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Colleges Are Using COVID as a Pretext to Make Draconian Cuts to the Humanities

COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to eviscerate departments at both public and private colleges throughout the U.S.

COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to eviscerate departments at both public and private colleges throughout the U.S.

When Pennsylvania resident Hali Rose Kohls was in high school, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to get a degree. But after visiting the Greensboro, North Carolina, campus of Guilford College in 2011, she changed her mind. She calls the seminar classes she attended “amazing” and says that the school’s Quaker values inspired her. As a double major in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and sociology and anthropology, she found the “social justice-based liberal arts curriculum” eye-opening, and for several years after completing her degree, she sang the college’s praises to potential students.

But Kohls’s enthusiasm has flagged thanks to plans announced in late 2020 to plug a $7 million deficit by firing 36 people, including 15 tenured professors, and phasing out 19 of 42 majors, including math, political science, physics and modern languages.

Since the announced cuts, Kohls has joined with faculty, students and other alumni in a coalition to Save Guilford College.

They’ve already had an impact. After a faculty vote of “no confidence” in both the Board of Trustees and college President Carol Moore, Moore resigned and a new president was installed in February. Kohls is now cautiously optimistic. “We will not abandon our roots, but will find other ways to move forward. All of the proposed cuts were based on projections about students’ intended majors,” she told Truthout, “but many kids don’t know what they want to study when they’re in high school. I’m a good example of that. I didn’t realize that I could major in gender studies until I got to Guilford.”

COVID-19 Blamed for Cuts

By all measures, after COVID shuttered campuses last March, both public and private colleges took a financial hit; many responded by firing instructional staff and administrative, maintenance and food service personnel. In some cases, tenured professors were also fired, and many schools closed or consolidated departments that were deemed “under-performing.”

As a result, in August 2020, there were 337,000 fewer people employed by U.S. colleges and universities than there had been six months earlier, in February. The rationale was reduced enrollment: The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that the overall number of students dropped by 4.5 percent between Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. Community colleges saw the most drastic decline, at 9.5 percent.

But that’s only part of the story. Although fiscal concerns are undeniably real, the proposed austerity measures — opposed by faculty unions and education activists who cite bloated administrative budgets and excessive spending on sports arenas and new construction — fit into a larger right-wing playbook that has long pressed for the restructuring of higher education.

Richard Kent Vedder, an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), lists these goals in his 2019 book, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America. Among them: dismiss “old rules” such as tenure and summer breaks; increase teaching loads; end affirmative action and related diversity programs; end or revise the federal student financial aid program; and give departments and professors a share of revenue based on student enrollment in their classes.

“In the 1960s, students rebelled at most institutions,” fellow right-winger Robert C. Dickeson wrote in General Education: Too Many Options, “and institutions subsequently caved…. We need a more academically responsible general education program to keep both our students and our institutions centered on what is important.”

What might that be? you ask.

ALEC — a conservative group that writes model legislation and policy briefs for lawmakers — posits that, “American businesses are increasingly worried about the quality of the workforce pool from which they will be hiring.… Too few American students are graduating high school or college with the skills employers need.” The solution? Let business “shape or endorse curriculum, training and certification options that teach the skills they look for in potential employees.”

This refrain has caught the eye and ear of the Koch Foundation as well, and promotion of university degree programs that pay attention to “product-market fit” are high on their wish list.

The result is the elevation of accounting, business, computer science, culinary and engineering programs over the liberal arts and humanities.

Assault on Faculty Autonomy

Michael Francis Berube is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State University and a leader of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He calls this “a watershed moment” and describes the proposed cuts as a “structural assault on faculty autonomy.”

As chair of an AAUP committee that is investigating the attacks on faculty to determine if particular schools should be “censured,” the AAUP’s harshest classification and one that makes it difficult for them to fill open faculty positions, Berube notes that a lot of small, private, tuition-dependent schools were already in trouble before COVID, and were already looking at a reallocation of resources. “Some did it properly, with faculty input, but others kicked the can down the road and when COVID hit, they panicked,” he told Truthout. “There are procedures they should follow in catastrophes. We never say you can’t ever close programs, but we have to look at how plans are being implemented.”

Berube names Ohio’s John Carroll University as a particularly egregious example of bad process. “They got rid of art history and fired two tenured professors,” he said. “They claimed budgetary hardship, but the bar for declaring a budgetary hardship was so low that a 6 percent decline in revenue over three years was enough for them to act.” At the same time, he continues, the school has retained the law firm of Husch Blackwell — whose website boasts of being “aligned by industry,” with revenue of $417,056,000 in 2020 — as its legal counsel.

Berube also names Canisius College in upstate New York as “one of the worst of the worst.”

Philosophy, and women’s and gender studies professor Tanya Loughead has taught at Canisius for 15 years. “Six years ago, the college hired an outside, for-profit consultant to do what they called a ‘return on investment’ study. The company confirmed that faculty teach a lot of students, so by that metric, we are high performing,” Loughead told Truthout. Nonetheless, she says that faculty were shocked when the administration announced cuts, citing a projected $20 million shortfall. “The administrators never explained where they got that number,” Loughead says. “It seems like the height of capitalist exploitation to make precarious workers more precarious and assuming they’ll be willing to do just about anything to keep their jobs.”

Canisius has already closed three departments: classics, religious studies and physics, and 94 staff have been let go, including 24 faculty and 70 plumbers, electricians and groundskeepers.

Loughead says the college has not been transparent, so faculty are engaged in several different forms of fightback. “We’re pursuing censure with the AAUP, charging that the administration is not operating with shared governance in keeping with AAUP policies, and we’ve filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court for Breach of Contract. We’ve also filed a complaint with the Middle States [Commission on] Higher Education authorities who accredit us.” What’s more, the Faculty Senate has voted ‘no confidence’ in the Trustees and President, a petition by alumni has collected more than 6,000 signatures, and Canisius Community Against the Cuts has brought parents, students, community members and alumni together in protest. Lastly, since Canisius is a Jesuit school, Jesuit Workers Against Austerity is attempting to make common cause with workers at all 27 denominationally-affiliated U.S. colleges.

Like Loughead, philosophy professor Corey McCall did not expect cutbacks at his Elmira College workplace. He had spent 14 years at the upstate New York college and told Truthout that he was blindsided when, “on June 1, I got an email from the provost saying that he and the president wanted to arrange a Zoom call with me on June 3. I had no idea why they wanted to talk. We had a brief call that day, and I was told I was being let go.” McCall had previously arranged to be a visiting professor at Penn State for the 2020-21 academic year, but he says that the news was nonetheless completely “shocking.”

According to McCall, Elmira is a small college with several one-person departments, including classics, philosophy and Spanish, so he says his dismissal essentially eliminated the philosophy program. Other staff, including the one-person American studies department, were moved into history. McCall has since learned that a total of 16 teachers — approximately 20 percent of the faculty — were fired.

“The college has been in dire financial straits for some time,” McCall says, “but the administration apparently decided that the best way to save money was to fire tenured faculty. The COVID crisis turned into an opportunity for them, and most of those who were dismissed have scattered.”

One manifestation of that opportunity, he continues, is Elmira College’s rollout of new programs in actuarial science, health care management and fashion marketing.

And Canisius and Elmira are not anomalous. A host of other small, private colleges — Hiram, Illinois Wesleyan, Kettering, Keuka, Marian, Medaille, National and Wittenberg, among them — have also eliminated “underperforming departments.” The most frequently nixed specializations are math, biology, philosophy, geology, physics, religion, anthropology, chemistry and foreign languages.

Public Colleges Are Also Cutting Costs

Public universities, including the University of Kansas (KU) and the University of Vermont (UVM), have done likewise.

The Lawrence Journal World reports that 15 undergraduate programs at KU deemed “low enrollment” — most prominently humanities and visual art education — have been slated for elimination.

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, AAUP chair at KU, says that the National AAUP has called the proposal “capricious” and is threatening to put the university on its censure list unless the plan is rescinded. Like colleagues at Canisius, faculty are pursuing accreditation agencies. “KU has a number of professional schools including law, medicine, architecture and engineering. The American Bar Association [ABA], for example, verifies the integrity of a KU law degree,” he told Truthout. “They have said that if the university capriciously strips faculty tenure without due process, the school could lose its ABA accreditation and jeopardize the integrity of the degree. That the administration would allow that to occur reflects gross mismanagement.”

That mismanagement, Barrett-Gonzalez says, extends even further. “KU has a corporate jet worth just under $6 million and administrators use it fly all over. One particular flight taken by the provost cost $10,000.” The administration has also been on an overbuilding spree that began in 2012, he says. “They thought they could recruit foreign students, so they borrowed millions to build fancy, overpriced dorms. They then closed the low-cost dorms, creating a segregated campus, where the ‘haves’ live in brand new buildings and the ‘don’t-haves’ live in trailer parks and low-rent units. It’s the tyranny of the monied.”

Barrett-Gonzalez adds that approximately 25 cents of every tuition dollar now go to faculty salaries and library maintenance while the rest goes to debt service. “Twenty years ago, the school paid $150,000 a year in debt service. They now pay between $20 and $30 million annually.”

Like other schools, KU alumni have joined with students, staff, faculty and community activists to fight the cuts. “They realize that if they can strip tenure at KU, it will have a domino effect and spread to other colleges and universities,” Barrett-Gonzalez says.

Faculty at UVM are also facing significant threats. Valerie Rohy, an English professor and former department chair, calls what is happening “the denigration of the liberal arts and the elevation of engineering and business over everything else.” She says that none of the programs slated for elimination — classics, religion and geology — were expensive to run.

Still, she says that retrenchment at UVM is nothing new, but began several years ago when an incentive-based budget system led to faculty cuts in the College of Arts and Sciences. “There were layoffs in 2015 and 2020, and even though the College of Arts and Science brings in more money than it costs us to run, class size went up; there was also a hiring freeze which caused curricular gaps. The most recent lay-offs included the only person who taught Native American literature,” Rohy told Truthout.

Meanwhile, the building of a new sports stadium has been put on hold, but not cancelled, and UVM has hired Huron Consulting — a firm that generated nearly $900 million in revenue in 2019 — to assist in the reorganization.

This enrages Paul Bierman, a geology professor at UVM since 1993. “To cut the backbone of UVM’s environmental program at this moment in global history, with a climate crisis in full swing, makes no sense,” he told Truthout. The program is home to 11 staff — seven tenure-track professors, one long-term senior lecturer and three technicians.

“The administration has said that programs graduating fewer than five students a year are not sustainable,” Bierman says, “and they want us to create a Ph.D. program rather than continue our Master’s program. We accept four-to-six MA applicants a year out of a pool of 35 or 40. That’s intentional. The college president doesn’t seem to understand that a Masters in geoscience is a terminal degree.”

Bierman then pivots to focus on the personal impact of the proposed department closure. “The depth of my sadness is enormous,” he says. “I’ve spent 28 years at this university and have been a never-ending cheerleader for it. Now I wake up every day at 3 am in angst. Yes, colleges need to change and evolve, but the process does not have to be adversarial. The Vermont way is talk things through and collaborate to find solutions.”

Truthout reached out to the presidents of Canisius, Elmira, Guilford, The University of Vermont and the University of Kansas. None responded.

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