Robert Zaretsky: UVM’s ‘reinvention’ threatens the idea of a liberal education

This commentary is by Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston who earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Vermont in 1983.

“Bureaucratic language is designed to make statistics sound truthful and the murder of academic departments respectable.” Admittedly, this is not quite what George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” in 1946. But 75 years later, humanities professors who still assign Orwell’s essay in their classes rightly see its relevance for a profession facing not just the challenge of the current pandemic, but also the challenge of administrators who, by exploiting the crisis, are trying to kneecap the liberal arts.

This is a tune that many readers can already hum. 

In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein naturally focuses on national governments, private corporations and transnational organizations whose interests inevitably overlap in countless ways. To make “disaster capitalism” work, you need men and women who know a thing or two about the playing of market forces and shedding of dispensable workers. 

But the human tragedies tallied by Klein can turn to farce when attempted by university administrators. Take François Furstenberg’s recent account in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Johns Hopkins’ decision, despite sitting on more than $2 billion in reserves, to drain $100 million from the faculty’s pension plan in the name of “decisive austerity measures.” 

The results of a forensic analysis commissioned by an outraged faculty revealed that rather than hemorrhaging more than $50 million for fiscal year 2020, the university would instead harvest $75 million in profits. Embarrassed by this revelation, as well as other financial missteps by his administration, President Ronald Daniels annulled the austerity measures announced just a few months before.

A similar pattern is now unfolding at the University of Vermont. Last December, the administration, led by Suresh Garimella, a mechanical engineer who had just been installed as the university’s president, announced deep budget cuts across all the departments. Predictably, the slashes were deepest at the College of Arts and Sciences. Twelve majors and several departments would be shuttered — including Latin, German, Greek, geology and religion — while the contracts of several senior non-tenure lecturers would not be renewed. One of these popular lecturers, Jamie Williamson, had taught classes in indigenous and fantasy literature, particularly the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, for 30 years and was just four years shy of retirement.

Though not quite Mordor marching on the Shire, the situation was grave. Protests erupted at the university, spearheaded by UVM United Against the Cuts, an unaffiliated group of UVM faculty, students and alumnae, which launched a no-confidence petition against Garimella. “Something is terribly awry,” Associate Professor of French Meaghan Emery declared. “Faculty are very concerned about UVM’s budgetary practices and lack of transparency.” 

They were no less concerned by the administration’s response to their resistance. When a tenured English professor, Nancy Welch, shared the link for the petition on her UVM email account, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Falls called her to his office. According to a transcript, Falls lambasted Welch for her “unconscionable” encouragement of colleagues to sign the petition. He ended the meeting by warning that, should Welch continue “misusing university resources,” a “formal discipline” hearing might follow. 

When not chastising their faculty for disseminating the petition, the administration chided their lack of financial acumen. In a radio interview, Provost Patty Prelock insisted the university faces a “much more complicated financial framework than I think our union colleagues really understand.” Echoing other UVM officials, she suggested that the dissenting faculty fail to grasp the difference between budgets and finances. 

Wittingly or not, the administration is conflating two different practices. I sympathize with their mistake because it is a mistake I often make. In my case, though, it happens when I conflate my syllabus — i.e., my budget for the reading and writing I expect of my students — with the profit and loss columns of what my students expect of themselves. 

But whereas my profits are usually dwarfed by my losses, this is not so with the liberal arts at UVM. 

In an online press conference, representatives of UVM United Against the Cuts — including a corporate analyst — used the university’s financial statements to show how the College of Arts and Sciences, rather than causing a “structural deficit” of $8 million, had instead created $34 million more in net undergraduate tuition revenue between 2016 and 2020 than it had spent. 

During this same period, the College of Arts and Sciences funneled $88 million (44 percent) to the university’s subvention fund, receiving only $54 million (27 percent) in funding. In effect, the liberal arts are the university’s cash cow. 

At the same time, the university’s top administrators earned $23 million in salaries and benefits. In 2019-20 — the same year, coincidentally, that Garimella became president — administrators at UVM gave themselves over a million dollars in compensation. Even a French historian can do the math: This is nearly twice the $600,000 the university will save by shutting down the departments of classics, religion and geology.

According to Moody’s, UVM has “solid reserves, liquidity, and the manageable leverage” that will allow it to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic. Does the fault, then, lie not with Moody’s stars, but with the administration’s budgetary choices? 

For some observers, the image of private equity takeovers might come to mind, with corporate raiders who require the company they have bought to finance its own dismantling. Other observers might instead seize on the parallel with the federal tax structure. In this scenario, think of the College of Arts and Sciences as New York (which paid $116 billion more in federal taxes between 2015 and 2018 than it tapped) and UVM administration as, say, Kentucky (which was showered in $148 million more in federal funding than it coughed up).

The upshot is that UVM’s vaunted “reinvention” threatens the idea of a liberal education with extinction. Think of the futures of students who would either major or minor or simply take a class in one of these departments and, perhaps, have their lives take an unexpected direction. 

I speak as one of those students. In 1981, when I arrived at UVM to do a master’s degree in history, my plan was to specialize in American history. Yet I was assigned as my adviser Patrick Hutton, a renowned historian of 19th-century France. Due to his contagious curiosity about the past and deep generosity toward his students, I decided to become a French historian as well. Forty years later, I remain deeply grateful that UVM was a place where such accidents could happen.

President Garimella has yet to speak or meet with protesting faculty. His reclusiveness reminds me of another engineer who, during my time at UVM, also resided in Vermont. But Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s position on the liberal arts differed dramatically from President Garimella’s. 

“All hope cannot be pinned on science, technology, or economic growth,” the Nobel Prize laureate wrote nearly 30 years ago. “The victory of technological civilization has also instilled in us a spiritual insecurity. Its gifts enrich but enslave us as well. All is interests, we must not neglect our interests, all is a struggle for material things; but an inner voice tells us that we have lost something pure, elevated, and fragile. We have ceased to see the purpose.”


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