Questioning the Assumptions Behind Budget Cuts

March 2, 2021
 
 

To the editor:

On February 24, the provost, president and Board of Trustees of Ithaca College announced the College’s acceptance of a plan entitled “The Shape of the College,” which aims to reshape the institution’s academic infrastructure in the service of ensuring the stability of its finances in the long term. 

This announcement should not have come as a surprise to members of the College community, particularly given the article “Now Is the Time for Hard Decisions,” published by Inside Higher Ed on February 18, written by Ithaca's president and provost. The article endorses elements of this plan, most prominently its call for the elimination, beginning at the conclusion of the present academic year, of 116 FTEs, a reduction that will consist almost entirely of contingent and renewable term faculty positions. The article asserts that these reductions on this timeline are necessary. The Ithaca College AAUP chapter questions the assumptions on which this assertion is based, and we oppose the plan.

Ithaca College is not, of course, the only institution of higher education presently coping with financial challenges. Many other smaller private colleges and universities that operate on tuition-dependent revenue models are having similar conversations, particularly in the northeast. Yet many of these institutions are choosing very different paths. Notably, Hampshire College, facing a financial situation far more dire than that at our institution, implemented a strategy that relies on creative approaches to resource allocation and, most importantly, a shared sense of sacrifice among campus constituencies. Although the solutions Hampshire adopted are far from perfect, Hampshire faced the possibility that the college might close, and addressed its very serious problems with a clarity and unity of purpose.

Unfortunately, the strategy that our institution is currently pursuing is much more divisive. The IHE article claims that the proposed faculty reductions must target contingent and renewable term faculty because the College Faculty Handbook “clearly outlines the order in which faculty positions should be eliminated.” The result is that “the college will lose some wonderful academics due solely to their status as non-tenure-eligible faculty.” Unquestionably, the article is right to identify this as an “inequitable paradigm.” 

Astonishingly, however, it suggests the following means of redress: “[w]e hope that this reality will invite a conversation among faculty about faculty legislation and whether they wish to continue to privilege tenure and tenure-eligible status moving forward.” The creation of a more equitable professional climate, that is, can only be brought about by reducing—or perhaps, eliminating—the protections of tenure and tenure-eligible status. 

Why is the solution not rather to extend these protections throughout the full faculty, an initiative to which the institution has been constantly resistant over the last decade? Further, why not encourage and facilitate the unionization of all staff at Ithaca College, to ensure that staff will also be afforded the job tenure and protection they are entitled to? How does making all workers contingent and expendable drive “systemic change that dismantles the status quo”? Why must so many college and university administrators insist that the only way to be fair is for everyone to expect less? 

This raises a second point related to an even more fundamental assumption about the plan that the article asserts but does not defend, namely that faculty positions must be subject to mandatory reductions beginning at the end of the current academic year. AAUP guidelines indicate that reductions should be planned only when an institution is in a state of financial exigency, and only when alternative proposals are insufficient. Yet the College has not declared itself to be in a state of financial exigency, nor has the campus community as a whole been informed of alternative proposals. So then, what is the source of the imperative to implement these reductions now, particularly given that doing so will result in many contingent faculty members finding themselves without employment during a global pandemic?

The implicit answer to this question, we imagine, lies in the institution’s anxiety about its finances, which is perfectly fair. Here however, we return to the observation above: other institutions facing the same -- and far worse -- problems have chosen different paths forward. The path Ithaca College is currently pursuing seems to be based on the assumption that its employee constituencies have irrevocably different interests, and so any plan for the future of the institution must necessarily emphasize and deepen those differences. 

But it is our contention that this assumption is seriously flawed. Ithaca College faculty are proud of the curricular programs we have designed and implemented and proud of our research and our faculty colleagues; we are deeply grateful to the College staff, and grateful most of all for the College’s truly astonishing students. Why did this process not begin with the assumption that campus constituencies would willingly make sacrifices on each other’s behalf? The “Shape of the College” might then look very different indeed.

-- Ithaca College AAUP

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