Budget ‘Bloodbath’ at University of Akron

Governing board votes to eliminate 97 full-time faculty positions.

July 16, 2020
 
Wednesday's Board of Trustees meeting at the U of Akron

The University of Akron’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously authorized the elimination of 97 full-time professors out of about 570 total in response to a projected enrollment decline and ongoing budget woes. Some 21 full-timers also recently resigned or retired.

The cuts will take effect starting in two weeks. The university is in the process of notifying affected professors, but their identities are not yet public. No programs cuts were made, per se -- Akron already cut about 80 programs in 2018 as part of a major academic restructuring -- yet some professors wonder how and if their departments will function with so many of their colleagues missing.

Pam Schulze, professor of child and family development at Akron and campus faculty union president, called Wednesday’s board meeting “depressing,” more for the university and its students than for the faculty.

“From what I’ve seen, some of these programs will be so badly hurt, I don’t know if they can continue,” she said. “I don’t view this as a union issue, I view this as a university issue.”

Cuts were made by department chairs and deans -- many of them interim and acting, due to the recent reorganization -- at the university's request that they trim their programs by up to 25 percent. The union says names were selected regardless of rank or tenure status.

Throughout Wednesday’s board meeting, Akron president Gary L. Miller and trustees said they needed to pave a “sustainable” way forward, as enrollments continue to decline across Ohio for demographic reasons, and as COVID-19 rattles higher education. They expressed confidence that Akron will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before, as a result of shared “sacrifice.”

These differing outlooks on Akron’s future recall fights over proposed cuts to academics elsewhere. One side thinks slicing into instructional costs when enrollment is already down will shatter parent and student confidence in the institution and accelerate its death spiral. The other side believes that top-down cuts telegraph strong leadership and will drive enrollment.

Regarding COVID-19 in particular, many institutions are considering faculty cuts. But Akron is a particular flash point because it is cutting so deep, and because of intense and very public faculty opposition to its plan. That opposition includes the faculty union’s contention that the administration is privileging athletics over academics, to the detriment of students.

“For years, the university has disinvested in academics while simultaneously losing millions on its athletics programs,” Akron’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote in a position paper about proposed cuts earlier this month. “In the spirit of shared sacrifice, we believe that it’s time to move to a responsible and sustainable model of funding for athletics.”

While the vast majority of university revenue comes from academics in the form of student tuition and fees, the union wrote, its athletic programs are another story. According to the AAUP chapter’s accounting, Akron has been losing an average of $21.5 million per year on athletic programs for the last 10 years, topping $215 million in lost revenue during that time. Among other options, the AAUP advocates leaving Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Such losses, paired with the cuts of academics, are “no longer defensible,” the AAUP wrote in its report. This is “not fair to our students, who are subsidizing athletics at a higher rate than students at other Ohio public universities.”

In response, Akron has said that it cut $4.4 million from its sports budget this year, in part through cuts to the tennis, cross-country and golf programs. But Miller said Wednesday during a news conference that Akron’s main competitor institutions have Division I programs, and that leaving the conference would have enrollment consequences. He said the university continues to evaluate athletics and other potential cost-saving areas.

The board also eliminated 21 contract professional employees and 60 staff members during the Wednesday meeting. University administrators said the cuts, combined with other voluntary personnel departures, would save the university $16.4 million in salaries and benefits.

Miller has previously argued that enrollment decreased 34 percent between 2010 and 2019, during which the faculty ranks shrank by just 18 percent. The union takes issue with the university's math, saying that its calculations began during the post-recession enrollment bubble. Longer-term faculty-student ratios are a better measure, union leaders say.

Akron’s AAUP chapter met with administrators and protested online and in person in the weeks leading up the board vote. It had hoped to save many more faculty jobs, even agreeing to a pay cut (Schulze declined to say how much) and other concessions.

The university’s plan still must be ratified by union members. Schulze said they’re facing an unfortunate choice between approving the cuts and ensuring that their laid-off peers get severance, and facing binding arbitration.

It’s a “bloodbath” for the faculty, and, by extension, academics, she said.

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