Recent actions by NAU administration will have a harmful and demoralizing impact on faculty, students and the Flagstaff community. As Mary Tolan’s recent column in the Daily Sun pointed out, faculty such as myself expected some budget cuts, layoffs and perhaps furloughs in response to the economic crisis related to the covid-19 pandemic. But the degree, timing, and extent of these cuts is unprecedented and unnecessarily callous.
First, in the context of a pandemic and the lack of universal healthcare, NAU should have considered all other options — such as early retirements and voluntary leaves of absence — before laying off faculty. Second, once they decided to make these cuts, NAU should have informed faculty in sufficient time to apply for unemployment in advance and make healthcare arrangements. A severance package and/or an extension of health insurance also would have been a more humane approach. Instead, many faculty members were laid off as late as Friday, May 29, which gave them only two days to prepare.
Third, although the university proclaims to be “One NAU,” the College of Arts and Letters was disproportionately affected by these layoffs, with a devastating 34 faculty lost. The Flagstaff community should be especially concerned about the impact this will have on the cultural life of our city, since the College of Arts and Letters offers makes art, music, dance, culture and history accessible to the broader community. Finally, the university should have incorporated factors such as seniority and qualifications in their decision making. Instead, we have lost some of our most educated, experienced and celebrated faculty, including those who have been with the institution for more than a decade.
On one level, NAU’s budget cuts are part of a larger crisis in higher education in which tuition and campus housing have come to substitute for federal and state funding. This explains why NAU has decided to return to on-campus, in-person instruction in the fall rather than providing online curriculum and instruction. It needs the income generated by tuition to survive — even though, from a public health perspective, this is an irresponsible decision. As a society, we need to stop burdening young people with the cost of higher education and recognize that it should be a public good, essential for the health of our democracy and economy.
I wish that NAU, like many other public universities, would take a strong stance in favor of public education and resist going along with a system that tries to provide education on the cheap and paid for by the young. Instead, it has often been compliant in hiring contingent rather than tenure-track faculty and in favoring academic disciplines that bring in outside grants rather than insisting on the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education. As a result, for many years now, many departments have seen high levels of turnover and a shrinking number of faculty.
These trends negatively impact student learning on multiple levels: curriculum becomes unpredictable and illogical; mentors disappear without notice; and the quality of instruction is uneven. For these reasons, morale has been low for many years now; I hope that this recent round of cuts will encourage the university to recognize that it is time to change course.
Leilah Danielson, Ph.D., is a history professor at Northern Arizona University, where she has been since 2003.
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