11 minors, and four master’s programs, in addition to the consolidation of three language departments.

The university expects a minimum of $600,000 in savings from the proposed moves, a fraction of the budget deficit. The overall goal is to cut costs by $5 million by 2023.

“People are starting to realize their jobs are at stake,” said Julie Roberts, the president of the faculty union’s executive council and a linguistics professor. “There is a tremendous amount of fear right now.”

The departments on the chopping block have low numbers of student majors, a metric that professors at Vermont said is not a good indicator of student interest. (For example, several pointed to popular classes that many undergraduates take out of interest or to fulfill curricular requirements.)

Falls told The Chronicle that using other metrics, including student-faculty ratios, would result in the same departments being selected for elimination. Geology is “one of our most expensive departments per student credit hour,” he said — while faculty members get grants, space and administrative costs are high. “It made sense to dissolve that department.”

Bierman, the geology professor, said he spent hours over the weekend charting a vision forward for the department. He pulled his colleagues together to imagine the ideal department of the future, drafting a five-page memo and sending it to administrators.

“It’s now or never,” he said, adding that being shuffled to another department at the university would feel like working from an “island.”

Bierman and faculty members in other departments now wonder what this means for the university’s direction as a whole. Vermont is aiming for Carnegie Research I designation.

The cuts feel out of step with that goal, said Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, an associate professor of religion. “R1 does not mean only lab science, it does not mean a tech school — it means a robust, complete university,” she said. “You need the humanities to be an R1. To cut them so deep, and to hobble the ones that are left, feels confusing.”

Eliminating a department could harm the university’s ability to hire top scholars, several professors said. And students, they said, benefit when they are in the classroom with people who are pushing the boundaries of their fields.

Falls said his goal is to retain faculty, but he could not promise that none would be laid off. Doing so would harm the university, he acknowledged, especially as it is on the “cusp” of the R1 designation. He said the soonest faculty leaders would formally review the arts and sciences proposal would be in March. Other colleges at Vermont alerted their faculty members last week that similar program reviews would take place.

“If tenure doesn’t protect you, and unionization doesn’t protect you, what does?” said Felicia Kornbluh, a history professor and union member. “There’s something about the drip, drip, drip of the constant crisis that’s insupportable.”

Lindsay Ellis is a senior reporter covering research universities. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayaellis, or email her at lindsay.ellis@chronicle.com.

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