Jessica Penny Evans, a lecturer in the classics department at the University of Vermont, has had a rough few weeks. On December 3, the day after the administration announced that her department would be eliminated in a series of proposed cuts to the school’s liberal arts offerings, Evans stood in front of her students and tried to talk about gender and sexuality in ancient Rome.
“It was one of my hardest days,” said Evans. In nine years of teaching at the college level, she explained, she’s worked hard to cultivate authority in the classroom; that day, she struggled to keep her composure. “My students were amazing and so supportive, and we ended up having this lovely conversation about why we study classics in the first place,” she said. “When I think about what the future would look like without those kinds of reflective conversations — and that’s really what Plato meant by ‘the good life’ — I feel deeply, deeply sad.”
Evans is far from alone in her grief. Soon after the administration announced the sweeping cuts, which would phase out 12 of the college’s 56 majors, 11 of its 63 minors, and four of its 10 master’s programs, students and faculty swiftly condemned the proposal. Senior Katherine Brennan, a religion major, started a Change.org petition to protest the elimination of the religion department, which, along with the classics and geology departments, is slated to be cut. To date, nearly 4,400 people have signed it.
On Thursday, Brennan was one of nearly a dozen students, faculty and community members who spoke during a virtual panel discussion on the existential threat the cuts pose to UVM’s liberal arts curriculum — and the university’s purported commitment to diversity.
“What is our institution saying about diversity when the cuts are being made to the college with the greatest number of faculty of color, to the programs that teach us so much about ourselves and other cultures?” said Lacey Sloan, associate professor of social work. “Our students need the knowledge, the values and the skills that are offered across the humanities to become good citizens and critical thinkers with empathy.”
Earlier this week, three senior lecturers in the English, geology and history departments were laid off. One of them, Jamie Williamson, had taught in the English department for more than 30 years, and he was one of only a few professors at UVM who offered courses on Indigenous history and culture.
“Senior lecturers have higher salaries, but they don’t have the protection of tenure,” said Evans, who, next year, will be eligible for a promotion to senior lecturer herself. “So it makes sense that they would be the first to go.”
The news of the layoffs hit Evans hard. “All three of their contracts were up for renewal, and so much of who gets cut seems to boil down to arbitrary timing,” she said. Her own contract isn’t up for renewal until next year, but in the meantime, she said, she can’t quite wrap her head around what her future might look like.
“If my contract doesn’t get renewed, I’ll have to re-envision my career entirely. The job market for classics professors has always been horrific, and at this point, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to find another way to do what I’ve been trained to do. It’s not just about losing a job — it’s a whole life that I’ve built.”
As UVM confronts a budget shortfall of $8.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year, the administration has presented these cuts as necessary austerity measures. “This decision has been extremely difficult,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Falls in a December 2 email to students and faculty. “It has been informed by data and guided by a strategy to focus on the future success of our College by consolidating our structure and terminating programs that can no longer be supported without jeopardizing programs with more robust enrollment.”
One of Evan’s colleagues in the classics department, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for professional repercussion, feels that the administration is cherry-picking data to support the cuts — by focusing, for instance, on the average number of majors a department graduates in a given year, a figure that often doesn’t capture a program’s general reach. In the 2017-18 academic year, the classics department taught 851 students, which works out to roughly 70 students per faculty member. “That sounds very different than saying that we only graduate four or five majors a year,” the faculty member said.
In the classics professor’s view, what’s fundamentally at stake is the university’s commitment to its own espoused ideals. “You’re not a university with a capital U unless you're offering a certain range of things,” said the faculty member. “As a state university, we’re an access point for Vermonters who can't afford to go somewhere else, and those students should be given the widest choice possible.”
The culling of humanities offerings, the faculty member noted, reflects a subtle but ominous shift in President Suresh Garimella’s public messaging. While UVM’s official mission statement emphasizes “a comprehensive commitment to a liberal arts education,” Garimella’s strategic vision for the university, as stated on UVM’s website, references “exposure to the humanities.”
“I think the most positive spin you could put on that is that we’ll introduce you to the humanities, and if you’re interested, then you can go study them sometime,” said the classics department member. “But if you’re not going to study the humanities in college, where are you going to study them?”