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Declining enrollment, course demand causes layoffs in College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences


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Graduate teaching assistant, Emma Johnson, asks her virtual 'U.S. History Through Michigan Eyes' class questions about government Nov. 17. Educators are forced to teach in nearly empty classrooms due to guidelines in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

(This photo was taken for the "Learning in Isolation" photo story. Johnson is not quoted in this story)

  

Dusty Myers has taught at Central Michigan University for 10 years as a fixed term faculty member of the Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work department. His status as fixed term meant he could lose his job at any time for a variety of reasons.  

Sometime around the beginning of the semester, Myers began to hear rumors of layoffs within his department. Because of declining enrollment and the inevitable budget cuts that came with it, Myers said the rumors were certain to result in him losing his job.  

The rumors were confirmed for Myers on April 20, when he received a letter notifying him that he would no longer have a position at CMU next fall. 

“This isn't just about me, Myers said. “Yes, I'm losing my job, this is unfortunate and believe me, it sucks. I mean it's a sock in the gut kind of a feeling, but it's more than that, it's about looking at these notions of what CMU is, and I can't help but feel like the greatest resource that CMU has is in its people.”  

Myers’ is one of several professors being laid off within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS). CMU is still adjusting its budget for the 2021-22 year, meaning some lecturers are still waiting to hear if they will have a job in the fall. It has been speculated by faculty and university officials that layoffs are being concentrated in CLASS.

According to a report from Academic Planning and Analysis, CMU’s fall on-campus enrollment has been declining since 2010, and Fall 2020 was no exception.

As the dean of CLASS, Richard Rothaus has to approve each layoff, something he says is regretful, but unavoidable. Rothaus had previously left the university to start an archaeological consultation business, which he said does not carry the same stresses as an administration job.  

“When I'm doing layoffs I would so much rather be in a field digging holes, that's for sure,” Rothaus said. 

Rothaus estimated that almost ten lecturers will be laid off within CLASS by the time the budget is finalized. He also said the budget will require some departments in CLASS to merge. Political Science, Sociology, Social Work and Public Administration will be merged together as one department, Rothaus said as an example. 

University Communications Executive Director Heather Smith said budget cuts are an annual process for academic colleges and the choices to cut faculty are made based on course demand. 

According to the Office of Academic Planning and Analysis, in Fall 2020, the average number of credits brought to CMU was about 20, which is worth well over a semester’s worth of classes. The percentage of students bringing credits has also risen by 16 percent since 2010. 

Combined with declining enrollment, Rothaus said, the shift “triggered a need for fewer instructors” in general education areas. 

Many of the general education requirements are covered in areas such as anthropology, English, sociology, foreign languages, philosophy and religion, all of which are in CLASS. Because these subjects are in low demand, Rothaus said a lower number of course sections and lecturers will be needed to teach them.

Philosophy and Religion faculty member Heather Kendrick said CMU has been trying to increase enrollment by bringing in more transfer students. The problem with that, she said, is the university is losing money that could be made by general education tuition, causing cuts in the respective programs. 

“The cure might be worse than the disease, as they say,” Kendrick said. “I’m not sure about the trade-off.”  

Kendrick submitted a statement to the April 22 Board of Trustees meeting about the situation, stating her disagreement with CMU’s decision. According to Kendrick, four out of the seven lecturers in her department will be laid off, not including her. 

“I remain unconvinced that eliminating teaching faculty in CLASS is the only, or the best, way to be fiscally responsible,” Kendrick’s statement said. “I believe that such claims are made in bad faith. Instead, the appearance of budget-conscious austerity is merely a respectable cloak for weakening the liberal arts at CMU.” 

Kendrick said there is a perception in today’s society that subjects from CLASS “are useless and don’t do anything,” and STEM is viewed as more valuable. Kendrick said that CMU is “buying into self-fulfilling rhetoric.” 

“I think that they're losing something that was previously lucrative,” Kendrick said. “They basically supported the more costly programs at CMU on the backs of my college.”     

A petition titled “Merge Don’t Purge Departments in CLASS” was created by CMU’s Union of Teaching Faculty in solidarity with the professors being cut. The Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at Michigan State University promoted the petition to MSU faculty.   

“CMU relies on non-tenure-track lecturers to fulfill its core educational mission to its students, yet it is proposing unnecessary budget cuts to the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences that will eliminate teaching staff and drastically cut humanities programs,” the petition said. “This move will harm students’ academic goals and the university’s mission to promote inclusion and diversity—so much of which is rooted in CLASS programs.” 

As one of several long-serving professors whose time is now consumed by looking for a job, Myers said this situation could have been handled differently, instead of giving faculty an unrealistic time frame to find a new teaching position.    

“Yes, it's about me losing my job and my colleagues losing their job,” Myers said, “but in the bigger picture, I just feel it doesn't have to be this way, and I think there are people higher up that will say, well, this is needed, we need to rebalance our budget. My retort is reimagine. Reimagine another way.”

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