UVM trustees approve cuts to 2 majors and 16 minors

The Old Mill building on the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington on June 6, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The first round of cuts at the University of Vermont is underway.  

At a meeting last Friday, the university’s board of trustees approved the termination of two majors — dietetics, nutrition and food sciences; and sustainable landscape horticulture — in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

(While these majors have technically been terminated, the subject matter is not going away. The new Nutrition and Food Sciences major has three concentrations, one of which is dietetics. Similarly, sustainable landscape horticulture studies are still available under a newly named major, Agroecology and Landscape Design.)

Trustees also agreed to cut 16 secondary education minors in the College of Education and Social Services. 

The cuts are separate from a proposal announced last December to axe 23 undergraduate and four master’s programs from the College of Arts and Sciences. Friday was the first time the trustees met since February, when faculty and students held a “teach-in” to protest that proposal. 

“This kind of wholesale slaughter of programs is quite new,” said Julie Roberts, a professor of linguistics at the University of Vermont and president of United Academics, the faculty union. 

Though some minors have previously been cut when faculty felt it was no longer possible to continue running them effectively, the university has never eliminated this many programs at one time, Roberts said. 

The cuts are part of a “university-wide initiative to regularly and systematically review all low-enrollment/low graduation programs to better align resources with strategic priorities, and to enhance UVM’s long-term financial sustainability,” according to a press release issued by the university.

“An equally important reason for curating our degree offerings is to ensure that we are providing our students with an array of properly resourced programs that can maintain strong enrollments, and to foster the vitality necessary to achieve a high-quality academic experience,” Patty Prelock, provost and senior vice president, said in the release. 

Friday’s meeting, which attendees could join by phone, also included an update from Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, on the college’s program review. (VTDigger was not present at the meeting but obtained an audio recording.)

“Only as many as two” of the 12 majors, 11 minors and four master’s programs proposed to be cut will be contested by faculty, Falls said in the meeting. 

That means there’s a less robust process before the proposals are put before the board of trustees for a final vote, Roberts said. The faculty union opposes the process by which cuts are reaching the trustees, she said. 

Falls did not respond to an interview request.

“The faculty involved in the various departments and programs, I believe, are feeling very job-insecure and very frightened,” Roberts said.  

During his Friday update, Falls pointed to the decreasing number of students majoring in the arts and social sciences. He said they are opting instead for majors such as neuroscience, biology and chemistry. 

“I think everybody on this call knows that a major in liberal arts is not career preparation,” Falls said. “Really, what is career preparation is the broad liberal arts education itself.” 

When the cuts were announced in December, Falls also cited a decreasing number of students majoring in the arts and social sciences, as well as structural deficits made worse by the pandemic.

But in May, the college — and the university at large — reported enrollment numbers that approached record highs. Falls called the numbers a “large surprise,” according to an email sent to faculty that was obtained by VTDigger. 

Falls maintained that some programs would still have to go, despite concern among other college officials that there would not be enough faculty to teach the incoming surge of students, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Some faculty said the ongoing discussions over cuts and consolidations, in addition to challenges imposed by the pandemic, have dampened morale on campus. Paul Bierman, a professor of geology at the University of Vermont, said the level of discontent is “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” 

Campus climate and working conditions are especially poor for faculty who identify as women, LGBTQ+ or BIPOC, according to a survey conducted in April by the Faculty Women’s Caucus at the University of Vermont.

More than 80% of the 108 respondents said recent decisions made by the university administration have had a “large negative effect” on the campus climate and working conditions. More than half indicated that they were leaving or considering leaving the university in the near future. A third of respondents said their perspective has been impacted by recent trends.

Respondents also rated the university as either fair or poor on matters of equity and transparency. 

“I’ve been here 28 years, and I have never in my life seen faculty this depressed, this angry and with as little support for the higher administration,” Bierman said. 

The trustees also approved a general fund operating expense budget of nearly $380 million for fiscal year 2022 at Friday’s meeting. 

The final proposal for the College of Arts and Sciences cuts could be put before the trustees at their next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 29-30.

This report has been clarified to state that some of the subject matter will continue to be taught at UVM.

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Seamus McAvoy

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