Colleges all over the U.S. face heavy cuts


University of Evansville professors expected heavy cuts. But they didn’t expect this.

In a proposal released last week, UE president Christopher Pietruszkiewicz laid out a possible “academic alignment plan” that would eliminate entire departments.

The music, electrical engineering, computer science, religion and philosophy departments would vanish, as would their 12 majors. Five more majors would also disappear over the next few years.

The proposal could mean job losses for as many as 40 people, Pietruszkiewicz told the Courier & Press’ Isaiah Seibert in an interview after the proposal went public. That’s about one-fourth of the faculty.

It all was the crescendo of months of anguish at the school, which was looking to nix a rumored $2-3 million from its budget as it not only struggles amid the COVID-19 pandemic but grapples with financial woes that have hovered over UE for years — including several debates about the school’s Division I status in athletics.

In the last few months, a large portion of the faculty coalesced to create the “Save UE” movement, helping them angle for more say in major decisions. When the group formed in earnest in September, it believed UE could cut as many as 25 instructors. Now they’re staring at a lot more than that.

The decision isn’t final. Faculty will have 30 days to review the proposal before it goes to the board of trustees.

Professor and Save UE secretary-treasurer Daniel Byrne — who teaches history, one of the majors that would be eliminated — told the Courier & Press on Thursday that faculty will do their best convince the board to vote down the proposal.

“They don’t have to agree to this,” he said.

It’s absolutely no solace to anyone who works there (including me. Hi! I’ve been an adjunct instructor for three semesters), but UE is far from the only university contemplating dismal cuts as COVID-19 throws everyone’s finances into upheaval.

The University of Southern Indiana startled faculty and staff in July when it sent out a foreboding letter warning about possible furloughs, salary cuts and firings if the school struggled financially during the pandemic. But in November, the board of trustees approved a budget that will pay all faculty and staff through at least the end of the fiscal year, Kindra Strupp, USI’s vice president for marketing and communications, told me.

Other universities didn’t get such a reprieve.

According to a thoroughly depressing New York Times story published last month, heavy financial problems are plaguing higher education institutions all over the country. Ohio Wesleyan University plans to obliterate 18 majors — one more than UE — while the University of Akron blew up a collective bargaining agreement so it could fire 97 unionized faculty members.

Brutal reductions are also unfolding at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Arizona, and several others. Closer to home, Ball State laid off 38 staff members in October.

Higher education faces a serious dilemma. Amid soaring tuition costs, dwindling attendance, shrinking state funding and an economy that is increasingly indifferent toward college degrees, universities will likely struggle for years to come. That will leave administrators grasping for ways to make up lost revenue. And more often than not they’ll turn toward job cuts, depriving scores of people of what was once safe, sturdy employment.

“You can hold a university under an oak tree if the weather is good,” John Cox, a graduate of UE’s music program, told the Courier & Press in October. “But you can’t hold it without the people.”

Jon Webb is a columnist for the Evansville Courier & Press. Send comments to [email protected].