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Three protesters stand outside, two holding up signs saying "VCU Workers United!" and one holding up a sign saying "Solidarity Not Austerity."

The Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of the United Campus Workers union, members of which are pictured here in 2021, is now fighting proposed layoffs.

Keshia Eugene

Faculty members in a Virginia Commonwealth University department that’s supposed to teach new students core skills say the university has proposed laying off about a third of them.

“The impact that this would have would be devastating to student success and retention given that our unit is so focused on the well-being and prosperity of our students,” said Ryan Cales, who’s in his 12th year teaching in the Focused Inquiry Department.

He also chairs the Focused Inquiry area committee for his university’s arm of the United Campus Workers, which has a petition opposing the proposed cuts.

That union doesn’t have a contract with Virginia Commonwealth—United Campus Workers often organizes in Southern states that don’t offer collective bargaining rights to public university employees. Cales said all the program’s faculty members are nontenured and work on single or multiyear contracts that automatically renew.

Cales said the classes, which teach fluent communication, ethical reasoning, problem-solving and other abilities, have no more than 19 students each, and each faculty member teaches four classes in the fall and four in the spring.

“We’re like the first contact with students, and our classes are designed to be seminar-style courses,” he said.

“We also are—because our classes are small in this large university—we’re the people that students often come to for things like letters of recommendation and just navigating the institution in general, like how you get counseling support,” he said.

Kris Byrd—director of assessment, planning and accreditation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—said she was one of the program’s founding faculty.

Byrd did the math for how many course sections would be eliminated if the university cuts 17 faculty members, without, “God forbid,” raising class sizes. Over 130 sections would be eliminated, she said.

“They already have trouble finding seats for all the students that need them because they’re foundational courses,” she said.

“Instead, they’re looking at potentially losing 130 sections, which is going to be chaos for students,” she said.

The university didn’t provide interviews Wednesday. A spokesman said in an email, “These are non-renewals of contracts, some of which will not happen for a few years.”

“The decision is being driven by changing student preferences as well as VCU’s ongoing efforts to strategically realign the institution to support student outcomes,” the email said. “Plans are being developed for all parts of the university, not just academic units, to improve efficiencies and outcomes.”

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