Anxiety at Hiram

As final plan for "new liberal arts" is prepared, many students and faculty members fear for disciplines and their own futures at the college.

May 9, 2018
 
Hiram College campus

Last December, Hiram College wrote to alumni to assure them that an ongoing academic redesign of the 168-year-old liberal arts college, led by President Lori Varlotta, would proceed in an orderly fashion: “Like just about every process Varlotta launches, this one will be inclusive, data-driven, and transparent,” the college said in a message on its website.

But five months later, a group of faculty and students at the northeastern Ohio college say the institution has kept them in the dark about one key aspect: to what extent the redesign will shrink professors' ranks. Dean Judith Muyskens is due to present her recommendations on the “blending, shrinkage and elimination” of academic programs next Tuesday. Observers expect Varlotta to invoke the college’s tight financial straits to reduce an already contracted staff. She has publicly said Hiram needs to trim $1.2 million from its $30 million budget, and many worry that she will make cuts that could reach into the ranks of longtime tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Like many small liberal arts colleges, Hiram is fighting to increase enrollment while trimming costs. But critics at the college complain that the cuts envisioned in Varlotta’s "new liberal arts" redesign may violate Hiram’s faculty handbook, which says firing tenured faculty requires an official notification of financial emergency.

Varlotta's ideas have generated considerable discussion about whether the idea of the liberal arts can be broadened without diluting its essentials. When Inside Higher Ed reported on those tensions earlier this month, several alumni and faculty declined to talk. After the article appeared, a few at Hiram changed their minds and came forward, speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation.

A collegewide “strategic academic team” has spent the past few months evaluating enrollment in various departments, among other indicators. Faculty fear that the college’s fine arts, music, foreign language, philosophy and religious studies programs may take the worst hits.

“Everybody is scared to death,” one faculty member said. “The morale has just sunk to the pits.”

While many instructors are upset with the proposed changes, others are “simply cooperating under duress, out of fear that if we don’t cooperate, we’ll get fired.”

The faculty members say their numbers are already shrinking considerably, with just over 50 tenured or tenure-track instructors heading into the fall term, by their estimate.

Varlotta said the college has offered "a generous retirement package" for anyone 55 or older with 15 years of service -- it includes a year of salary and benefits. She said she has moved three faculty members into administrative and staff positions and cut many non-faculty positions to ensure that full-time instructors are protected "until the latest possible point," with hopes that cuts aren't necessary.

Brad Goodner, a biology professor with 17 years of experience, said the college has "made several changes during my time at Hiram to become more distinctive and more sustainable. We have trimmed our budgets and we have cut many staff positions. Faculty positions, for the most part, have been protected. Reductions in faculty numbers have come mainly from not rehiring open positions following faculty retirements or deaths. Yet we still face a budget problem."

Goodner said he's optimistic that Varlotta, her cabinet "and the vast majority of my faculty and staff colleagues" are moving the college in the right direction through "transparent inclusive discussions and decision making. Do we have some hard choices to make in the near term? Yes, we will have to trim the faculty some more to be financially sustainable. However, it is much more than that. It is also a positive process about what we can do with the faculty and staff expertise we have to continue to improve our educational environment in all ways."

He noted that several faculty members have submitted "a large number of innovation proposals" to the strategic academic team, and that several of the proposals "are essential components of the discussions we have had" with consultants from the RAND Corp., which is advising on the redesign.

But another faculty member said that after teaching at Hiram for more than 20 years, “This is the worst four or five months I’ve ever been through.”

This person recalled a faculty meeting in which a college human resources officer berated instructors for speaking publicly about the proposed changes. “It was just this horrible experience,” the faculty member said. “The message went out loud and clear that if you tell anybody, you’re in trouble.”

After a December meeting at which Varlotta said she wanted to cut 15 positions “in record time,” faculty quickly reorganized Hiram’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors -- it now has 28 members. As one of its first acts, it composed an open letter to Varlotta, expressing worry about the cuts. Thirty current and nine retired faculty signed it, but Hiram’s full-time faculty are not unionized -- by a quirk of Ohio law, its adjuncts are, though many of them could well be spared in the redesign.

John T. McNay, president of AAUP’s Ohio Conference, said a long-standing AAUP principle, incorporated into Hiram’s faculty handbook, states that the college can only suspend tenure for “adequate cause,” or if the college declares financial exigency, indicating a “severe financial crisis that fundamentally compromises the academic integrity of the institution as a whole and that cannot be alleviated by less drastic means.”

In the process, AAUP guidelines dictate, the college must open its books to faculty. Decisions on who should be laid off must be based "essentially upon educational considerations, as determined primarily by the faculty as a whole or an appropriate committee thereof." The college hasn’t taken these steps, McNay said.

In an email, Varlotta took issue with McNay's characterization, saying Hiram is not "suspending tenure" in the process of the redesign, adding, "everything we are undertaking expressly follows the precepts of the Hiram College faculty handbook. The handbook is very clear that programs may be discontinued for reasons that extend well beyond 'financial exigency.'"

In a section of the handbook titled “The Dissolution of Academic Structures,” she noted, a passage reads, "Academic structures may at times be dissolved or transformed. The reasons for such restructuring should be based upon both educational and financial considerations indicating that the educational mission of the college will be enhanced by the discontinuation of the curriculum or department and the reallocation of resources."

She also noted that discontinuing any programs must be approved by Hiram's Board of Trustees.

Varlotta said faculty have been participating in the redesign process "for many months now, wherein they, themselves, have looked at and assessed years of program data." They have also made several proposals as part of the process.

"As you can see, Hiram’s redesign process has been a long one, marked by good shared governance," she said. "I really empathize with those who are weary and with those who are anxious about the unknown. Identifying and implementing forthcoming change has been incredibly hard but necessary work. Doing it in a way that is simultaneously data-driven and humane is even harder. But I am determined to do it in a way that is both."

Over the past few months, students and alumni have gotten involved in questioning the effort as well, starting a Twitter hashtag, #notmyhiram, and gathering more than 250 signatures on an online petition demanding that the college keep its tenured faculty. In a related effort, several students promised to withdraw if tenured faculty are laid off.

In a Dec. 12, 2017, response to students, provided to Inside Higher Ed, Varlotta pointed out that the college had undergone a recent series of library, classroom and dorm renovations, but said changes to curriculum and faculty “will be more challenging.” The redesign, she said, could bring both “programmatic additions and reductions” to campus.

In spite of its dire financial straits, Hiram's enrollment is up: Varlotta last month said this fall’s anticipated enrollment at Hiram's Traditional College is 28 percent higher than in 2017.

A wealthy alumnus last month gifted $6 million to the college to underwrite the redesign -- Hiram’s largest donation ever. Alumnus Dean Scarborough, who chairs the college’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Janice Bini, presented the gift to assist Varlotta’s “new liberal arts” effort -- it actually broke the college's previous record donation from the same couple in February 2017. That $2.1 million gift underwrote Varlotta’s “Tech and Trek” effort.

But critics said neither gift will help close the $1.2 million budget gap that has prompted the anxiety among faculty.

“Universities tend to have money for things they want to do,” said AAUP’s McNay, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. While trimming budgets is painful, he said, maintaining the college’s system of tenure and protecting faculty who have “given their whole career to the institution, that’s important, too.”

He cautioned that shrinking instructional staff would backfire.

“At a place like Hiram, people come there because of the devoted faculty,” he said. “We don’t doubt that Hiram is having a difficult financial time, but whether this is the correct way to address this, we’re not certain.”

Like others, McNay said he’s waiting anxiously to hear next week what Varlotta will do. “When we feel that tenure is threatened, it’s a big concern to us,” he said.

Hiram currently offers traditional liberal arts majors, as well as majors in subjects like computer science, accounting and integrative exercise science. Varlotta has said every student at Hiram "studies the liberal arts in great depth," no matter their major. All students, including the accounting and financial management majors, will encounter interdisciplinary courses and "a strong core/liberal arts general education."

One Hiram student, who spoke anonymously out of fear of postgraduation retaliation, said students most fear the redesign’s threat to Hiram’s academic reputation.

“Many of us came from small towns in Ohio,” the student said. “And we came to Hiram and developed all of these amazing ways of thinking. I’m just questioning why exactly they’re doing the redesign.”

Adding majors like accounting and exercise science could betray Hiram’s liberal arts roots, the student said. “It seems that it’s just contrary to what Hiram’s always been about, which is learning and deep thinking and reflecting.”

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