Pay Cuts at the University of Vermont Spark Debate Over Inequity | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pay Cuts at the University of Vermont Spark Debate Over Inequity

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Rachael Montesano - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Rachael Montesano

Rachael Montesano finally felt financially secure. No longer did the single mother of two fear that she would be unable to afford new winter tires or wince when she swiped her card at the grocery store. After 14 years as a Spanish lecturer at the University of Vermont, Montesano was earning a $64,000 salary, enough to pay her bills and still let her splurge on the "expensive" ice cream. 

"I was starting to relax a bit," she said. 

That all changed when Montesano learned that she will teach only three-fourths of her typical course load in the upcoming academic year. Her salary will plunge $16,000, landing her right back in the "survival mode" she had fought so hard to escape.

Montesano is among dozens of lecturers — full-time, non-tenure-track employees — who were informed in May that their workloads and compensation would be reduced next year as part of a campus-wide effort to trim costs in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lecturer contracts permit the university to set course loads based on its anticipated needs, though there is debate over whether the cuts violate the unionized employees' collective bargaining agreement. The university has also eliminated hundreds of temporary positions and announced less drastic reductions for all nonunion employees.

UVM officials say the austerity measures are needed to withstand both an immediate financial shortfall and the possibility of fewer students and less tuition revenue in the future.

The university's budget this fiscal year is $705 million, about $300 million of which is covered by tuition payments. Direct losses related to COVID-19 thus far are expected to hit about $15 million. That figure should be more than covered by the $28 million state lawmakers are sending to UVM from Vermont's share of federal coronavirus relief funds. But vice president for finance Richard Cate said deans have been asked to budget for a $26 million drop in tuition revenue next year.

Campus leaders say they have few options to make up the shortfall. The university cannot draw more from its $550 million endowment, they say, nor can UVM expect a state bailout, with virtually every sector of the economy desperate for aid. Jacking up tuition is also out of the question, leaders say, because the university's $41,280 price tag for out-of-state students is already the fourth highest in the nation for a public university.

But students, faculty and staff say that the university's fiscal health should not be protected at the expense of its most vulnerable employees. A group calling itself UVM United Against Cuts is pressuring the university to revoke the lecturer reductions and allow for an independent audit of its finances. If the picture proves as dire as officials claim, then the university should force top earners to cough up more money, the group says, punctuating its demands with the slogan, "Chop from the top."

"We are told, in many ways, that there are not enough resources to go around," Helen Scott, an English associate professor, said at a virtual press conference last week. "We are pitted against each other and forced to compete for the crumbs, rather than demanding what is necessary for all.

"When we see the immense wealth of this university, in the six-figure salaries of top administrators, in the endowment, in property owned across the state, and in many other funds, we have to say that this is not a budget crisis," she continued. "It is a crisis of priorities." 

UVM is not the only higher education institution tightening its belt. American colleges lost millions of dollars when they refunded room and board payments to students sent home early due to the pandemic. And there is growing concern that the virus' continued stranglehold will prompt more students to question whether attending a pricey college is worth the risk. National surveys suggest that enrollment at four-year schools such as UVM could drop as much as 20 percent this fall.

Campus leaders have already taken cost-saving steps. They closed the highly popular Campus Children's School childcare, which ran a yearly budget deficit of $550,000 even as it served 56 families and carried a wait list of nearly 600 kids. They delayed construction of a new athletics center that would have generated a $30 million debt. They imposed strict hiring limits and said they will no longer pay for accrued vacation time when employees leave the job. 

But the most controversial cuts are those affecting faculty and staff, particularly the lower-income earners. The university has announced that it will eliminate more than 400 temporary positions in departments such as athletics, student services, libraries and academic affairs. And two academic divisions — the College of Arts and Sciences and the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources — have reduced the workloads of at least 72 lecturers.

Critics say the cuts will worsen the inequities between lecturers and tenure-track professors.

Whereas the latter commonly make salaries of $100,000 or more, lecturers take in an average of $62,000, and many make far less, according to the faculty union, which includes both groups. Lecturers also lack job security. Their contracts, which typically range from one to three years, allow the university to annually set their course loads — and thus their earnings.

"As student interests change over time, teaching needs change," said UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera in an email to Seven Days.

The union, however, says that since students have already signed up for fall classes, lecturers have been told they will still need to teach their full course load — while being paid less. They will teach half as many spring courses to compensate for the pay cut. The union has filed a grievance over the cuts, arguing that the university has misinterpreted what the collective bargaining agreement considers full time. The university denies the claim.

The financial crunch has heightened scrutiny of the university's top salaries. Cutting the salaries of the 72 lecturers by 25 percent would save a mere $1.08 million, which, United Against Cuts says, top earners could much more easily afford. A Seven Days analysis of salary data from last year for both UVM and its medical school shows that the same amount could be obtained by trimming the top 72 salaries by only 6 percent.

Each of those 72 people makes $200,000 or more. Thirteen employees, including president Suresh Garimella, earn $315,000 or more. Garimella's base salary is $480,000, but he will take in $630,000 this year after accounting for deferred compensation and a $100,000 annual retirement deposit.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty who are part of the union have been protected from cuts thanks to their collective bargaining agreement. That contract is being renegotiated this year, and the union says it is open to considering across-the-board salary decreases to save other jobs. But it must understand how much money the university needs to save and would need assurances that top wage earners would pitch in more.

Union leaders say attempts to discuss those details have been rebuffed. "They haven't given us access to any data that show, other than scare tactics, that there is actually a deficit," said Julie Roberts, a linguistics professor and president of the faculty union. "We can make sense that there would be, with a pandemic and so on, but we don't know that." 

University officials have been tight-lipped with the press. Garimella declined to speak with Seven Days last week, and the university will not say how fall enrollment projections compare to previous years. 

"These are unprecedented circumstances," wrote spokesperson Jeffrey Wakefield in an email. "Universities across the country can no longer depend on the approaches that have informed our operations for decades. We will not know what our numbers look like until early in the semester."

Cate, the vice president of finance, called his estimate of a $26 million drop in tuition revenue "optimistic" and said that while the pandemic has had an impact, the university's real long-term concern remains Vermont's demographics. 

"Our position as a public flagship university located in a state that has a very small population and limited ability to support the university financially is the key ongoing challenge," he wrote last month.

Personnel costs represent about two-thirds of the university's expenses. With that in mind, campus leaders last month announced a second wave of pay cuts that will affect all employees who make more than $45,000 and are not part of a union. That includes administrators and department chairs. The reductions will be 2.5 percent for those earning $45,000 to $60,000; 3.5 percent for those making $60,000 to $80,000; and 5 percent for those earning more than $80,000.

Garimella and a "significant majority" of other senior leaders have volunteered to take an additional 3.3 percent pay cut on top of their 5 percent reduction, which adds up to a month's pay. The university declined to provide a full list of the volunteers; Corredera told Seven Days it is a "personal decision." As a public institution, however, UVM's salaries are public information.

The campus-wide cuts are expected to affect roughly 2,000 employees and save an estimated $4 million, according to Corredera, who said the percentage-based approach was adopted "in consideration of our commitment to fairness."

Members of United Against Cuts are not satisfied. They say the latest wave of pay cuts lets top earners off far too easily. And they note the university's apparent awakening to the concept of progressive cuts has not translated to lecturers such as Montesano, who is still being asked to sacrifice five times the percentage of income as the highest earners.

"We do not accept that lecturers or students or staff should be forced to sacrifice while this wealth is untapped," said Scott, the English associate professor. 

The percentage cuts took effect this month, while the lecturer workload reductions will kick in when the semester begins in August. Officials could change their minds before then, but union leaders are not optimistic.

In the meantime, Montesano is weighing her options. She recently entered her new salary into a state website to see if she qualifies for food stamps. She doesn't. 

She could find a second job but would need to juggle it with a full course load in the fall. She could apply to other schools but loves living in Burlington, as does her youngest daughter, who feels like she's a part of the community. 

Montesano wrote Garimella a letter on May 10 describing her situation. She referred to a 2019 report that showed the livable wage in Chittenden County for a parent of two children is $81,000 — 41 percent more than what she will earn this year. She asked the president to look inward.

"I will be worried about having enough money to buy food. I will be worried about paying for housing. I will be worried about paying for heat, electricity, and water. I will be worried about my children not having enough time with me," she wrote. 

"I wonder what your dinner table will be like next year?" she continued. "I wonder if you will be worried about having enough money to feed your family and pay your mortgage?"

She's yet to get a response. 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Too Little Off the Top? | Pay cuts at UVM spark debate over inequity"