Education

Thousands petition against proposed cuts to humanities at UVM

A view inside the Waterman building on University of Vermont campus in Burlington pre-pandemic. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Carolynn van Arsdale didn’t come to the University of Vermont expecting to be a religion major. But when she took a theology class on a whim, “the class changed my life,” she said. “The Religion Department really made me who I am, and has helped me figure out what I want to do with my life.”

The religion major is one of 23 programs in UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences that the university said Wednesday it plans to cut, as it grapples with a $27.9 million budget shortfall over the next three years. If the plans are finalized, 12 of the college’s 56 majors, 11 of 63 minors, and four of 10 graduate programs will vanish.

Van Arsdale, who will graduate in two weeks, is one of thousands of students and faculty who have voiced their opposition to the cuts in the day since the announcement. A petition to preserve the school’s religion major garnered more than 1,700 signatures in 24 hours — one of several petitions in circulation. After the announcement, the UVM student union called for an emergency meeting to discuss the proposed cuts, and a Facebook page dubbed UVM United Against Cuts drew a slew of posts worrying over the proposal.

“There’s definitely a rallying cry from students and the community that this cannot happen,” van Arsdale said. She is “heartbroken,” she said.

None of UVM’s faculty, students, or staff were consulted or informed of the decision before the collegewide email was sent out Wednesday. In the six-page memo, Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described the plan as the culmination of years of depressed enrollment in the university’s liberal arts programs, as well as the pandemic’s impacts on budget. 

Through a “data-informed process,” the letter reads, the administration decided to terminate programs offering low numbers of degrees, calling some of the programs “no longer sustainable.”

The majors set for termination include Asian Studies, religion, geology and classics, and individual language programs (Asian languages, German and Russian, Romance languages) will be combined into a new School of Languages. Only the Italian program and the German major are targeted for elimination.

Correction: This article initially said, incorrectly, that a number of language programs, including Latin, Greek, German and Russian, would be eliminated, and other programs would be consolidated.

Students and faculty shocked

Julie Roberts, president of UVM’s faculty union, said she was shocked when she heard the proposal, but she wasn’t surprised that neither she nor her colleagues were included in the conversations leading up to it.

“I think, unfortunately, it’s starting to feel common,” Roberts said. “This administration has made almost all their decisions unilaterally and without input from the rest of the university, by which I mean faculty, staff and students.”

Falls said he had a hard time imagining a way to productively involve faculty in a discussion about the impossible choices UVM has to consider.

“Maybe people smarter than me could have thought of a way to do that, but I couldn’t come up with one,” he said.

Roberts said that, in her 25 years at UVM, she’s worked under a number of different administrations, but President Suresh Garimella’s leadership and his approach toward educational cuts is “unprecedented.”

“It’s enraging and gutting,” Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, an Islamic Studies professor in the Department of Religion, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “The argument is that our number of majors is too small. Never mind that all our courses serve [the] university mission, especially diversity ones.”

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella announces a one-year tuition freeze for students in November 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Only a proposal

Officially, the cuts have not yet been finalized. University policy requires an extensive review when termination of academic programs is contested, concluding in a vote by the faculty senate. But ultimately, the provost will have the final say. The senate’s vote is advisory.

Tom Chittenden, president of the faculty senate and a Chittenden County state senator-elect, said the plan’s announcement prior to a faculty evaluation process, and without faculty input, is “a massive departure” from the university’s norms. He worries that now the administration will plow ahead with the cuts regardless of the outcome of a vote. 

Thomas Chittenden
Tom Chittenden is president of the faculty senate and a Chittenden County state senator-elect. Provided photo

“I have reason to believe that the administration is committed to executing these changes without consideration by the faculty senate,” he said, citing the decisive language in Falls’ Wednesday memo. 

Chittenden described the actions as part of a larger pattern. On Nov. 9, the university announced a proposal to reconfigure the institution, composed currently of five colleges and two schools, into a “four-college conceptual model,” and said it intended to draw up an implementation plan by March. 

The plan, Chittenden said, “came forward without any support of faculty as the direction we were going to move this institution in.”

“That’s when it became apparent to me that there is a drive in this current administration to move forward a drastic overhaul of this institution, without involving enough voices at the table to make it a successful effort,” he said.

“They have a lot of institutional juice behind them,” said Phil Baruth, a state senator and UVM English professor. “I think it’s likely that, in the end, a number of these moves come about.”

Phil Baruth, is an English professor at UVM and a Democratic state senator from Chittenden County.

Baruth is on a committee that’s reviewing the future of the Vermont State Colleges System, which has been financially plagued for years. He said UVM, by contrast, has an “extremely healthy endowment.” 

“I feel like in the case of the state colleges, there’s a more existential question on the table, so I think it’s fair to be asking should we be teaching x, y and z in that case,” said Baruth, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “In UVM’s case, I don’t see them as nearly as pressured financially.”

A shift away from liberal arts

For many students, including van Arsdale, the cuts are emblematic of a university that, even before the pandemic, was turning away from liberal arts. In February 2019, staffing cuts in the College of Arts and Sciences spurred protest from students and faculty. The year before, the university floated even larger cuts to non-tenure-track staff.

Students warn that the reductions have narrowed educational opportunities at UVM. 

“I feel like there’s a real loss of cultural diversity happening,” said Paige Bissaillon, a junior at UVM, noting that languages and cultural studies have been hit particularly hard. “And I think that doesn’t go along with the university’s mission statement.”

Years of under-resourcing, say students and faculty, have harmed the quality of the programs. Such was the case in the classics department, one of the programs slated for termination, says UVM student Meghan Keefe. 

“The administration did not renew our senior lecturer’s contract or replace our ancient historian post-retirement,” Keefe wrote in a letter to VTDigger, on behalf of the university’s classics club. She said that contributed to the program’s inability to offer sufficient courses to students — one of the reasons Falls gave for cutting the program.

“The administration has rendered us inefficient and now seeks to blame us for it,” she said.

“I had been worried about the humanities for a while,” Van Arsdale said. The earlier cuts “were all signs to me that my institution is undercutting some really important work that’s being done in smaller humanities departments, for more profitable gain for the university as a whole.” 

She said the university has invested $95 million in renovating its athletic facilities, while hanging its humanities programs out to dry.

University of Vermont officials and key donors take part in ceremonial groundbreaking for a new sports complex last year outside Gutterson Fieldhouse. Photo by Aidan Quigley/VTDigger

Falls told VTDigger he understands why the towering athletics investment is tough for people to look at while the humanities are being cut, but said they are “mistaken” about the university’s funding structure. UVM’s general revenues, which fund faculty salaries, are not funding the athletic complex, he said. That money is “from a completely different pool that we would not have access to.”

“Folks mistakenly think that there is just one pot of money,” Falls said. “Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

And the College of Arts and Sciences, Falls explained, is far more reliant on undergraduate tuition, compared with the university’s other colleges: 72% of its income comes from undergraduate tuition, while other schools “aren’t even close to that” percentage.

“That puts us in a challenging position when undergraduate enrollment drops, like what happened this year with the pandemic,” he said.

Roberts said she thinks the targeting of the College of Arts and Sciences reflects both a devaluation of liberal arts and a change in budget models that won’t stop with cuts in arts and sciences.

“There are already indications this change will not stop with arts and sciences,” Roberts said. “Other colleges are already being asked to reduce their budgets and cut low-enrollment programs.”

A little over a year ago, Garimella announced a freeze on tuition, a move he re-upped in October. At the time, Garimella said the freeze would not be “built on the backs of our employees” or funded by staff cuts.

“As far as I’m concerned, he has broken that word,” Roberts said.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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