Not-So-Fait Accompli

University of Vermont says announced cuts to the liberal arts are happening. The faculty says otherwise. The bigger story: how universities are seizing on COVID-19 to push through long-desired curricular and staffing reforms.

December 7, 2020
 
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The University of Vermont presented its plan to cut 12 majors, 11 minors and four graduate degree programs within the College of Arts and Sciences as a done deal. But faculty members are vowing to fight the top-down initiative, saying that it would gut valuable but not necessarily cash-cow liberal arts programs for no compelling reason.

Planned cuts would effectively kill the departments of geology and classics and leave only a minor in religion. They would end Asian, Latin American and other area studies. German and Italian studies would go, as would a respected master’s program in historic preservation. The stated rationale is that these programs have low enrollment, in terms of numbers of students they graduate each year. Yet the programs as a whole house grant-winning faculty members and serve many students of other majors. These students of course benefit from learning with professors whose rich research agendas inform their instruction.

A Top-Down Process

In this light, the conflict at Vermont is similar to others playing out this year: administrators see COVID-19 as a catalyst for long-needed reform while many professors see those reforms as academic disaster capitalism and the hollowing out of the university.

“It’s all about the money -- there’s no other way to say it,” said Charles-Louis Morand Métivier, an associate professor of French at Vermont who opposes the cuts. “COVID is being used to do all kinds of things by the administration, not just at UVM. Pretty much it’s manna from heaven. All the things they’ve wanted to do for a very long time, now they have this God-given cover.”

Julie Roberts, professor of linguistics at Vermont and president of United Academics, the campus's American Federation of Teachers- and American Association of University Professors-affiliated faculty union, said that the cuts there remain a highly controversial “proposal,” despite university statements to the contrary.

“United Academics is against the closure of small departments as -- because the programs in jeopardy are primarily in the humanities -- it threatens the vision of UVM as an institution that values a liberal arts education,” she said.

In terms of shared governance, Roberts said the faculty “was not consulted on this plan.”

"There is a Faculty Senate process governing the creation, termination or substantial changes to academic programs and degrees,” she added. “The unilateral nature of this decision is completely counter to the values of shared governance that UVM has operated under for many years.”

The plan’s apparent architect, William Falls, dean of arts and sciences, said, “I agonized over this,” but that he “did not consult with faculty over this specific proposal. I could not see how that could be done when I was proposing closing programs.” He also said he’d tried to work directly with the faculty on a major reorganization of the college in recent years, and that the effort led to no major changes.

This time, Falls said, “I needed to make the best data-informed decision that I could, propose the changes and allow for the faculty governance processes in place to play out. I see that working now.”

Falls said that the College of Arts and Sciences, like other colleges on campus, is responsible for earning revenue and paying expenses. The college has been dealing with a “long-term structural deficit,” he said, and COVID-19 and other factors shrank its projected per-student credit hour rate by $63 this year.

At 134,000 credit hours per year, $63 less per credit “adds up.”

According to information from the university, the General Fund budget is built on a projected fall and spring average undergraduate enrollment of 9,939 students, compared to 10,394 last year, or 455 fewer students. The General Fund budget consequently had a $21.4 million shortfall, of which $9.4 million remains. That will come from academic units, through budget adjustments and use of one-time reserve funds.

The university projects an additional $8 to 9 million in revenue losses in other parts of its operating budget, which are funded by fees. Already, the university has reduced salaries and administrative unit budgets.

At the same time, Vermont reported an increase of $24 million in the university’s net position this year, primarily due to an increase in the value of its $562 million endowment.

Falls said that the program closures are estimated to save $600,000 to $800,000.

Shedding Programs

In a lengthy memo to faculty members last week, Falls wrote that he identified majors that “enrolled 25 or fewer students (less than 0.5 percent of all majors, including double majors) or graduated five or fewer students in the major (less than 0.5 percent of graduates) on average over the last three academic years,” to cut. They are in classical civilization, geology, German, Greek, Asian studies, European studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, Russian and Eastern European studies, Italian studies, Latin, and religion. (A chart shared with professors is at below.)

Falls used a similar process to select minors for termination. Those minors are in classics, geology, gerontology, Greek, global and regional studies of Canada and Europe, Italian, Italian studies, Latin, speech and debate, and Vermont studies.

Master’s programs in Greek and Latin, geology, and historic preservation would also disappear. “These master’s degrees have averaged five or fewer degrees awarded over the last three years and where total program costs exceed program revenue,” Falls wrote.

Humanities programs -- which typically don’t cost much but don’t necessarily make much, either -- are most often targeted in moments of crisis, financial and otherwise. So Falls's plan to end all geology's degree programs surprised many on campus. In his memo, Falls wrote that enrollments in both the B.A. and B.S. in geology “have been on the decline in recent years, in part due to increased interest in environmental sciences. Enrollments in the already small-capacity upper-level geology courses are low, contributing to a low student/faculty ratio department-wide (3-year average of 12 to 1, the fourth lowest in the college).”

Enrollment in the master of science in geology “is also declining and except for academic year 2018 where 10 M.S. degrees were awarded, the program has awarded an average of three degrees per year over the last 5 years and four degrees over the last 10 years. Together these factors contribute to making the cost-per-student credit hour in the department among the highest in the college.”

As for classics, Falls wrote that its three major options have graduated “a combined average of 2.1 students per year over the last three academic years.” The department has four tenured professors and one non-tenure-track professor and “has been unable to offer the full range of courses needed to complete the three undergraduate majors, three minors, and the master’s degree … With the lack of student interest and little prospect for faculty hiring, these programs are no longer sustainable.”

What Will Be Lost?

Jacques Bailly, associate professor of classics, said that if the cuts are adopted, “classics will disappear as a department. Introductory classical civilization courses will probably still be taught, but there will be no majors or minors. Latin, and possibly Greek, might still be taught up to about the level of a good high school language program.”

What will be lost? “A vital organ of the liberal arts,” Bailly said. “Classics was the humanities at UVM when it started. We have never had high numbers of majors, but a university has a shape, and one without classics is like a body without kidneys, or a liver or a heart.”

Studying classics is “studying where democracy, the idea of a republic, theater, history, mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, logic and so much more originates,” he added. “A university needs that, our society needs that -- and not just as a set of introductory courses to service more important things.”

Bailly referred to Vermont’s mission statement, which says the institution aims to be “among the nation’s premier research universities with a comprehensive commitment to a liberal arts education, environment, health and public service.”

The cuts won’t close the current budget gap, Bailly said, questioning whether the university really is in financial dire straits, having made $24 million this year.

Anne L. Clark, chair of religion -- which is slated to lose its major but keep its minor -- said that “low enrolling” doesn’t adequately capture her department.

“We are small in terms of faculty, but our courses have robust enrollments,” she said, evoking a long-standing disagreement among humanities advocates and reform-minded administrators about how to measure program success. In the last three years of Falls’s calculations, she said, the department went from 19 to 33 majors. Currently, majors number 38.

“This overall increase is due to students’ recognition of the value of this field of study, of the education they receive in working with our faculty,” including on research, Clark said; the college has relatively few graduate students and it’s known for offering faculty-student face time to undergraduates. And while Falls’s plan doesn’t mention cutting specific professors, “closing departments is one means of breaking tenure and removing the basis for lecturer reappointments.”

Clark said she believes Falls when he says that doesn't want to terminate faculty members and will instead "rehome" them in other departments. At the same time, she said, "this opens the door to much more dramatic steps."

Morand Métivier, of romance languages and cultures, had similar concerns about how these current cutbacks lay the foundation for even bigger changes. Years ago, faculty members asked how Latin American and Caribbean studies, an interdisciplinary degree program, could survive when the college cut Portuguese, the language of several hundred million people. Now, he said, Latin American and Caribbean studies is ending.

Reform proponents would likely argue that this is a natural death. Morand Métivier and his ilk argue that it’s more like strangulation, and that students are much more likely to ignore disciplines that don’t have robust course offerings and, especially, degree-granting programs.

“I really fear that the humanities and liberal arts are going to become service departments that will be used to fulfill humanities requirements that please parents, and that’s all,” he said, hoping that this threat puts his colleagues in even the biggest departments on alert. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the French program died with me when I retire.”

Bailly, meanwhile, said that due to faculty departures and the college’s ongoing hiring freeze, classics lost 50 percent of its teaching capacity within a couple years. “Now we are told we are not performing. Whose fault is that?”

A ‘Tough Spot’

There is some tepid sympathy for Falls within the college. Vermont’s chair of geology did not respond to a request for comment, but Robert Bartlett, Professor and Gund Chair in the Liberal Arts, said, “I am somewhat understanding of the dean's position” and his “tough spot.”

Bartlett teaches in the humanities and social sciences-oriented environmental studies program, which is separate from the environmental sciences that Falls said drains majors away from geology. Bartlett said if there are students in environmental sciences who otherwise would have majored in geology, “in my experience it must be very few.” In any case, he said, “There is room, and should be, for both majors.”

What’s the problem? Bartlett said that if there is one -- and it’s not clear to him that there is -- it’s “simply numbers of students. Geology teaches a lot of students, but most of them are students with other majors and minors taking only the introductory geology courses. If students are allowed to declare a major or minor in geology, then the university has an obligation to offer the courses that would allow a student to complete that major or minor.” With relatively small numbers of majors and minors, then, “that means offering upper-level courses with very small enrollments.”

As to whether numbers of majors and enrollments alone should determine what programs are offered by the university, Bartlett said there are “always some programs in a university that are expensive to offer either because they are labor-intensive -- foreign languages, theater, graduate programs, et cetera -- or capital-intensive natural sciences, engineering, et cetera.” And a “good university may need to subsidize these in order to have them, because their presence benefits the entire university.”

Over all, Bartlett said, in times of true financial crisis, presidents, provosts and the like “can either make hard decisions about what are substantively the most important programs for the university to offer, and find a way to subsidize those while cutting or restraining others, or they can just let students decide by cutting the programs with the least total student interest.”

Again, student interest is in the eye of beholder to a degree. Bailly, in classics, said that religion has consistently full classes. “The data are amazing. They just don’t have majors. Who cares? Students love those classes and take them in scads.”

On geology, Bailly said there’s a reason it has relatively few majors: it teaches “hundreds and hundreds of students from other majors, including environmental sciences.”

So why have a geology department? “Because the folks who teach it need a home that is really their home. They are geologists. That’s their professional organization, their disciplinary springboard for all the amazing interdisciplinary research and teaching they do.”

In any case, Falls’s bosses more than support these changes. Falls’s memo to faculty members said that while there will be opportunity to offer feedback on the plan, including through the Faculty Senate, “It is the expectation of the Board of Trustees, the president and the provost that CAS move forward on this plan expeditiously. There is no other way forward for CAS to balance its budget.”

Patricia Prelock, provost, backed Falls in a co-written email to undergraduate students last week, saying, “Change can be unsettling, but this move will strengthen the liberal arts at UVM and ensure rich and diverse offerings in languages, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences continue to be at the core of the education UVM provides for our students.”

The spring term will proceed as planned, meaning the changes would not take effect until after that.

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