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Annotations to the U of Vermont Story


I don’t know anyone who works at the University of Vermont, and I don’t intend this as taking sides in a dispute.  I just saw some places where the story would bear commentary.


If you haven’t seen it yet, Colleen Flaherty’s story in IHE on Monday detailed disagreements between some faculty at UVM and its dean of arts and sciences who announced some program cuts. 


I take no position on the wisdom, or foolishness, of the particular cuts, but I was struck by several points in the piece.


One was the category confusion of endowment returns and operating budgets.  The story alludes to one professor wondering why the college had to make budget cuts when its endowment returns were up $24 million the year before.  


The answer is that endowment dollars are not operating dollars.  At many (perhaps most?) universities with endowments, most of the dollars in endowments are earmarked for specific purposes.  The money isn’t fungible.  We have a variation on that with “Chapter 12” funding, which is money set aside by the state for construction and renovation.  We can’t repurpose that money for, say, salaries.  We can use it for its intended purpose, or not use it.  That leads to some grumbling when folks ask why a retiring colleague can’t be replaced while an expensive renovation is happening.  I understand the frustration — I feel it myself sometimes —  but the answer is that different pots of money come with different rules.


I noticed, too, that none of the program eliminations involve laying off any full-time faculty.  An alert reader would be excused for asking how “rehoming” (!) a professor who’s still drawing the same salary and benefits would save money.  Off the top of my head, I could come up with three ways.  First, departments or programs often have chairs who get reassigned time to manage them.  Streamlining programs would mean reducing reassigned time, which cuts costs.  Second, sometimes small sections that normally would be canceled for low enrollment are allowed to run because they’re program requirements.  When you have multiple small overlapping programs in one area, it can force a department to run a bunch of small sections to ensure that students can graduate.  Pruning the number of variations within an area reduces the number of small sections that you’re forced to run, thereby saving money.  And lastly, even if you aren’t laying off faculty now, consolidations can make it easier not to replace people who retire or leave.  It lays the groundwork for later reductions by attrition.  


There may be other factors unique to UVM, but those are pretty universal.


Finally, and most basically, I was struck by the dean’s argument that essentially juxtaposed data with democracy.  


The dean, William Falls, is quoted saying that he “did not consult with faculty over this specific proposal.  [He] did not see how that could be done when [he] was proposing closing programs.”  


There’s some truth to that.  Part of the implied bargain that faculty have made, in delegating certain tasks to administration, is that faculty get to keep their hands clean.  It’s nearly impossible to keep one’s hands clean while making significant cuts.  Dean Falls refers in the piece to a time he tried to work with faculty in making cuts, and they couldn’t agree on anything large enough to matter.  So, since someone had to do it, he did.  


Whether he made the ‘right’ choices or not, I don’t know.  But sometimes even a flawed decision is better than no decision at all.  If the masses can’t rise above denial, that doesn’t mean denial is right.  If you’re running a long-term structural deficit, you need to make basic changes.  


And to the extent that you’re looking at imbalances, programs or departments that exemplify those imblances are also, by definition, overrepresented.  The imbalance defeats its own solution.  It’s the same reason that Wyoming will never vote to get rid of the Electoral College.  In theory, it’s conceivable that high-minded civic virtue would sweep the land, and nobody would participate out of self-interest.  But that’s just not how the world works.  Those who have benefited from existing imbalances — or who believe they have — can be counted on to defend them.  


There’s a much larger discussion to be had around shared governance and budget cuts.  If UVM helps us start that discussion, it will have done a real service.  So thank you, UVM, for inadvertently helping start a badly-needed conversation.


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Monday, December 7, 2020
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