Phil Baruth: UVM’s sleight of hand on jobs

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, an English professor at the University of Vermont. He also represents Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate and currently chairs the Education Committee.

Very few lobbying operations in the Vermont Statehouse are as shrewd, or as successful, as that maintained by the state’s flagship university. When the University of Vermont comes to Montpelier, they invariably lead with jobs, jobs, and more jobs. The headline of their current legislative flyer reads, “UVM is an economic engine for the state of Vermont.” The first bullet boasts that “4,125 faculty and staff are employed by UVM, the second largest employer in the state.”  

It’s a number that resonates powerfully in the capital of a relatively poor state.

When President Suresh Garimella testified before the Senate Education Committee on April 14, in the anxious early days of the pandemic, he lent this job-centered approach a poetic appeal. “We will have significant needs in order to thrive,” Garimella began. “I know you all want UVM to be that shining light – we want to be that shining light, that supports the state, that helps our students, that brings great jobs and workforce to the state.”  

Again, the correlation was clear: If the state weren’t forthcoming with funding during the pandemic, jobs could suffer. The shining light might, at least conceivably, go out altogether.

And the Legislature responded dramatically. Since the pandemic began, the House and Senate have appropriated over $87 million to UVM – the standard $42.5 million in general fund monies, as well as roughly $45 million in CARES/Coronavirus Relief Fund federal funding.  

To be clear, the federal dollars went to specific, targeted coronavirus-related expenses, things like personal protective equipment and technological upgrades that would support remote learning and teaching, and partially reimbursing now-remote students for dorm expenses. But if we did not make the university whole, we were given to understand, then jobs could well suffer.  

So it came as a shock when UVM decided to dim that shining light all on its own.

You’ve no doubt read the highlights, but they’re worth hitting again. Arts and Sciences is to be effectively down-sized, with 23 programs cut; geology, religion, and classics will be all be entirely eliminated. “Most of the cost savings will come from faculty positions,” Dean Bill Falls told VTDigger.

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It’s worth noting that these cuts were being deliberated well before any of us had ever heard the word “coronavirus.” The pandemic didn’t produce these cuts; it’s merely providing the opportunity. Neither the faculty senate nor department chairs were consulted or notified. It’s also crucial to note that, according to Falls, these sweeping cuts are only “a critical first step.”

And just the other day we saw step number two: Falls announced that senior lecturers from English, history and geology would be cut as well. A senior lecturer is a grade above lecturer, a promotion that requires not just additional seniority, but excellent teaching evaluations and strong departmental support as well. The presumption, when the rank was created, was that it would carry additional job security. Instead, after 30 years of exemplary service to the university, one of those senior lecturers –  Jamie Williamson – has been let go during a pandemic, a few weeks before Christmas, only four years from retirement. Let go by an institution with well more than a half a billion dollars sitting in its endowment.  

UVM does not dispute the fact that Williamson is a top-notch instructor.  They don’t dispute that the courses he teaches (including rare offerings in Indigenous culture) are both popular (full) and crucial from a diversity perspective. These senior lecturers are entirely targets of opportunity, according to Falls. They are being cut now because their multi-year contracts happen to be up for renewal now.  

In short, this second round of cuts appears indiscriminate with respect to every factor but random timing – and the administration has hinted that next year will see layoffs equally ill-considered. And oddly enough, this downsized college seems to need exactly the number of administrators it currently boasts.

All of which now makes the university’s pitch to the Legislature feel more than a bit disingenuous. Suppose it were an IBM or a trying to have it both ways on jobs – touting and then slashing them according to a preexisting strategy. They might get away with it, but almost certainly there would be a louder outcry. 

Of course, UVM’s answer to any of these complaints would be that their surprise purge is exactly what will allow them to thrive in the long run, thus saving the balance of university jobs. If they had consulted the faculty, they’d argue, the faculty might have succeeded in heading off the cuts. But when has any corporate downsizing operation argued anything different?  The official posture is always that only these particular surprise injuries to workers can achieve efficiency – and leave upper management and stockholders (in this case the endowment) undisturbed.

Faced with a public health crisis, the university turned a cold gymnasium into a fully functioning medical surge center, almost overnight (for which they were reimbursed). Could UVM act as nimbly to save faculty jobs during the pandemic, until student enrollment projections are replaced with solid data? Could they, for instance, turn their prodigious fundraising capacities to creating an emergency fund designed to preserve jobs while the pandemic rages? 

It’s a fair question, and only one of many we should ask pointedly when next the university comes to Montpelier talking about jobs. A few others:  How many and whose jobs are you actively planning to slash next year?  UVM has paused work on a new $100 million athletic stadium, a project we clearly cannot afford – why isn’t that white elephant being canceled outright? Why don’t administrators making three times as much seem equally expendable? Presidents get severance packages and deferred compensation, while deans get retreat salaries – couldn’t Jamie Williamson and his peers have been shown a fraction of that generosity? After 30 years?

And the last question, maybe the most important of all: When you say that you want to be a shining light on the Hill, what exactly do you think you mean by that?

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