Faculty Challenge Loyola's Leaders

September 29, 2006

Administrators at Loyola University of New Orleans have had the unenviable task of picking up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina, which shut down the campus last fall. The university didn't sustain as much structural damage as those institutions located on lower ground, but it has seen a 30 percent decrease in this year’s freshman class and finished the fiscal year that ended in July with a $14 million budget shortfall.  

Loyola's Board of Trustees called for a quick plan of action last December, and two top administrators responded this spring. The Rev. Kevin W. Wildes, the university's president, and Walter Harris Jr., its provost, helped craft a controversial strategic plan that included the elimination or suspension of more than 20 academic programs and the dismissal of 17 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. Trustees accepted the plan in May.

Earlier this week, faculty members in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, the university’s largest college, showed their displeasure with the restructuring by recording separate votes of no confidence in the administrators. Ninety faculty members were eligible to vote, and of the 80 who did, 61 voted against Wildes and 70 against Harris. More than half of Loyola's 202 full-time faculty members are housed in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences.

“We felt that given how well we came through the storm, we were in a position of opportunity," said Thomas Spence, an associate professor of chemistry. "We didn’t capitalize on that opportunity."

Spence said faculty have felt uninformed about the changes since the strategic plan was announced and are looking for a major policy reversal or a change at the top of the administration. Chief among the group's concerns is the dismissal of faculty who taught in programs that were eliminated. Kristine Lelong, a university spokeswoman, added that all of the dismissed faculty members are receiving their salary this year while they look for other positions.

“Simply put, we cannot financially afford the current framework of our organization,” Wildes said through a FAQ sheet released around the time of the strategic plan annoucement. “We must recognize market demand and conditions which necessitate a restructuring that ensures a positive impact on our students and the community, as well as our financial health.”

Loyola has an operating budget of $125 million and a $300 million endowment. Lelong said cost reductions in staffing and budget decreases in each department are helping the college reduce its deficit. Spence said he and his colleagues wanted the university to dip into that endowment rather than cut faculty spots.

The FAQ also stated that: “The board, again carrying out its fiduciary responsibility, has prudently determined that the endowment is our future."

Wildes, who is beginning his third year as president, said in a statement that he takes seriously the faculty vote and hopes to "heal this breach" by meeting with faculty members. Wildes and Harris referred further comments to Lelong.

About 90 percent of students who were enrolled at Loyola before Katrina hit  returned when the university reopened in January. This fall, total enrollment is at 4,724, down 16 percent from a year ago. While the freshman class dropped to 540 students, the number of transfer students (127) rose significantly.

When students returned to campus, they found myriad changes to the department structure. Programs were consolidated and college names altered to reflect the changes made in the strategic plan. Among those undergraduate programs eliminated were computer science, elementary education and communications sequences in broadcast journalism and film studies. Lelong said the university singled out for elimination programs with low student demand, but Spence said administrators made errors in determining what programs were losing money and which had made strides before Katrina. 

Spence said faculty and students were only given a week to comment on the plan for restructuring before it went to a trustee vote. That week coincided with Easter, which proved busy for many at the Jesuit institution, he said.

“Very few people question that the university is now in a precarious position," Spence said. "The fact that none of the faculty members were consulted about decisions made in terms of termination or suspension of programs was a big surprise. We were shocked when the plan came out." 

Joseph Harris, chair of Loyola's University Senate and an associate professor in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance, said no vote has been scheduled for the full senate.

“My confidence level in [Wildes and Harris] is high,” he said. “They have been forthcoming with information and willing to speak about everything.

"Some faculty members are resentful, some faculty members are hopeful and some are somewhere in between," Joseph Harris added. “My sense is that the administration was functioning to the best of its ability under very challenging circumstances. Something had to be done, and unfortunately it had to be done quickly. We need to move forward as a community."

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