Higher ed layoffs and program cuts signal hard times ahead

As if their struggles for adequate funding were not already challenging enough, public colleges and universities have seen the strain on their budgets increase exponentially due to the coronavirus pandemic. The result? Many are turning to faculty and staff layoffs, denying students the services they need now more than ever, and throwing thousands of academic personnel out of work.

Unions are fighting back, demanding their institutions use relief funds and cut administrative costs rather than lay off the faculty and staff who are the very heart of the academic mission. And they’re continuing to press for federal funding through legislation like the HEROES Act and other bills moving through the Senate.

PSC car caravan protesting job losses
Photo courtesy of PSC

At the City University of New York, administrators announced about 2,800 layoffs in late June. The faculty-staff union, the Professional Staff Congress, immediately gathered 4,000 signatures on a petition to stop the job losses and launched a full-fledged campaign to mitigate the damage. In July, the PSC filed a lawsuit against CUNY for violating the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which directs funding recipients to use the money to avoid layoffs. CUNY received $251 million from the CARES fund.

“The PSC will not stand by as CUNY lays off adjuncts and eliminates classes for students when Congress named job protection at colleges as one of the purposes of the stimulus bill,” says PSC President Barbara Bowen, who is an AFT vice president. PSC members held a public hearing on June 26 to air the concerns and will participate in drive-through protests across Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island July 18. 

In New Jersey, the governor cut $73 million from Rutgers University’s budget and will lose some $200 million by the time losses like room and board refunds are added to the shortfall. The university has dropped fall courses for one-fifth of adjunct faculty, so they will have no classes to teach. Union leaders there, including faculty and graduate employees in Rutgers AAUP-AFT and campus staff in the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, say Rutgers could lay off 500 dining, maintenance, custodial and public safety employees as well. In some cases where both adults in the household work on campus, families are losing two incomes; in others, tuition remission normally available to staff is no longer offered to family members who had counted on it to attend college.

While university budget decisions can mitigate the financial damage faculty and staff are facing, state budgets could do more—but across the country, states are experiencing huge revenue losses from shuttered businesses, higher rates of unemployment and increased costs to keep up with the pandemic. Higher education has been hit especially hard.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $1.7 billion cut to public colleges and universities, blaming it on costs related to the pandemic. That’s “billion” with a “b,” and it includes $400 million from California State University, $363 million from the University of California and $740 million from California Community Colleges.

“We urge our elected leaders in Sacramento to look at every possible avenue to avoid the steep cuts,” says California Federation of Teachers President Jeffrey Freitas. The CFT is advocating for a billionaire’s tax to bridge the cuts, and also joining the AFT’s national campaign for federal funding like what is outlined in the HEROES Act.

Meanwhile universities are scrambling to cut costs: The University of Akron recently eliminated 97 full-time faculty positions; Johns Hopkins University announced leadership salary reductions, faculty salary holds, hiring restrictions, and expected furloughs and layoffs; Marquette University furloughed 250 employees in April; Drew University furloughed 70 employees; and at least 224 other institutions are making similar moves.

Rutgers member protesting layoffs
Photo courtesy of Rutgers AAUP-AFT

These individual examples reflect a national trend: “While the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the financial issues facing most colleges and universities, the truth is that, for decades, public financial support for higher education has plummeted,” write AFT President Randi Weingarten and Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Todd Wolfson in a joint op-ed. “Dozens of university leaders have announced drastic budget cuts, furloughs, layoffs and even permanent campus closures, instead of dipping into reserves or reducing salaries of highly paid executives and coaches.”

The AFT is fighting alongside its affiliates to address these poor decisions, while at the same time advocating for the federal assistance that could save jobs, allow students to complete their programs and even relieve borrowers from the heavy burden of student debt.

“In every state, in almost every community, there’s a college or university whose job it is to educate, to research and to serve the people,” write Weingarten and Wolfson. “Higher education employs millions of Americans across the country. Ours is an unparalleled system that we cannot afford to lose. Let’s save it.”

[Virginia Myers]