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Staff and faculty union protesters at Lane Community College Board of Education meeting

Staff and faculty union protesters attended the Lane Community College Board of Education meeting in Eugene, Ore., last week. 

Russell Shitabata

Administrators at Lane Community College heard significant pushback after recently proposing a $3.8 million budget cut, including faculty and staff reductions, with short notice and no input from those likely to be affected.

The leaders of the Eugene, Ore., college say the cuts are needed to make up for a budget shortfall related to enrollment declines that were exacerbated during the pandemic.

Critics of the proposal say the plan lacked transparency and is a retaliatory move against officers of the LCC Education Association (LCCEA), the union representing the faculty, and the LCC Employee Federation, which represents staff members. Both unions held a protest rally on Sept. 27 prior to a meeting of the college’s Board of Education where the budget proposal was scheduled to be discussed and voted on.

The meeting lasted nearly five hours as more than 50 Lane employees, students and community members took turns lambasting board members for failing to fully inform the campus about the proposed cuts, not giving the unions sufficient advance notice about the originally unscheduled board meeting and not including faculty and staff in discussions about the cuts or giving them the opportunity to propose alternative cost-saving measures.

The board ultimately delayed voting on personnel cuts and agreed that the college’s president and other administrators should meet with student, faculty and staff representatives to discuss and develop alternative options for reducing the budget.

According to Brett Rowlett, the college’s executive director of external affairs, there was no plan for board members to vote on which specific positions should be cut during the meeting last month. Instead, the board intended to vote on “a package of proposed reductions,” and college administrators would then notify the unions of the specific positions slated to be cut and enter into negotiations over other possible options.

The dispute at Lane is similar to those occurring at colleges across the country that are grappling with enrollment shortfalls and budget challenges that prompt them to cut programs and staff and terminate faculty appointments.

Rowlett said conversations about possible budget cuts had been going on for months—including at a public budget work session that took place the week before the board meeting—and that the union was aware of them.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is a process that was last minute or thrown together or anything like that,” he said. “These have been very tough decisions that have been analyzed for months.”

Adrienne Mitchell, president of the faculty union, said it is “unprecedented” for the board to vote on program and personnel cuts without first notifying the union in writing and issuing a public notice.

“The board did not receive the proposed budget package at any of these public meetings until it was posted on Sept. 15, prior to the Sept. 20 work session,” said Mitchell, an academic learning skills instructor, whose position is slated to be cut.

Mitchell said she was encouraged by the board’s decision to delay voting on the budget proposal and looking forward to a “much more inclusive process” in negotiations with Lane’s president, Stephanie Bulger.

“We’re anticipating that there will probably be still some proposed cuts, but I’m really hopeful that we’re able to have much more stakeholder involvement,” Mitchell said.

There is no set deadline for an agreement on final personnel cuts, but Mitchell anticipates a decision will be reached by the time of a board meeting scheduled for Nov. 1.

Cuttings Staff, Serving Students?

The original proposal called for the elimination of three full-time academic and career counselors, four full-time nonacademic or nonteaching positions, and an unclarified number of part-time test proctors. It also included the termination of the French program, academic learning skills faculty and the majority of the college’s health education classes, according to the LCCEA. Mitchell estimates about 14 faculty members and at least four nonteaching staff members may be cut in all.

A formal layoff notice was sent to LCCEA leaders by the associate vice president of human resources and labor relations on Sept. 28, the day after the contentious board meeting. It noted that Lane administrators were considering cuts in the departments of Academic Learning Skills, French and Counseling, but it no longer included health education faculty.

The cuts were not announced publicly by President Bulger or the board, prior to the meeting, other than a vague mention in the agenda for the Sept. 27 board meeting. The exact positions on the chopping block were not posted and were only obtained through a formal Freedom of Information request by the faculty and staff unions.

“There’s never been any kind of vote that we’re aware of in the history of Lane Community College where programs would suddenly be reduced so dramatically without public information being provided,” Mitchell said.

What’s more, she noted, the three academic counselor positions that are up for elimination are held by experienced faculty members of color with seniority. The selection of those positions, along with Mitchell’s position, was further complicated by the fact that the counselors and Mitchell had filed separate complaints against the university alleging racial and gender discrimination.

“Alarmingly, the proposed layoffs target Association officers and other faculty who recently participated in grievances or filed complaints against the College,” the faculty union’s attorney Luke Kuzava wrote in a letter to the Board of Education. “The proposed layoffs appear to be acts of retaliation against employees for engaging in legally protected activity.”

Kuzava also noted that by scheduling an “emergency” vote, the college violated its contract with the faculty union, which requires the college to notify and meet with the LCCEA at least 60 days before implementation of any layoffs. A meeting to discuss the proposed cuts was scheduled for Sept. 27, just two hours before the board meeting.

“Obviously, a meeting that begins two hours before the proposed vote does not provide a meaningful opportunity to discuss the planned layoffs,” Kuzava wrote.

Rowlett said the positions listed as being considered for cuts were identified “following a list of principles that were shared and supported by the board.”

“It was the position itself, and not the individual in the position that was considered,” he said. “In all of these decisions, we’re trying to put the students first; we’re trying to put what’s best for the institution first.”

Rowlett said many of the proposed cuts were due to strategic changes in the college’s approach to student support and that cutting the number of academic counselors would eliminate duplicative roles and better address students’ academic progress.

“The proposed reductions are being done in a way so that we can reshape the institutions as we continue to serve the students in the best possible way we can,” he said.

Seeking a ‘Creative’ Response

While the $3.8 million shortfall was the impetus for the proposed personnel cuts, Mitchell is hopeful tuition revenue and state funding for the next academic year may reduce the shortfall.

Enrollment is up by 9.5 percent as of Oct. 2, and the college is anticipating higher allocations from the State Community College Support Fund, the primary source of state funding. Mitchell is also optimistic that the unions and senior college administrators will be able to brainstorm and come up with “creative ways” to address any shortfalls that do remain—by offering early retirement incentives, for example.

The enrollment increase will help, Rowlett said, but it won’t be enough to make up for the more than 35 percent drop that occurred during the pandemic.

“We had the $3.8 million hole that we’re facing this year. But we have a $7.8 million hole next year. So it’s important to address this year’s challenge or next year becomes an even greater challenge,” he said.

The American Association of University Professors said in an email about the situation at Lane that it is opposed to layoffs of long-serving faculty members without a formal declaration of financial exigency.

Greg Scholtz, director of AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, said in an interview that the boards’ decision to delay voting on the proposed cuts while representatives of the unions and the president’s office seek alternative solutions is “an excellent outcome.”

“The AAUP does not endorse unilateral actions by governing boards and administrations period, especially unilateral actions that have to do with a budget and even more especially with cutting faculty positions,” Scholz said. “So it’s welcome news that the administration will be working collaboratively with the faculty in resolving their financial problem.”

He said the concern is whether the collaboration will be “real” and “not merely notifying the faculty of decisions already made.”

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