UVM approaches record enrollment in the liberal arts

University of Vermont students move into their dorms in Burlington on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Science is reporting sky-high enrollment, leaving school officials scrambling to adjust staffing needs for an influx of up to 200 students more than expected.

Officials expect up to 1,476 students to enroll this fall, approaching the previous record of 1,481 in 2014. It marks an increase from the past three years, when enrollment has hovered around 1,200.

The numbers call into question a restructuring plan within the college that faculty and students have been protesting for months. University officials have defended the plan, saying it’s still needed.

Bill Falls, dean of the University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Science, last fall had painted a dire picture of the liberal arts on campus. 

His sudden announcement on Dec. 2 said that the university planned to cut 23 programs, most in the humanities. Two weeks later, the university laid off three lecturers in its history, English and geology departments. 

Falls maintained that declining enrollment had left the university no choice but to cut. Too few students were interested in the liberal arts to sustain programs such as classics, religion or geology in their current state, he said.

In an email sent to faculty on Friday, and obtained by VTDigger, Falls called the increase in students putting down deposits for the incoming fall class a “large surprise.”

“While numbers are up across the university, they are most dramatically up in [the college],” Falls wrote. 

Those numbers will be good for the university’s finances — but they will stretch the college’s capacity, which was anticipating a class of 200 fewer students.

Furthermore, over the past year, the school has contended with program cuts, layoffs, and the impact of a long-term hiring freeze.

University administration has maintained that the decline has left the college with a “structural deficit,” although some faculty dispute that.

The university will offer to restore the contracts of the three senior lecturers who were laid off in December, Falls wrote, saying he was “hopeful” they would agree to return, despite an “extraordinarily difficult” year.

Even if they do, that likely won’t be enough to address the “urgent challenges” that Falls says the college is facing. The university is rushing to ask professors and lecturers to teach larger course loads, to handle the greater demand.

The enrollment figures aren’t finalized. Students may choose not to enroll even after they have put down deposits — a phenomenon the university calls “melt.” Other students may not return for the fall.

In his Friday email, Falls said he realizes “this larger than expected class will cause many to question the wider proposals I have put forward for changes.”

But Falls says he won’t be going back on the planned consolidations. “I still firmly believe those changes are necessary,” he wrote, but acknowledged that the college “needs to develop a plan for further hiring.” 

For Paul Bierman, a professor of geology at UVM, the memo was hardly good news.

“How do you fire people and then turn around and say, “Will you come back, please?’” he said. He found the process “incredibly disrespectful,” he said. 

Still, Falls was adamant in the email that the increase “came as a surprise to me and my team.”

“It shows that students believe in our faculty and all that we have to offer,” he 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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