‘They’re running it like a business’: As more cuts loom, UVM faculty debate the mission

UVM protest
A demonstration at the University of Vermont in Burlington in February 2019 was organized by United Academics, the UVM faculty union, to protest proposed cuts to the College of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Before the University of Vermont announced towering cuts in its liberal arts programs this fall, there were warning signs.

In April, foreseeing the pandemic’s heavy toll on higher education, the university announced a hiring freeze. In May, a warning arrived from President Suresh Garimella about the university’s shaky finances, along with threats to cut lecturers’ course loads. In October, he described an impending $21 million budget shortfall.

Still, when Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said Dec. 2 he was slashing 23 programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, it took faculty by surprise; no one had been consulted beforehand. Two weeks later, the university laid off three of its senior lecturers, in its English, history and geology departments. The provost has warned of more cuts to come.

Facing charges that the university is divesting its humanities programs, the UVM administration has painted a dire picture of liberal arts at the school. The College of Arts and Sciences is facing an $8.6 million deficit, Falls explained in his original memo. He blamed dwindling student interest in the humanities, particularly in the low-enrollment programs that were cut — religion, area studies, German. That deficit, he said, is set to widen.

Yet in the weeks since the cuts, these claims have come under scrutiny. Some faculty point to administrators’ inflated salaries ($560,000 a year for Garimella, $660,000 for Richard Page, dean of the Larner College of Medicine) and the university’s levying of student fees to fund costly amenities as evidence of shifting priorities, not financial strain.

“I do charge this administration with incredible academic dishonesty,” said Nancy Welch, a UVM professor of English and member of the UVM United Against Cuts coalition, a group leading the charge against the college administration.

“The pandemic provided them with an opportunity,” she said. “It provided them with a series of claims that they’re making about university finances that are just false and misleading.”

At the heart of the criticisms is UVM’s funding scheme — a model implemented in 2016, spearheaded by then-provost David Rosowsky. UVM calls it incentive-based budgeting, or IBB (elsewhere, it’s called responsibility centered management).

The model, which is gaining popularity nationally, is controversial. Its critics charge that it fosters excessive administrative spending and causes departments and programs to compete for student tuition dollars. As a result, they say, less profitable subjects are left by the wayside. 

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Charlie Briggs, a UVM lecturer in medieval history who was laid off last month, told VTDigger at the time that he saw his termination as one consequence of the IBB system. 

“They’re running the university like a business,” Welch said, noting that the university has continued to hire upper-level financial analysts even amid faculty layoffs. “And it’s a disaster for education.”

As universities across the country confront the pandemic, faculty say they see parallels: administrations forcing curriculum changes that had been on the agenda for years, citing the pandemic. The story of how UVM has justified its own curriculum cuts sheds light on this reckoning in higher education.

The University of Vermont campus in Burlington in June 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A trend since 2008

By Falls’ telling, liberal arts at UVM has been imperiled since the 2008 recession. This is a well-worn story in U.S. higher ed. In the past dozen years, humanities majors declined nationally. Many blamed the financial crisis for plunging students into economic precarity and sending them toward more career-oriented fields of study as a result.

At UVM, the trend created what Falls calls a “structural deficit” in the College of Arts and Sciences. This deficit is a point of contention. What looks like a deficit to some is, to others, money that has been deliberately siphoned away from the humanities.

Detailed admissions data obtained by VTDigger shows that first-year fall enrollment in the college peaked in 2009, at 1,418, then declined. But since 2014, those numbers have risen, albeit gradually, and have stabilized. The college had about 1,200 enrollments in both 2019 and 2020, bringing it up to enrollment levels seen in 2006 and 2007. 

“Maybe they have tea leaves I’m not looking at,” said Meaghan Emery, a professor of French at UVM. “But I don’t see these numbers indicating that we are going out of business for lack of student interest.”

Bill Falls, dean of the UVM College of Arts and Sciences. UVM photo

Falls is adamant that the numbers still don’t shake out. “Costs are rising faster than we can generate revenue,” Falls said. “Unless we can figure out how to make more money for the university, then the only thing we have left is to cut.” 

In internal communications obtained by VTDigger via records requests, Falls described feeling as though he had little option but to slash programs, likening the decision to a “hand grenade” he hoped would create needed change.

Yet, the College of Arts and Sciences doesn’t see all of the money it makes for the university — a frustration for faculty. This is baked into the IBB model: Each year, tens of millions of undergraduate tuition dollars are withheld and redistributed across programs to, as Falls put it, “smooth out the peaks and valleys.” 

For the college, the system has only deepened its deficit. Even as its finances have wavered, the school has not been on the receiving end of the money. The administration says this is by virtue of the college enrolling the most students: “This redistribution has always occurred at UVM,” the university wrote in a 2016 document, calling it “the means by which all comprehensive universities support a wide array of programs.” 

In effect, though, the college is subsidizing some of UVM’s other schools — including the Larner College of Medicine, which receives about $13 million in undergraduate tuition dollars each year despite not enrolling any undergraduate students, budget data shows. 

“We are generating the most money,” Welch said, “but we are systematically being given too little back to fund what we do.”

Falls doesn’t dispute the numbers. “There’s a delta there,” he said, between revenue generated and revenue received. But this is longstanding, he says, and it’s not a simple problem to fix, because changing how the funds are allocated would just shift the deficit over to another unit.

Sky-high salaries

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Some answer that concern by pointing to swelling administrative costs.

Even with UVM’s budget deficits, layoffs and limited state funding, it has been steadily increasing the pay of its upper administration. Thirty-one of its administrators made more than $200,000 in 2020, according to salary data obtained by VTDigger, and wages had risen an average of 7% from 2019.

UVM President Suresh Garimella on his first day on the job, July 1, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

While non-unionized UVM staff received mandatory cuts in their pay during the pandemic, such cuts were optional for UVM administrators. Some highly paid administrators were asked to take pay cuts, the university says, but not all did: 18 highly paid deans and sports coaches took less than the recommended 5% cut, or none at all.

And even with the optional cuts, 26 administrators were still receiving a higher salary in 2021 than in 2019. In fact, on average, pay for administrators was about 1% higher in 2021 than in 2019. 

UVM United Against Cuts points to this as evidence that the university is looking for savings in the wrong places. In 2019, they note, the collective salaries of the three faculty members laid off most recently totaled less than $200,000 a year — pocket change compared to other university spending.

Such pay disparities are not atypical in higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s database, more than 100 presidents of public universities had a higher salary than Garimella’s $560,000 in 2019.

A national trend

Critics describe this as a national trend: As a result of new, corporate funding models, money is being directed from subjects like liberal arts to costly STEM programs and to the salaries of administrators.

Michael Bugeja, an English professor at Iowa State University, has studied and written about such management practices for years. He blames them for an array of issues plaguing public universities: “ballooning administrative costs, curricular glut, duplication of courses, excessive student amenities,” he told VTDigger. “Responsibility centered management is really the problem.”

In UVM’s case, the system means funding for programs is based on the number of student credit hours taught, incentivizing departments to increase class sizes. An initial report on IBB at UVM found that, after one year, course sizes had not increased significantly, but several faculty told VTDigger they had attempted to increase class size to increase department revenue.

Welch says this has affected the “intellectual rigor” of courses, and pitted departments against one another to bring in tuition dollars. 

Falls brushed away those criticisms. The system, he said, “added a little bit more motivation [for departments] to really do what’s right for the students and for the institution.”

UVM geology professor Paul Bierman, right, at a project in Cuba . Photo courtesy Paul Bierman

Paul Bierman, a UVM professor of geology, has his critiques of the model. Yet there’s some benefit, he said, to incentivizing professors to make their classes more appealing to students. 

“That’s what good departments around the country have learned in the last decade, if they want to succeed,” he said. “You gotta be popular.”

Geology is one of the departments on the chopping block. And Bierman and his colleagues have spent the last weeks dreaming up a plan to reimagine the department — in part to modernize the curriculum, which for years has been in a rut of traditional, and less popular, geology courses. 

But the plan will also better fit the enrollment and credit-hour metrics the university is pushing.

Bierman said he feels that, ultimately, the deficits that UVM is contending with are “the reality of a state university that is funded by the Legislature.” Much of the school’s financial woes stem from Vermont’s perennial underfunding of higher education. By some metrics, the state ranks last in the nation in funding its public colleges and universities.

And underfunding education has consequences for the Vermonters who rely on UVM as their flagship university. Emery emphasized that the many Vermont students who cannot afford out-of-state tuition rely on UVM to provide a robust liberal arts education.

“This is, for them, something that has a lot of importance and significance,” she said. Ultimately, the university, above all, “should be serving the students of the state.”

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