As the Virus Deepens Financial Trouble, Colleges Turn to Layoffs

Dorms on East Green at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, June 21, 2020. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)
Dorms on East Green at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, June 21, 2020. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

LAKEWOOD, Ohio — Hammered by mounting coronavirus costs and anticipating lost revenue from international students, fall sports and state budgets gutted by the pandemic, colleges and universities nationwide have begun eyeing what until now has been seen as a last resort — thinning the ranks of their faculty.

The University of Akron this week became one of the first schools in the country to make deep cuts in the number of full-time professors on its staff, with the board of trustees voting Wednesday to lay off about a fifth of the university’s unionized workforce to balance its budget, including nearly 100 faculty members.

Other universities have also trimmed teaching positions, although most have limited themselves to those without tenure. This month, the University of Texas at San Antonio laid off 69 instructors, while the University of Michigan, Flint, last month eliminated more than 40% of the 300 lecturers who handle a majority of the teaching load on campus. Since May, Ohio University has had three rounds of layoffs, including more than 50 nonunionized faculty members.

The cuts underscore the growing financial crisis sweeping across higher education, which in recent years has struggled with shrinking state support and declining enrollment amid concerns about skyrocketing tuition and the burden of student debt. The coronavirus and signs of declining fall enrollment have only accelerated the financial trouble everywhere, including at large state research universities and small liberal arts schools.

Lucrative college sports have dwindled as a revenue stream as games have been canceled, and colleges have lost money they usually make from dining halls, campus bookstores and room-and-board payments, which were refunded by many schools in the spring. Many students have also demanded tuition rebates, as face time with professors and the experience of campus life have been replaced by remote instruction from home.

On the cost side, campuses have been forced to stockpile face masks and reconfigure lecture halls, cafeterias and dorm rooms. And as the number of infections has dipped only to surge again in many states, uncertainty has made planning even more difficult. Some schools that had been set to reopen campuses in the fall have been forced in recent weeks to move to online instruction instead.

As some institutions suffered losses of $100 million or more in the spring, they put construction projects on hold and froze wage increases. The fall could be even worse, with a higher education trade group predicting a 15% drop in enrollment nationwide, amounting to $23 billion in lost revenue. Much of that could come from a dearth of international and out-of-state students, who generally pay higher tuition and represent a substantial portion of universities’ annual income.

The estimated 4 million faculty and staff members on the payroll at colleges and universities nationwide account for 70% of a campus’s budget, on average, making them a target for institutions facing immense shortfalls.

The deepest personnel cuts have been at institutions that were in financial distress before the virus. Akron, a public research university with about 19,000 students, has been grappling for years with declining enrollment. Two years ago, it cut about 80 programs as part of a major academic restructuring, and since the pandemic began it has reorganized its academic departments, merging 11 into five, in an effort to offset losses.

Akron’s president, Gary L. Miller, who assumed office last year, said that state budget cuts and enrollment losses on top of that already difficult landscape made the faculty layoffs necessary. The cuts, which must still be ratified by the union’s membership, were part of a move to eliminate 178 total positions, including contract professionals and non-faculty employees.

“There is no doubt the university would have had to adjust our expenditures without the COVID-19 part of the equation,” Miller said in an interview. But, he added, the university had been operating on the assumption that it had “four or five years” to deal with its declining enrollment.

Then the coronavirus hit, putting the school’s financial reserves in peril.

“We don’t have a huge endowment and a huge amount of cash to get us through this,” Miller said, calling it “heartbreaking that we had to do this so fast.”

Katie Stoynoff, the chief negotiator of the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty union, called the cuts a poor choice that was “obviously going to change the experience that students have at the University of Akron.”

“It’s a very sad time for the university,” said Stoynoff, who teaches in the English department. “Rarely do full-time faculty get laid off, especially tenured faculty.”

John Nicholas, a professor of computer information systems who is not among those being laid off, saw the cuts as part of the larger picture facing higher education, and worried that they would set the stage for a broader consolidation among universities that would diminish the role of schools like Akron.

“What might happen in the next 10 years is that this school no longer exists as it is now,” Nicholas said. “It might become a branch campus at the margins for a bigger school like Ohio State University.”

Even at universities that were in better financial shape before the pandemic, personnel costs have become increasingly urgent, underscoring the labor-intensive nature of higher education even as more and more classes are conducted remotely.

The chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote this week in a message to the campus that “workforce-related actions,” including retirement incentives, voluntary separations and faculty reassignments, would have to be taken to help cover a projected $340 million loss from the pandemic.

More common in recent weeks, however, have been layoffs like those at the University of Michigan, Flint, which let go of scores of lecturers, citing the pandemic on top of existing budgetary problems.

A majority of the student credit hours on the Flint campus are taught by lecturers, who are contractually ineligible for tenure-track professorships, said Ian Robinson, president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization union. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, about 9% of lecturer positions were cut, while 14% were cut at the university’s Dearborn campus, Robinson said.

In May, more than 100 nontenured faculty members at Northern Arizona University lost their jobs after the state school, citing a decline in enrollment amid the pandemic, chose not to renew their contracts, said Gioia Woods, the president of the university’s faculty senate.

“These were the most popular, passionate kind of teachers, who make magic in the classroom and keep the students coming back,” Woods said. “They’re our colleagues, and they’re kicked out in the middle of a global pandemic with no health insurance. It’s just absolutely unconscionable.”

At the University of Akron, Miller, the president, said he understood the hurt and frustrations of faculty members, but he insisted that the administration really had no choice but to cut jobs. “We are doing what we have to do to preserve the school.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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