Universities Are Slashing Faculties and Blaming Covid

A Covid-19 awareness sign at the University of Vermont, where administrators are moving forward with…

In May of 2020, the University of Vermont’s president, Suresh Garimella, issued an update on the school’s finances. Citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Garimella put forth a bleak prognosis of lower enrollment, higher costs, and stagnant tuition rates necessitating reductions in salaries, benefits, and staff. In December of 2020, the dean of UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences, William Falls, followed up with his recommendation of terminating 12 majors, 11 minors, and four master’s programs, in order to close a $8.6 million deficit. But Helen Scott, a professor of English at UVM, points out that the school’s administrators have alternatives to such “draconian measures.”

“As the president put it in his 2020 financial report, ‘the state of UVM’s finances is sound,’ and the university’s net position had increased by $24 million,” says Scott, citing the University of Vermont’s Annual Financial Report. “A $34 million ‘rainy day’ fund has not been touched. The administration has thereby manufactured a so-called budget deficit in the college, which allows them to argue that CAS is not sustainable.”

The University of Vermont is just one of many schools whose faculties accuse administrators of using Covid-19 as false justification for attempts to push through long-sought budget cuts—even after receiving millions of dollars in pandemic-related relief from the federal government. Faculties are now rallying their communities to oppose the cuts, which they fear will further impoverish educators and students alike.

Universities across the country have proposed or instituted cuts since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of 2020, despite receiving significant federal aid. Aside from the previously mentioned cuts at the University of Vermont, faculty and staff at Salem State University in Massachusetts were subjected to weeks of furloughs; two entire colleges at William Paterson University in New Jersey were consolidated; and 41 tenured or tenure-track faculty at the College of Saint Rose in New York were laid off. According to figures reported by the federal government, all of the schools received millions of dollars in Covid relief: UVM received $12 million, Salem State $14 million, William Paterson $22 million, and the College of Saint Rose $5 million.

Barbara Madeloni, a facilitator with Public Higher Education Workers, a network that supports organizing among university workers, attributes the persistence of cuts despite funding to a much longer-term project of transforming higher education into an industry run on contingent faculty and student debt, rather than a public good funded by taxes.

“We’ve been underfunding and defunding public higher education for a couple of decades now,” says Madeloni, referring to state and federal funding. “This was an issue before the pandemic hit, and the crisis of the pandemic has been a place where there are universities that are stepping in and trying to take advantage of that and, in doing so, change the nature of what it means to be a public university—to have full access for all students, to have a broad and deep and liberatory education—and to instead narrow the purposes and possibilities of public higher ed to exert a sort of market- and commodity-based system on it, rather than to preserve it as a public good that is essential to democracy.”