Layoffs are underway at Northern Arizona University as it approaches a fiscal year with an expected $100 million or more in lost enrollment revenues.
On Wednesday, a crowd of more than 70 protesters — including current employees and those who lost their jobs as recently as that morning — gathered outside Flagstaff City Hall, calling for NAU administrators to implement furloughs or pay cuts instead of “chopping” positions to address budget concerns.
“Athletics is talking about ‘Keep chopping NAU’ and it’s unbelievable this is what they’re actually doing. The irony of it is just tragic,” said Gerald Wood, president of the University Union of Northern Arizona, which organized the protest. “The folks that I know, that I’ve worked with for years, I don’t know if they’re going to be here tomorrow.”
Protesting employees said they have received inconsistent messaging surrounding how much national enrollment trends and the coronavirus play into their departments’ cuts, and they are now especially concerned about new semester-long contracts for non-tenure-track faculty and the sudden loss of benefits like health insurance. Faculty who lost their positions were told these benefits would last through May 31.
“I found out on Tuesday that I would have no health insurance at the end of the week, which is gutting, on top of the fact that I just lost my job,” said Lisa Thompson, who has been a geology lecturer at NAU for the past decade and whose classes for next year were already full. “My 10-year-old son is going to have a gap in health insurance during a pandemic.”
Thompson worries that, even if the position were reinstated, she would be ineligible for her own job, where a Ph.D. is now a requirement, even though she was grandfathered in without one. Like other employees now without jobs, Thompson said she was also unable to receive documentation stating the reason for her loss of position.
Even though the department successfully created a solution to prepare for a 20% budget cut reduction using tiered pay cuts, Thompson said the proposal was “shot down literally within hours.” Her individual proposal to take a yearlong unpaid absence was similarly denied and three of four lecturers in her department lost their jobs.
Last Friday, NAU President Rita Cheng told staff in a letter she and her executive team would be taking 10% pay cuts for the year and contracts would still be issued to “approximately 95 percent of our total instructional faculty for fall 2020.”
In a statement following the protest, Cheng said this would equate to fewer than 100 positions and there would be no reduction in tenured or tenure-track faculty.
“When I saw that email that Rita sent out saying we were going to keep 95%, I thought I would be OK. But unfortunately, I was not,” said Audra Travelbee, who was laid off Monday from her position as a lecturer in the Department of Global Languages and Culture, which she held for five years. She attended the protest with her partner, Nick Rabe, who lost his position in the School of Communication last year due to similar budget cuts. “I’ve been looking and there’s no jobs out there right now. I feel like this is the end of my career.”
Even upon request, Travelbee said her supervisors were unable to show her proof of how expected enrollment drops justified cutting her position and those of several others in the department.
Joe A., from the College of Arts and Letters, received his notice Wednesday morning after eight years in the position, even though all his classes were also full for the fall semester.
“Unless they have the crystal ball where they know that all these students are going to drop my class, they’re cutting teachers to subsidize another part of the university. Those of us getting cut are at the bottom of the salary scale, but we also teach the most students and interact with them the most and teach the most classes,” he said.
He said the losses in the liberal studies, in particular, seem to imply a reorganization of the university. In his department alone, 30% of staff lost their jobs Wednesday.
“Things like engineering and accounting are significant and important and they matter, but those tend to be technical programs. You want to learn about history and philosophy and you want to learn how to write and think and when you cut those things, which seem to be the things they’re cutting, you’re really reorganizing the university away from thinking towards job training. That feels like the aim behind this.”
Jenna Chaffeur, the 2019 distinguished senior for the College of the Environment, Forestry and Natural Sciences and one of Thompson’s former students and teacher’s assistants, was shocked the university is cutting the same introductory-level faculty who helped her find her career path.
Though she was considering the geology master’s program from NAU, she will instead be attending Western Washington University.
“I wanted a new environment because I’ve been in Arizona my whole life, but when I found out all this had happened with all the faculty that I have worked personally worked with, I’m so glad I chose not to go to NAU,” Chaffeur said. “I didn’t have that kind of foresight that this terrible thing was going to happen, but I’m so glad I’m not going to be a part of this school anymore because I cannot believe they made these decisions.”
In her statement Wednesday, Cheng said she respects protesters’ “right to air their issues publicly” but explained the university is facing unusual times.
“Virtually all public universities across the country have implemented a variety of measures to reduce their costs, and many of them have taken steps that are far more drastic than ours,” she said.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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