- Marc Nadel
On December 15, Jamie Williamson learned that the coming spring semester, the 30th of his career on the English department faculty at the University of Vermont, would be his last. Fifteen years ago, Williamson, now 61, achieved the rank of senior lecturer, a title that generally confers the aura, if not the promise, of job security. His annual salary, just shy of $60,000, is on the upper end of nontenured faculty earnings.
By his own calculations, Williamson has taught somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 students. His online reviews suggest that he is a generous, rigorous, endearingly disheveled instructor with a loyal fan base. "Professor Williamson looks like something of a cross between the stereotypical mad scientist and a tousled but kind hobo, and his personality and teaching style somewhat matches the former," one student review reads.
"My classes are always full," Williamson said. "I have a prize-winning book published. I could go down the gamut. Within the big, big framework of the institution, I'm quite cost-effective." In addition to first-year writing seminars and American literature survey courses, Williamson teaches several popular classes on Indigenous American literature, a subject no other UVM faculty member offers.
Last spring, the UVM administration announced that the course assignments of some nontenure-track faculty, the most precariously employed contingent in the university, would be reduced by 25 percent to defray a projected $15 million in pandemic-related costs. Williamson managed to avoid having his teaching load cut in the fall, but he took little comfort in that reprieve. "When you work someplace for 30 years, you kind of become aware of how they operate," he said.
Then, on December 2, dean Bill Falls dropped a bomb on the College of Arts and Sciences: He proposed phasing out 12 of its 56 majors, 11 of its 63 minors and four of its 10 master's programs — all told, a fifth of the college's offerings. The affected departments weren't consulted about the proposal, nor were they forewarned. All 322 faculty and 4,468 students found out at the same time, via email.
With the exception of geology, the proposal targeted the humanities. Classics, religion and geology would cease to exist as departments and majors; the Asian, European, Latin American and Caribbean, and Italian studies majors would also be eliminated. Graduate studies in Greek, Latin and geology would be discontinued, along with a master's degree in historic preservation. These particular programs were selected for termination, according to Falls, because of their chronically low enrollment — less than 0.5 percent of all students in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The dean framed the proposal as both a strategic, data-driven initiative and a necessary austerity measure. But eliminating majors and departments does not, on its own, balance the books. The bulk of the anticipated cost-savings — somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000 per year, by Falls' estimate — would come primarily from cutting faculty positions. Williamson was not the only faculty member to find out on December 15 that his contract would not be renewed. That day, the deadline for notifying senior lecturers of reappointment, two such faculty members in the departments of history and geology, who had served for 12 and 28 years, respectively, also learned they would be laid off after this academic year.
Williamson, who had planned to retire in 2025, will receive six months severance pay. When he asked Falls why he was being let go, Williamson said, Falls told him that the decision was "strictly budgetary."
- James Buck
- Julie Roberts
The layoffs caused an immediate outcry among the faculty. "I don't think these nonrenewals are evidence of any strategy whatsoever, except 'These people are up for renewal, and the deadline is here to tell them whether or not they're going to be renewed, so I'm just going to act on it,'" said Julie Roberts, a linguistics professor and the president of the faculty union.
While the university has so far cut only lecturers, who lack the protections of tenure, dissolving departments, as Falls has recommended, would provide a mechanism for eliminating tenured professors, too. According to Roberts, the fear of dismissal has already seeped far and wide into the university community: "It has been absolutely devastating to faculty morale." Some of her colleagues, she said, have begun to think about leaving.
Falls' proposal and the incipient winnowing of faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences have provoked sharp criticism both within the institution and without. The timing of the announcement — at the end of the semester, during the hectic week before finals, in the middle of a pandemic — immediately registered as suspicious. "It came at a time when everyone was busy and wouldn't be able to gather and strategize," said Cobalt Tolbert, a senior majoring in English and philosophy. "It was deliberate and strategic, and that was lost on no one."
Among faculty and students, the prospect of the cuts has fomented an atmosphere of rancor and distrust. At the heart of the opposition is the sentiment that the budgetary crisis is, in the words of English professor and faculty organizer Nancy Welch, a "manufactured" crisis, the foreordained result of a slow, intentional divestment from the humanities.
"The only reason I can think of that they would take what has been the heart of UVM's reputation — the liberal arts core, the idea that you can come here and have all of the advantages of a research university, but with the rigor and individual attention and intellectual excitement of a liberal arts college — is that the long-term vision is to reorient UVM as a technical institute, like a Purdue, like a Rensselaer Polytechnic," Welch said.
Roberts put it more darkly: "UVM is developing a reputation as being at the forefront of destroying the liberal arts."
Within hours of the announcement, Katherine Brennan, a senior religion major, launched a Change.org petition to save her department, which received more than 1,700 signatures in a single day. In the weeks that followed, UVM United Against Cuts, an alliance of faculty and students that had coalesced last spring to protest the lecturer pay reductions, organized a car rally and a press conference. The English department voted no confidence in the administration and called for Falls' resignation; the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Anthropological Association and the American Academy of Religion issued statements chastising UVM's administration.
What comes next is unclear. The university has a contractual obligation to allow all students who have declared majors in the affected subjects to finish their degrees, but that commitment doesn't preclude the administration from forging ahead with more layoffs. Nontenured faculty are already bracing themselves for March, when another crop of lecturers' contracts will come up for renewal.
In the coming months, the faculty senate, an elected body charged with reviewing and implementing academic policies, will begin vetting Falls' proposal — a process that, given the general atmosphere, seems poised to drag on for months. But even if the faculty senate rejects the proposal, said Roberts, a former faculty senate president, the administration could proceed with the cuts without faculty buy-in.
In the interest of avoiding an acrimonious stalemate, Falls has asked faculty in the departments slated for closure to submit their own counterproposals.
"Positively, we could say that he's asking for our engagement," said religion professor Thomas Borchert, who will become president of the faculty senate at the start of the 2021-22 academic year. "Negatively, the reading might be, 'Come up with your own firing plan.'"
'Latin Saved Me'
- James Buck
- Jessica Penny Evans
When Annaliese Holden, a 19-year-old classics major from Hinesburg, toured UVM as a high school senior, she didn't hear anything about Greek or classics or any specific humanities offerings. She did, however, hear a great deal about "Wellness Environments" — substance-free dormitories featuring in-house mindfulness and yoga classes, Peloton bikes, and TRX training equipment. Other well-covered topics were the planned $95 million athletic facility and the general concept of STEM, a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "It was definitely like, 'Look at our clean community!" Holden said.
Holden had done an independent study in Greek at Champlain Valley Union High School and loved it, so she signed up for a course in ancient Greek in the fall of her first year, even though she had already declared a psychology major. A year later, she dropped psychology for a double major in Greek and classical civilization.
"To me, the classics offer everything — you've got history, language, the arts, literature, gender, sexuality and women's studies, politics," Holden said. "And the thing that saddens me most is that when the classics get removed from public universities, and the only places left to teach it are private institutions and Ivy League schools, it becomes a lot less accessible for the kind of diversity that the discipline really needs."
Jessica Penny Evans, a lecturer in the classics department, has thought a lot about elitism. She grew up in Stowe, raised by a single mother who struggled to support her two children on one income. In high school, Evans spent her free periods in the bathroom, chain-smoking cigarettes and trying to make sense of Virgil in Latin.
"To say that Latin saved me would be an understatement. It gave my life meaning; it gave me something to focus on besides the shame of poverty and my desire to disappear," Evans wrote in an open letter to the UVM administration, which she published online in early December. After high school, Evans enrolled at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., then transferred to UVM, where she majored in classics. She eventually earned her master's in UVM's classics program, which the proposal would eliminate. "It was so reassuring to me that I could come home and study what I loved," she said. "That's what I've been thinking about since the cuts were announced: What does this say about who belongs at UVM?"
Since Evans joined the classics faculty in 2011, she's watched her department gradually shrink, from seven tenured faculty and two lecturers to four tenured professors, plus her. One of the frustrating ironies of the timing of Falls' announcement is that her particular area of research — the misuse of Hellenic motifs in white supremacist fight clubs at mixed martial arts gyms — has assumed new relevance in the past month.
Among the paraphernalia sported by the right-wing extremists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 were Spartan helmets and flags bearing the Greek characters ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, or molon labe, a defiant rallying cry for gun-rights activists that translates, roughly, as "come and take them."
"There's a culture in mixed martial arts of subscribing to a very Spartan lifestyle and a no-holds-barred type of fighting that has its origins in ancient Greece, called pankration," Evans said. "There's a lot of appropriation of antiquity among those communities, which tells me how important it is to have people with expertise, who can pass on the knowledge that the ancient world wasn't what white supremacist groups would have everyone believe."
Evans has one more year left in her contract; this spring, she'll be eligible for promotion to senior lecturer. But she's afraid to hope that she'll even keep her job. The uncertainty lingers over her like a cloud.
"It's the first thing I think about every morning when I wake up," she said. "I dream about it. It's always in the background — even when I'm not thinking about it, the physical and emotional sensations of processing it are just always there."
- James Buck
- George D. Aiken Center on the UVM campus
UVM isn't the only flagship university undergoing a pandemic-hastened fiscal and existential reckoning. In recent months, the University of Colorado Boulder, Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have all initiated programs to eliminate tenured faculty, cut degrees or slash funding for the arts and sciences.
Complicating UVM's situation is a long-standing lack of state funding. According to a 2018 national study by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, a nonprofit research and policy organization, Vermont ranks third lowest in the country in per-capita state support for public colleges and universities. As a result, UVM relies more heavily than almost any other public research university on tuition revenue, 73 percent of which comes from higher-paying out-of-state students. Attendance, consequently, is not cheap: UVM's out-of-state tuition is the fourth highest among public universities, and in-state tuition ranks sixth highest.
With fewer than 11,000 undergraduates, UVM is decidedly on the smaller end of the state university spectrum, a size that has allowed it to market itself to prospective students as a research institution with the academically cozy feel of a liberal arts college. The university consists of seven colleges for undergraduates, including a school of engineering, mathematics and statistics; a school of business; and a school for environmental studies. The largest, by far, is the College of Arts and Sciences, which averages 4,485 students and generates some $67.3 million in tuition for UVM's $741 million annual operating budget.
When Falls became dean in 2016, he inherited the financial fallout of the Great Recession. From 2010 to 2015, the college's enrollment declined by 17 percent, which translated into a proportional dip in revenue. Enrollment has stabilized in recent years, albeit at lower numbers than pre-2010, but costs, Falls said, have not.
"In 2016, we had staffing levels that were more commensurate with 1,000 more students, like we had in 2010. And that's what's contributed to this ever-widening budget gap," Falls said. "Our costs keep rising, and we've tried to keep tuition down" — UVM is currently in its second consecutive year of a tuition freeze — "and so we set our course to say to the faculty, 'Hey, we're not going to replace everybody who retires or decides to leave.' But that just hasn't been enough."
In 2016, the university adopted a funding stratagem called incentive-based budgeting, a model that has gained popularity in higher education over the past decade. Known at other institutions by a similarly inscrutable moniker, "every tub on its own bottom," the model theoretically makes each academic unit in a university responsible for its own costs and revenues — in effect, turning each of UVM's seven colleges into largely self-contained enterprises, managed by their respective deans.
Each year, in UVM's budgetary system, $40 million gets subtracted from the colleges' combined revenue and placed into a centrally managed pool of money, which is then redistributed among the various programs. Because the lion's share of UVM's revenue is undergraduate tuition, and the College of Arts and Sciences generates more undergraduate tuition than any other college, the logical assumption, in the view of faculty union treasurer Joe Kudrle, is that the college would receive a corresponding amount of the pooled funds.
But when Kudrle, a senior lecturer in math, reviewed five years of budget documents, he found that the College of Arts and Sciences contributed $88 million to the $200 million pool and received only $54 million in return. By contrast, Larner College of Medicine, which generated slightly more than $5 million in undergraduate tuition revenue, took in $67 million.
In addition to funding other programs, Kudrle calculated, the College of Arts and Sciences has subsidized the salaries, benefits and bonuses of the university's 131 top administrators to the tune of $23 million.
"Obviously, some of those tuition dollars need to go to support portions of the university that don't generate as much revenue, like the libraries and student services," Kudrle said. "I have no issues with this, as long as you don't start harping on units for not bringing in enough money when they're expected to heavily subsidize other units. The issue, in my opinion, is that they could make any unit look like it's running a deficit, based on how they're diverting the money."
Falls acknowledged that the College of Arts and Sciences contributes more money to other programs than it receives; the budget model allows UVM, as he put it, "to support different priorities at different times."
"I guess someone could decide that the College of Arts and Sciences doesn't need to make any changes and that we're just going to take money from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources," Falls said. "But they've got to balance their budget, too, so then they would have to make cuts."
Falls rejects the widely echoed charge that his college's funding crisis has been manufactured. Even if the funds were allocated differently, he insisted, the school would still face a multimillion-dollar deficit: "There simply isn't enough money at the university to support the College of Arts and Sciences as it's currently formulated."
This belt-tightening rhetoric rings false to many of the college's faculty, including Phil Baruth, an English professor and a state senator representing Chittenden County who has served as chair of the Senate Committee on Education. "At the top end, there hasn't been a commensurate reduction in administrative positions," he said.
Even senior administrators who took the maximum pay cuts during the pandemic — a mandatory 5 percent salary reduction, plus an optional 3.3 percent — will earn, on average, $250,000 in 2021. UVM president Suresh Garimella, for instance, took a 5 percent salary reduction and opted to forgo a month of pay, which brought his earnings, including additional compensation, down from more than $560,000 in 2020 to just more than $480,000 in 2021, according to salary data from UVM. Last year, men's basketball coach John Becker received a $240,820 bonus, more than the three combined salaries of the lecturers whose contracts weren't renewed in December. (A spokesperson for UVM said that Becker's 2020 bonus also included a payout from 2019 for meeting "performance goals," including "the academic and competitive success of the team and program revenue generation.")
These disparities, Baruth said, have alienated UVM faculty from their own institution: "It's the exact same mistrust that exists in corporate culture." When Falls recently met with the English department, Baruth said, the faculty pressed him on why he'd let Williamson go, given his years of service and the popularity of his courses. "Basically," Baruth said, "he told us, 'It was a roll of the dice.'"
- James Buck
- Ira Allen Chapel on the UVM campus
To determine which programs to eliminate, Falls analyzed enrollment trends over the last three years for each of the College of Arts and Sciences programs, then selected the ones that failed to attain a certain threshold. Each of the 12 majors he chose for termination has enrolled 25 or fewer students over the last three years or graduated, on average, fewer than five students per year.
Falls, a professor of psychology whose research background is in the neuroscience of fear and anxiety, said he agonized over the decision. "There was no real faculty consultation in that proposal, because I didn't know how to manage that," he confessed. "But we've also had conversations about these budget issues and low enrollments for four years. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to my colleagues in classics and asked, 'Can you please change what you're doing?' I feel badly for my colleagues in religion, who heeded my warnings. They did what they could, but we still couldn't get more students to major in religion."
In fact, religion did see a "modest increase" in majors over the past few years, as Falls noted in a memo to faculty — from 19 majors in 2017 to 41 at present. But because of "pending retirements," he explained, the department would soon have insufficient staffing to support those majors. This catch-22 illustrates what critics view as the fait accompli of the budgetary model: If the college doesn't have enough funding to replace instructors who leave, certain departments inevitably become weaker. (At the same time, faculty members are also encouraged to show their thrifty ingenuity by devising new programs with no institutional support. "After we lost Major Jackson in our department, we were told to keep on trying to imagine launching an MFA program, even without a nationally recognized poet," said Welch, the English professor.)
Targeting programs based on size alone carries significant risks, according to Bob Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, a higher education consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. Atkins has worked with institutions comparable to UVM in terms of enrollment and location; in general, he said, the vast majority of a university's small programs actually contribute to the bottom line. "It's true that all programs that lose money are small," Atkins said, "but not all small programs lose money."
Lowering costs inevitably involves cutting jobs, he acknowledged, but eliminating majors doesn't typically improve a university's financial situation: Costs will decrease in the short term, he said, but so will revenue. "If you're a Greek major, two-thirds of your courses aren't going to be in Greek. You have to take English, you have to take math, you have to fulfill general requirements, so you're attending lots of big classes that are very contribution-positive," Atkins explained. Likewise, English majors might take classics or religion courses.
In other words, faculty members teach many more students than the number of majors in their departments might suggest; in the 2017-18 academic year, for example, the UVM religion department taught a total of 851 students. That figure, faculty members have argued, offers a clearer picture of the program's reach within the university.
Essentially, Falls' bet is that students aren't drawn to UVM specifically to study things like Greek and classical civilization and religion, so the absence of those majors won't deter them from enrolling. He maintained that the program cuts won't eliminate those areas of study from the curriculum altogether.
"It's not our intention to never offer a course on, say, classical civilizations again," he said. "But if we didn't have that major, I could deploy some of those faculty to teach other courses that would generate more student credit hours." Fewer faculty means fewer, larger classes, which translates to more revenue per hour of faculty time.
"What worries me," Atkins said, "is that a lot of schools know their costs, but they don't really understand how their revenue works. As a result, they can make big mistakes in what they cut, especially if they're using program size as a rule. And if you make weak decisions, you'll face enormous resistance, and when push comes to shove, you don't have the data to prove that they're wrong. And that makes things even harder."
Defending His Thesis
- James Buck
- Bill Falls
Since early December, Falls has spent lots of time on tense Zoom calls, absorbing backlash from faculty members. Eleanor Miller, a sociology professor and a previous dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, suspects that he's wrestling with an unpleasant mandate. "Dean Falls is a really good person, a person with integrity, a nice guy," Miller said. "I am sure he is really struggling to respond to pressures at the university level."
Garimella, who was the executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue University before becoming president of UVM in 2019, has remained conspicuously silent since the announcement of the cuts. Faculty members who have emailed him with their grievances and concerns say they have received no reply; the university declined to make him available for an interview for this story.
Falls, by default, has become the public face of the proposal, a role to which he seems queasily resigned. "I really don't want to make this about me at all," he said, "but the hardest part of all of this, for me, has been knowing how angry and confused and anxious and upset I've been making my colleagues."
Despite her sympathy for Falls, Miller questions both the necessity and the prudence of his proposal. "I did a quick back-of-the-envelope as soon as I saw what was being cut, and these things are a drop in the bucket," she said. "They cut gerontology, which is a very small program that has no low-enrollment classes and costs almost nothing, in a state that's really old. Why would you cut gerontology?"
Miller, who was charged with recruiting new faculty when she came to UVM in 2005, has been dismayed by the slow atrophying of the programs she helped build. Her own department has shrunk by 50 percent in the last decade, from 18 faculty members to nine, almost entirely from retirements.
"That's a very bad way to downsize, because it's so random," she said. "And not renewing lecturers' contracts when they happen to be up just because you need to make cuts is more of the same. If I saw what their rationale was, if they were saving a lot of money, I wouldn't be happy about it, necessarily, but I'd understand. But I just don't understand." In her view, not having a classics department at a flagship state university would be "an embarrassment."
Miller worries about the future of higher education in Vermont. The financially beleaguered state colleges, separate from UVM, include Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont. Hobbled by declining enrollments and a chronic lack of funding, the system has struggled to keep its campuses open. "Vermonters don't have a lot of choices for a four-year degree," Miller said. "And we offered them a really solid education that was both broad and pretty deep."
As Falls sees it, liberal arts institutions have hamstrung themselves by trying to market subject-area degrees on the merits of their potential career applications.
"I think we got trapped in this notion that, somehow, the major is career training," he said. "We would tell students, 'This is what you can do with a history degree' or 'This is what you can do with a psychology degree.'"
His current mission, as he put it, is to "de-emphasize the major" and focus instead on instilling "core competencies" — a phrase, imported from management theory, that refers to the résumé-ready skills students will have honed upon graduation. These "competencies," enumerated in a section of the College of Arts and Sciences website, include ethical reasoning and decision making, analytical and critical thinking, and creative expression and innovation. Each area of competency features testimonials from UVM grads explaining how their major helped them in their chosen fields. The page also prominently displays a Steve Jobs quote: "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough — it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing."
Classics department chair John Franklin finds this utilitarian messaging ominous. He likens it to what Garimella describes as "exposure to the humanities" in his vision statement for UVM, a slippage from UVM's call for a "comprehensive commitment to a liberal arts education" in its own mission statement. "The Neoliberal Arts — where students learn not 'how to,' but only 'about,'" Franklin lamented in a December blog post for the Society of Classical Studies.
"I know this is hard for my colleagues to hear, and I've spoken to many of them over the last several weeks who have said, 'Bill, the major is sort of our identity,'" Falls said. "And I totally get that. The problem is that when you have to bring finances into the equation, you've got to make compromises."
- James Buck
- UVM campus
Humanities scholars have long struggled to plead their case to those who hold the purse strings, a situation that the Great Recession did little to improve. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor's degrees in career-oriented STEM fields, such as biomedical engineering and computer science, increased by 43 percent between 2009 and 2016; over that same period, the number of humanities degrees fell by 0.4 percent.
In response, universities have invested massively in STEM programs and infrastructure, fueling a kind of higher-education arms race to compete for a generation of students who grew up with the messaging that STEM is the future. In 2019, UVM completed a $104 million, 250,000-square-foot STEM complex, the most expensive construction project in the university's history.
"I'd say that in the last 10 years, growing STEM has been an important priority here, and I don't disagree with that at all," said Luis Vivanco, a professor of anthropology and codirector of the UVM Humanities Center, which provides funding for faculty projects and research.
But at the national and university levels, funding opportunities for scholarly work in STEM tend to be much more robust, he pointed out, a distinction that the zero-sum game of UVM's budget model, which rewards certain forms of productivity, doesn't seem to compute. "Scientists get grants and publish research all the time, but a scholar of history or classics might work on something for 10 years before it comes out," he said. "If there's fast food and slow food, the humanities are definitely slow food."
Vivanco worries that killing programs in subjects like classics and religion, which students often discover by happenstance, would foreclose the open-ended spirit of intellectual curiosity that has inspired decades of aspirational taglines for liberal arts institutions.
Katherine Brennan, a senior religion major from Cape Cod, entered UVM thinking she would be a political science major. But after she took a comparative religion class on a whim, in the second semester of her first year, she switched immediately.
"Religion is the study of governments and systems and societies, but also of the people who are driving those institutions. I feel like a lot of people say that their story of coming into a religion major sounds like, you know, finding religion," she joked. "But it was just this moment of, like, 'Oh, man, people. Individual people actually matter.'"
Which is another way of saying that the study of individual and collective human experience matters not solely as an academic pursuit, but as a means of making sense of the present moment. In disorienting times — say, during a global pandemic, or when a sitting president refuses to concede defeat in an election and right-wing extremists storm the U.S. Capitol at his behest — the contemplative disciplines can offer the long view, the institutional memory of the human condition that serves as a corrective to the frantic misapprehensions of social media.
"What we do in our department is to think about how religion works in society and how it's often invisible until it's not, like we witnessed at the Capitol," said Borchert, the professor of religion and incoming president of the faculty senate. "For the last four years, we've been seeing white evangelicalism weaponized by the Trump administration, a kind of nationalism that's tied up with religion, which is part of a century and a half of history in the United States, if not more. That's why religion matters."
Vivanco agreed. "Who do you turn to when a group of insurrectionists take over the Capitol?" he asked. "You don't turn to the engineer or the clinician — you turn to the historian, to the scholar of religion, to those who make sense of the meaning of these things."Correction, February 3, 2021: Jamie Williamson will receive severance pay. A previous version of this story contained an error.