Valdosta State University’s had a rough run in the last few years: declining enrollment, something of a revolving door of administrators and a divisive political protest controversy. But is the way to solve Valdosta State’s problems really getting rid of some its best and brightest young faculty members? That’s what some on campus are wondering after the university announced last week that it was laying off 33 staff and faculty members, including some on the tenure track.
“These kinds of layoffs do not do anything good for undergraduate enrollment and they have a detrimental effect on graduate enrollment,” said Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history at Valdosta State who’ll lose two high-performing tenure-track faculty members in his department by the end of the coming academic year as a result of the cuts. “Faculty like the ones who were let go are the ones students are reading with as undergrads and they want to come back and study under them.”
Last week, non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty members affected by the cuts received calls or emails asking them to meet with their dean. In 15-minute appointments, one after the other, the faculty members were notified that declining enrollment and related budgetary concerns made it impossible for the university to retain them. The university has not released the exact number of tenure-track professors it's letting go.
By all accounts, the faculty members were shocked. Some had recently purchased homes or otherwise planned on being in the South Georgia area indefinitely. There was talk of declining enrollment since 2011, but no sense of crisis and no declaration of financial exigency. The cuts also seemed haphazard, since some laid-off faculty members in the sciences said they actually made money for the university in external grants.
“This is not a smart financial decision,” said Joshua Reece, an assistant professor of biology who was notified that his contract won’t be renewed after this year, despite the funding he's secured (about $200,000 over two years total, some $73,000 of which came from external grants from the University System of Georgia, the Florida Institute for Conservation Science and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). “And now I have to quit on my graduate students. These are students I pay to do research in my lab that I have to drop now -- I’ve made long-term commitments to make them better scientists and I have to give that up.”
Humanities faculty members have similar complaints about the quality of faculty they’re losing. Aiello said the history professors who were let go, including Stephanie Hinnershitz, are some of the best teachers and most productive scholars he knows.
Hinnershitz said the university updated its tenure guidelines several years ago to bolster its research profile and capitalize on its status as the area’s comprehensive university. And tenure-track faculty members have been working extra hard to meet new expectations, she said. So the news is “harder to swallow. We’ve really pushed ourselves.”
It all asks the question, “How much is this university dedicated to being a comprehensive university?” she said.
In a letter to faculty, staff and alumni last week, Cecil P. Staton, interim president, blamed the cuts on a 17 percent enrollment decline since the university’s peak in 2011.
“In preparing the budget for 2016-2017, Valdosta State University’s enrollment decline translates into a state funds decline of $2.4 million,” he wrote. “Loss of tuition income results in a further $1 million reduction in revenue. Both must be accounted for in the new budget proposal.”
Staton said that enrollment in Valdosta State’s graduate programs is projected to be up significantly, but overall enrollment and credit hour production are projected to be down. Utilizing fund balances and vacant staff and faculty positions to make up the difference “is no longer a viable option,” he said.
But a look at the university’s most recent enrollment report, published Monday, is slightly more hopeful. Undergraduate enrollment is down 2.1 percent from last year, but graduate enrollment is up 35.4 percent, making for a 3.7 percent enrollment jump over all.
It’s also unclear how dire the university’s financial straits are. Faculty members point to the university’s “Invest, Ignite, Inspire” fund-raising campaign that raised more than $30 million in just eight months last year. In a March announcement, Valdosta State described the campaign as “the natural evolution of the university’s bold strategic plan, which was developed in 2012 and represents a campuswide commitment to the principles that underpin an innovative and engaged comprehensive institution.” The five-year, $53 million campaign seeks to address five key areas, including “faculty enhancements.”
The campaign is related to the university’s new “Ignite!” local and digital marketing initiative, which faculty members say cost $2 million. (That could not immediately be independently confirmed.) Calling it an apparent failure, some faculty members said the money could have been better spent on instruction.
Faculty members blame some of the messaging and mission inconsistency on what they called a “revolving door” of administrators in recent years. The university’s last president, William J. McKinney, stepped down in July after three years on the job. His resignation followed that of his chief of staff, Kimberly Luse, in March, after an on-campus “run-in” with the police, according to WCTV. Also in March, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate published a report detailing longstanding concerns about “systemic problems with communication and leadership.” That report followed a written proposal by a group of unnamed faculty members that the Faculty Senate vote no confidence in McKinney and former Provost Hudson Rogers. Rogers has since returned to the business faculty, replaced by an interim provost and vice president of academic affairs.
McKinney also become mired in external controversy in his last months on the job, after he’d already announced his resignation, following the trampling of an American flag during an on-campus protest. McKinney affirmed the university’s commitment to free speech, but some said he should have done more to condemn the protesters’ actions, and pro-flag events on campus followed.
Staton, the interim president, is a scholar of religion, a businessman and Republican former state lawmaker. He comes to Valdosta State from the University System of Georgia office, where he was vice chancellor for extended education.
It’s unclear what other options the university explored to address its budget crisis before laying off faculty members. A university spokeswoman was unable to arrange an interview with an administrator on Monday.
According to widely followed policy set by the American Association of University Professors, tenured faculty members in particular but also those on the tenure track should be let go for financial reasons only in cases of true financial exigency. That means that the near-term future and academic mission of the institution as a whole are at risk. And faculty members should be consulted on how best to deal with a crisis, according to the AAUP.
Michael Noll, professor of geography and immediate past president of the Valdosta State Faculty Senate, responded briefly to a request for comment about faculty involvement in the process, but referred questions to Staton’s public statement. The new Faculty Senate president, Peggy Moch, professor of mathematics education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Despite the problems at Valdosta State, both Reece and Hinnershitz said they want to keep their jobs, if they can. They’re dedicated to their students and colleagues, they said.
“There’s a weird transition phase that we’re going through, with a high turnover rate among administrators, but I’d really like to see [the university] turn itself around,” Hinnershitz said. “We’re the only university in South Georgia that has the reputation we do, and I’d like it to stay that way.”
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