Employees are facing the consequences as Northern Arizona University is making significant budget cuts for the start of a new fiscal year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Losses are estimated from $30 million to $100 million, NAU President Rita Cheng shared in an April 17 letter to the university community. This equates to almost 20% of the university’s operating budget, she explained in another letter last week, and is a result of “unprecedented enrollment challenges as a result of demographic changes, shifting attitudes about the value of a college degree, and declining numbers of high school graduates.” COVID-19 has worsened the situation, Cheng said.
In a letter from the Office of the Provost to university department leaders, dated April 24, departments were asked to adjust their Fall 2020 budgets to schedule for “25% lower enrollment and/or personnel expenses, which will likely result in fewer faculty next year.” An attached disclaimer said these numbers and instructions could be altered.
On May 4, in a Faculty Senate meeting, Provost Diane Stearns broke down enrollment decreases by college, with three experiencing the largest changes: the College of Arts and Letters is down 35%; the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences, 27%; and the W.A. Franke College of Business, 22%.
“This is not a financial situation that can simply be weathered through minor adjustments and temporary fixes to our operating budget,” NAU spokesperson Kimberly Ott told the Arizona Daily Sun. “We need to make decisions that recognize this new operational reality and ensure fiscal sustainability for our institution that will allow NAU to continue to meet its strategic goals of student access and success.”
Ott said all NAU programs and departments have been asked to develop a range of options and percentages of cuts.
As employees began to lose their jobs in efforts to improve the budget, the University Union of Northern Arizona (UUNA) responded, forming both a letter to the President and Provost addressing the university’s response to such challenges as well as an online petition to stop layoffs, which had more than 800 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
The letter outlined challenges being faced by the university, including the enrollment drop, the state’s projected deficit, the loss of faculty — especially at the part-time and non-tenure-track levels — and changes to classes when campus reopens in the fall.
“This is not the time to use layoffs to address a longer-term challenge,” UUNA’s executive board told the Arizona Daily Sun in an email. “The repercussions of layoffs, particularly of those that make the least, will have ripple effects on the Flagstaff community and other communities we serve as this will add to the growing unemployment and pressures on communities already experiencing financial and health stressors.”
UUNA said the Provost predicted cutting approximately 300 full-time faculty on top of other cuts, but no other predictions have been made regarding cuts to other staff or graduate employees. The executive board also said almost every department has notified their part-time and contingent faculty that they will not be rehired.
Ott said separately, “All positions are under consideration, not just faculty.”
The union expects more dramatic cuts in the coming weeks and has called for the consideration of more equitable measures, like furloughs, pay cuts, early retirements, and sabbaticals or voluntary leave-of-absences to save jobs.
The University of Arizona adopted such an approach last month, announcing school-wide furloughs and pay cuts to account for its projected losses of $250 million.
Ott said NAU has been able to resist such “across-the-board austerity measures” because it will end its 2020 fiscal year with a balanced budget, unlike other universities. She said all options are being considered and once the university has more accurate enrollment numbers, additional actions could include options such as furloughs, leaves of absence and pay cuts.
UUNA also expressed concerns about administrators pushing for hybrid classes and to increase course caps.
“NAU Administration has long advocated for an increase in class sizes as a cost-cutting measure. They are taking advantage of this crisis to increase class sizes across campus in order to then decrease the amount of teachers they need to employ. … There have also been no assurances that increased class sizes are only a temporary measure,” the letter stated.
When asked about larger class sizes during the pandemic, Ott said larger classes “would not be a factor in a lower enrollment environment.”
Among others throughout campus, staff of the University Writing Program have already experienced the ramifications of NAU’s budget reductions.
About three weeks ago, Kama O’Connor, who worked in the program as an instructor for five years, was told her contract, along with those of more than six others from the department, would not be renewed because the positions no longer existed.
The losses in staff made up 87% of the entire program, which provides the introductory writing courses required for every NAU undergraduate student. These classes are taught by instructors like O’Connor and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) who are mentored throughout the process.
Though O’Connor said the group had expected the program to look different in light of current economic hardships, the extent of the cuts was a shock.
“None of us could imagine a world where academics would look so bleak so quickly that we would have to take a core university program and cut it down to its wicks,” O’Connor said. “I think that surprised everyone.”
These reductions left only about three employees — who simultaneously hold leadership roles within the department — to support the GTAs to teach all incoming NAU students how to write at the university level. One of O’Connor’s primary concerns of the cuts was the ramifications for these teaching assistants, who are students themselves and often have no experience teaching. Without longtime instructors as mentors, she said it could lead to problems in the classroom and additional stress for these students.
“I see more of the benefits of having us there than the detriments of not having us there. I think what we did as instructors made the program an incredibly strong one. … Without that scaffolding, without that component where we have the people who are teaching the most at the bottom doing just that, I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for a crumble of everything above it,” O’Connor said.
Stacy Clark is a student in NAU’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program and a teaching assistant for the University Writing Program. Though she has previous teaching experience and will enter her second year working with these undergraduates in the fall, she worries about the integrity of the program without as many instructors to guide it.
“Undergraduate students who are coming to NAU won’t have that full attention and full support of really highly trained professionals to guide them. And that’s going to be devastating. Writing for your classes, regardless of the discipline, is so essential to succeed in higher education and beyond. To not have fully trained staff who are running the program and there to guide us less experienced teachers is undoubtedly going to be very negative for the student experience,” Clark said.
With fewer program staff, more responsibility will fall to the teaching assistants, who Clark said already regularly work much more than the 20 hours a week noted in their contracts.
“That already feels kind of outrageous to me and now the fact that we won’t have the support and mentorship to do that, it seems like they’re just trying to milk us as really poorly paid labor,” Clark said.
Like the university-wide union, this group has also created a letter calling for the Provost to reconsider the elimination of these employees.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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