Education

Frustrations compound University of Iowa's need to cut millions

As the cutbacks begin, employees of UI's largest college push back

The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on We
The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Calling it a “unicorn job,” University of Iowa rhetoric instructor Ashley Wells couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her gig working with students she adores, alongside colleagues she admires, on a campus she calls home.

When her husband — a UI graduate student teaching as an adjunct — landed a tenure-track job, plus the option of a spousal hire, at Utah State University for this fall, Wells considered staying behind.

“It was an agonizing decision to think about leaving,” said Wells, 36.

But then June arrived, and with it harsh realities of what the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for the UI campus.

The university already faces tens of millions in losses because of the pandemic — as well as an anticipated drop in tuition revenue this fall and cuts made by lawmakers.

UI administrators warn job and salary cuts will keep coming. And likely also will come more anguish over how the university is coping with the massive losses.

Appeal to UI president

Upon learning the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the UI’s largest college, would kick off its cuts by eliminating 15 lecturers, Wells offered her resignation as a sort of offering.

“I said, ‘I think I should take this spousal hire,’” Wells said. “I hope that they will take this and use it to buy people time or save somebody’s position.”

Her supervisor — Steve Duck, departmental executive officer for the Department of Rhetoric — passed on her resignation-turned-request to save a colleague.

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In a sentence, according to Duck, the college’s Associate Dean for the Arts and Humanities Roland Racevskis expressed doubt it would matter.

“To my knowledge, such a circumstance does not alter the decisions that have been made, but I will verify.”

Other college employees offered to absorb pay cuts, accept furloughs or take other pains to keep their fellow instructors and friends on campus.

The cuts, according to Duck, disproportionately hurt the Rhetoric Department, which already trimmed seven faculty lines and 20 sections in anticipation of enrollment declines.

“The abrupt appropriation of a further three — bringing us to a 10-faculty-cut overall — is disproportionate and excessive, undercutting our insightful, careful matching of staffing to actual unfolding enrollment,” college faculty members wrote in a July 14 letter to college Dean Steve Goddard.

They noted that lost in the college’s cuts were three esteemed lecturers.

“The vice-chair of the Council on the Status of Women [and Chair of the Women of Color subcommittee] is one,” according to the letter. “A person with a six-page vita of accomplishments rewarded by CLAS last year with a top raise is another.”

The third, a committee chair, recently was trained to prepare 25 teaching assistants a year.

The cuts affect two women, including one Latina, and two first-generation students and instructors.

The appeals did not immediately return a response. After three days of silence, Duck took the concerns to UI President Bruce Harreld, citing Harreld’s own recent comments promoting the benefits of Iowa’s first-year rhetoric experience.

“Your deep experience in the business world will alert you to the bad business arising from demoralizing those very people whose job it has been to induct new ‘customers’ into the academic world at the University of Iowa,” Duck wrote. “We strongly urge you to take swift action to encourage Dean Goddard to reconsider his untimely and unmerited cutting of our colleagues.”

Harreld replied that, essentially, he’s not getting involved.

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“While I certainly empathize with your frustration, issues regarding resource allocation, size, and faculty composition are made by our deans,” Harreld wrote back. “These are difficult times for all of us as we are once again facing tuition freezes and state cuts.”

UI is projecting losses of over $76 million through August from coronavirus-related refunds, cuts and extra expenses — and the pandemic, and its economic toll, persists.

The university is projecting enrollment declines this fall, further eroding revenue from tuition, which the Board of Regents already agreed to freeze for now.

And state lawmakers recently cut appropriations to the three public universities by $8 million in the budget year that starts Wednesday.

pay cuts ‘not enough’

Considering Liberal Arts and Sciences is the UI’s largest — reporting 15,749 undergraduates in fall 2019, more than five times the second highest enrollment of 3,138 in the Tippie College of Business — it’s bracing for deeper funding cuts and harder enrollment hits.

In a June 1 virtual town hall with more than 400 college faculty and staff — during which Goddard warned of looming layoffs, furloughs and foregone raises — he reported an expected 10 to 15 percent drop in students this fall from last, which already was down 4 percent from fall 2018.

A 15 percent loss from the college’s 2019 undergraduate count would amount to 2,362 students — or 2,648 including graduate students.

“That’s a huge impact, that’s the biggest impact for us,” Goddard said. “It’s not the state. The real hit is the reduction in tuition.”

In response to the losses, Goddard announced three tiers of potential cuts — although tier-one measures are “certain” and start Wednesday.

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The first tier aims to absorb $15 million in losses; tier two cut another $5 million; and tier three ups the college’s total cuts to $25 million.

The starting $15 million loss, he said, amounts to 10 percent of the college’s operating budget. In that tier two responds to state cuts, which just occurred, Goddard said his team also is starting on second-phase reductions.

“We don’t have a choice but to cut salaries,” he said. “And when we cut salaries, we can’t eliminate the tenured faculty, unless we go through a lot of hoops.”

Goddard said that cutting individual faculty and staff salaries is a “last-resort.”

“I don’t want to reduce the salary per person because even if we all took a 10 percent cut in our salary, that would not cover the $15 million deficit that we have. It’s not enough,” he said.

Because faculty members with tenure aren’t easy to drop, Goddard asked, “Now where can we eliminate people?”

“Our instructional-track faculty, when their contracts come up for renewal, we have to evaluate whether we have the funds to renew them or not. And so that’s the order we’re going.”

Second-tier cuts include eliminating more instructional-track faculty in the coming years, curtailing visitor and adjunct faculty budgets, skipping merit raises, enacting furloughs and nixing majors and courses.

Lost courses, according to Goddard, are a likely result of the first-tier adjunct and visiting professor budget cuts.

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Not every UI college is taking the same steps as Liberal Arts and Sciences, according to Goddard, who pointed to the Carver College of Medicine, which he said is starting with pay cuts.

“They are going to have, I think, 5 percent cuts, maybe 10 percent for the foreseeable future,” he said. “They’re cutting right out of the chute. Other colleges may also be doing that. Especially in the tier-two cuts, and tier three.

“Ours are in the tier-three, only if we have to,” he said. “And we’re trying to do everything we can to avoid it.”

Asked if the UI is planning to shrink its retirement-fund matching, he said that “the president isn’t a fan of that.”

“But it’s something that’s being considered,” Goddard said. “First, the president wants to see what all the plans were from the colleges, before invoking anything university wide.”

As for the possibility of early-retirement offerings, Goddard said, they’re unlikely.

“I think there’ll be incentive separation packages, but it will not be based on age,” he said.

backlash and apology

Questions on how college leaders decided to cut the budget — including who to cut, how to communicate the cuts and concerns about the administration’s underlying goals — sparked immediate internal backlash, compelling an apology from the dean.

“There are a number of questions for which I wish I had done a better job answering,” Goddard wrote June 5 to faculty and staff. “In some cases, I interpreted the question differently than other listeners. In other cases, I simply flopped, and I apologize for offending any member of our community. I do make mistakes and I try to learn from them.”

Goddard reported receiving about 150 questions and comments in the town hall meeting that were “very challenging to answer.”

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“I received the questions briefly just before the forum, having time to quickly read through the slide deck once,” he said. “As you might imagine, answering 50-plus questions in approximately 80 minutes without a physical audience to read is a difficult task. Well, it was for me anyway.”

Acknowledging the convergence of numerous crises — COVID-19, the struggling economy, racial and social tensions — Goddard said he regrets not opening the discussion by addressing and acknowledging “the structural racism and gender inequities that so many of us are struggling with and against, including here in our own college.”

He said the college’s senior leadership “identified areas where I need to do better personally and where we, as a college, need to do better.”

The apology, however, didn’t address questions Duck and other faculty members shared with The Gazette about disproportionate cuts harming some departments more than others, and the hits on diversity by eliminating women and minority instructors whose contract were up.

Duck said he’s received no clarity on how administrators chose who to eliminate — beyond those whose contracts were expiring.

“There was no system to it,” he said. “One of the faculty who was fired got the highest merit raise of any of the faculty in the instructional track this year because of his excellence of performance. It wasn’t done by merit. It was just done by convenience and opportunity ...”

With the college flagging declining enrollment as the primary driver of cuts that could impair the quality of a UI education, Duck warned leaders could find themselves in a Catch-22 that could “bring the house down upon themselves.”

“If the college makes bad decisions that frighten parents about whether their kids will be taught properly, they will bring about the result they’re seeking to prevent,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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