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Missouri Western State University

Of all the faculty cuts made during COVID-19 pandemic so far, those at Missouri Western State University may be the deepest. The institution is laying off 31 nontenured instructors, including some on the tenure track, at the end of this year. Twenty remaining professors will receive terminal, one-year contracts, meaning that about one-quarter of the full-time faculty will be gone by 2021. Others will take early retirement. Dozens of majors, minors and concentrations are being cut, too, including English, history, philosophy, political science, economics, sociology, Spanish, French and the arts.

It’s hard to overstate how much is changing.

“It's not going to be the same university. You can't lose that many people and programs and keep the same character,” said Linda Oakleaf, an assistant professor of recreation sport management who was hired in 2015. She'd planned on applying for tenure in October but learned on April 30 that her contract won't be renewed.

"I’m pretty upset," she said. "I had hoped to retire at MWSU in 20 years or so. I liked the institution. I liked that we're open admission. Most of our students are first generation. I like living in Kansas City. The whole thing sucks."

Like many of the institutions facing faculty cuts, Missouri Western was in financial danger prior to the economic fallout of the public health emergency. The university's full-time undergraduate enrollment dropped 23 percent over the last decade, to around 3,400 students, while faculty numbers increased by about 5 percent. State revenue declined, but tuition stayed flat. Other costs increased.

Something had to give. But given the dismal enrollment and economic outlook for this fall, cuts that would have happened anyway are even more urgent -- and more devastating.

‘The Perfect Storm’

Elise Hepworth, director of choral activities and chair of the Faculty Senate, said the sad of state of affairs is “quite frankly, a story that is nearly unbelievable if it were not for so many other institutions in the same predicament. The perfect storm.”

Ed Taylor, associate professor of political science and chair of the department of economics, political science and sociology, said the mood on campus is “one of loss and grief. MWSU is a close-knit community, and all of us know people who had positions eliminated or had programs slated for phaseout.”

President Matt Wilson, who started at Missouri Western in July, said he's as torn as anyone about eliminating programs that are "near and dear," including political science, which was one of his undergraduate majors. Previously, Wilson served as president and dean and professor of law at the University of Akron. He helped close a budget gap there, too. But this is different.

"This is something that was unimaginable as I came into this position," he said. "The feeling of going through it is truly indescribable. From a numbers and alignment standpoint, it makes complete sense. But that's very different from how it impacts individual lives and the campus community and society as a whole, and my heart just breaks, it really does."

Taylor’s department will soon disappear, as will some of his colleagues. He’s staying on, but four out of 10 program faculty positions have been cut.

“Many of us who were fortunate to remain are struggling with survivor's guilt," watching friends struggle with separation from the university while juggling various uncertainties of their own, he said.

Some faculty members are resentful. They don't understand how things were allowed to get so bad. For many, the first clue that Missouri Western was in serious trouble was a student newspaper article published last April revealing that the university had overspent by $11 million over five years. At the time, administrators blamed declining state appropriations.

Faculty members don't necessarily blame their current senior administrators, all of whom are new this academic year, for the cuts, or see them as grim reapers. Some see Wilson and his cabinet as doing what should have been done over time by their predecessors.

A Decade in the Making

Hepworth said there’s been more communication between the faculty and the administration this year "than in the past 10 years" -- a good thing. Historically, she explained, faculty and staff leaders “were not regularly included, consulted or informed in institutional decisions.” Asking for more communication and transparency did little good.

As the new administration -- and a nearly all-new Board of Governors, by coincidence of term dates -- began to understand the magnitude of Missouri Western’s financial problems, they took dramatic action. They declared financial exigency in March and set up an academic review board to assess the viability of programs and advise on new staffing levels. Hepworth’s own department, for example, is going from 13 full-time professors to six in an attempt to save on instructional costs. Instrumental and vocal majors will continue, as will a minor in music. Minors in music technology and musical theater will be cut, and two other majors will either be phased out or redesigned.

The faculty and academic program cuts have led to some feelings of distrust, Hepworth said, “but I can see that these changes, imperfect as they may be, were needed to keep our doors open. I do not fault those who have been tasked with correcting a crisis years in the making.”

The university followed guidelines from the American Association of University Professors for financial exigency and retrenchment, “albeit in a truncated timeline,” and asked departments to weigh in, Hepworth said. All affected faculty members may appeal the decisions.

Marketplace Demands

Wilson said the university faced a more than $3 million budget gap this year alone, before the Missouri State Legislature announced that it was withholding about $1.9 million more, spread out over April, May and June due to the pandemic. That amounted to about a twelfth of the university's state funding.

Missouri Western had already eliminated some staff positions in October, and the numbers dictated that additional cuts would need to come from a realignment between programs and limited resources, he said.

While the campus review board did take overall course enrollments and not just numbers of majors into account, Wilson said it could not ignore that 31 percent of programs were graduating 76 percent of students.

“It becomes very apparent what the marketplace is demanding,” he said. “We have to be prudent financially as well as responsive to students.”

The university will invest any cost savings and additional resources into programs where enrollment is growing, including nursing and other health sciences, psychology, biology, social work, and graphic design. Wilson said this will hopefully put the university in a more sustainable financial position, including for purposes of staying accredited.

About 10 percent of students will be affected by the elimination of their concentrations. The university is developing a teach-out plan for them. That won't cover the many faculty members who will need to find new jobs in a dismal economy, however.

Wilson said there’s a chance that enrollment could rebound somewhat in fall 2021, depending on economic and public health conditions. So it’s possible that the university could be in a position to retain or rehire some professors now pegged for elimination.

"This will be a year that none of us will forget," he predicted. Beyond that, he said, "I don't have a crystal ball."

‘Disaster Academic Capitalism’

Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, doesn’t have a crystal ball, either, of course. But asked how unique Missouri Western is among the many financially strapped colleges and universities now navigating a pandemic, Rhoades said he sees three patterns emerging.

As usual, he said, the most precarious instructional ranks -- contingent faculty members and graduate students -- “are being and will be the first and worst hit through silent layoffs, aka nonrenewals.”

Next, he said, there is "disaster academic capitalism." Those institutions that had been experiencing enrollment and fiscal challenges pre-COVID-19 will "amplify their restructuring," using the crisis "to restructure and retrench, with management trying to bypass deliberative, strategic, shared governance."

Even if this isn't the case at Western Missouri, based on faculty accounts of shared governance, Rhoades said he knows of no institution that has addressed such challenges "by reinvesting in core academic programs and personnel, and incrementally reduced administrative costs."

Over all, Rhoades also remarked on the "heightened discourse of austerity," even as disinvestment in core academic functions continues, to the detriment of students and those from marginalized populations most of all. Public colleges and universities face this at the state level, too, with many lawmakers showing little appetite for aiding local communities and institutions.

For all the "talk of this crisis being transformative, I am seeing similar trend lines to what has defined American higher education for decades."

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