Fighting the downsizing of education at the University of Vermont.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Turn: Fogel Should Respect Protesters

June 3, 2009

My Turn: Fogel should respect protesters

By Tina Escaja

Last year, the University of Vermont celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first Waterman takeover by students who'd become convinced that only through this act of civil disobedience would the administration finally sit down to discuss seriously their proposals to diversify the university community and curriculum.

Here's how UVM's The View, in an article this year, described the outcome of occupation of President Lattie Coor's office in the spring of 1988: "After negotiations among faculty, students, and administrators, President Lattie Coor and the protesters emerged from the wing on April 22 with a formal agreement to advance the hiring and recruitment of multicultural faculty and students and enhance the curriculum to build racial and ethnic awareness."

Fast-forward to spring 2009 when a small group of students held a sit-in at President Dan Fogel's office and a large group sat down in the hallway outside the president's wing, convinced that only through this act of civil disobedience would the administration finally agree to discuss seriously students' concerns that UVM's budget was being balanced at the expense of their educations.

This sit-in was part of a series of events that took place over the months following the announcement of cuts and layoffs that many students and faculty feared threatened quality education at UVM. A few weeks before, many hundreds of students who participated in a walk-out were praised by delighted and appreciative professors and staff. But since students still could not get an audience with President Fogel, they decided, in a most peaceful, even celebratory, manner, to wait in the public premises of the Waterman Building until he would see them.

However, unlike President Coor in 1988, President Fogel did not sit down cross-legged on the floor for long hours of discussion that might culminate in a new Waterman Agreement. Instead, he stepped out of his office, telling the students he'd return in a moment, and then called in the police. Instead of a new Waterman Agreement, what President Fogel brought us this spring were the arrests of and criminal charges against 32 students for carrying out a nonviolent protest of his policies.

I am among many UVM faculty and staff who denounce the mishandling of the sit-in by our administration. I was there, and I could see the solidarity among our students that seriously contrasted with the harsh response by the administration. I saw how the administration had the windows of the president wing covered by blankets and paper to block any communication between the students inside and outside the president's wing. This visual rejection of students' attempt at serious dialogue with President Fogel was appalling, as was the use of force exercised exclusively by one side -- the administration -- to break off negotiations.

Students were then banned from entering this building where they were to take classes, receive honors and take exams that would allow them to graduate. This barring of students from entering the building even to fulfill their obligations as students was another example of administrative overreaction and mishandling of the situation. The explanation that students must "pay for their actions" when the administration itself has not been questioned about their own actions is not satisfactory to faculty such as myself.

What would be helpful at this point would be for the trustees and President Fogel to now actively support the dismissal of charges against all of the students. The sit-in was nonviolent, nondestructive and nonobstructive. The students involved should be celebrated, not punished, for honoring UVM's social justice tradition and for their commitment to our university's future.

Tina Escaja of South Burlington is a professor in romance languages at the University of Vermont.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Testimony and Inspiration for the Struggles Ahead

Thanks to the hard work of Students, Staff, and Faculty Together - launching Students Stand Up and United Academics' "Don't Downsize Education at UVM" campaign to unite the campus in struggling against President Fogel's downsizing plans - the Spring '09 semester at UVM ended with the administration forced to put money back into education and staffing budgets, rehire some laid-off part-time faculty, refund some eliminated professor positions, and at least delay its plans to proceed with "Phase 2" staff and lecturer layoffs. 

But the semester also ended with 32 students facing "trespassing" charges for a half-day sit-in in the administration building during its usual operating and open-to-the-public hours. While the state prosecutor has dropped the charges in exchange for students performing community service (on top of the significant service they've already done for the UVM community, that is!),  the administration has recently called at least some of these students to a judicial hearing with the Center for Student Ethics and Standards. (Remember that the 2008-09 school year began with the revelation that President Fogel and his administration had "squandered millions,"as the Free Press editorialized, in unapproved overpayments to a PeopleSoft consulting group. Shouldn't Fogel be the one called on to answer for ethical challenges and lax standards, especially as his administration, not the national economic downturn, largely created UVM's budget woes?)

In addition, scores of staff and faculty, many of whom had served UVM for a decade or more, have lost their jobs while the executive branch of the administration has not scaled back its size and salary spending even by a single vice president. (In fact, with chief of staff Gary Derr now including "Vice President for Executive Operations" as his title, it looks like they're still adding to their ranks!) And with a grim economic forecast for the many months ahead and calls in Washington not for more stimulus funds for public education and programs but instead for cutting the deficit, including by cutting funds for public education and programs, we can expect the administration this fall to renew and intensify their arguments for downsizing - not themselves, of course, but the faculty and staff on whom students' educations depend.

So below are two dispatches from the end of the Spring '09 semester that may help as we consider how to carry our arguments, struggle, and commitments into the coming school year.

The first is a letter from a long-time staff member that was read to UVM trustees at their May meeting by a member of Students Stand Up; the second is the statement of English professor and United Academics member Helen Scott at the May joint press conference of United Academics and Students Stand Up.

Dear UVM Trustees,

I hope you will read this letter in spite of my hidden identity. I would rather communicate with you openly, but events at UVM and the actions taken by the administration have left me and many others on the staff afraid. Every evidence seems to prove that those who go along are rewarded while anyone who expresses dissent must fear potential punishment. The institution I have been proud to serve for almost two decades has become a place I no longer recognize.

During my time at UVM I have witnessed firsthand the aftermath of the firings of George Davis and Judith Ramaley, the sudden departure of Provost Dalmas Taylor, the 1992 Waterman takeover, the 1995 hunger strike of Shontae Praileau, and shouting matches between Provost Robert Low and community members at public forums over accusations of racist actions by the administration. Through all of these difficulties, I have never felt as disheartened or witnessed such low morale on campus.

Actions taken by President Fogel: his public declaration that he would rather resign than take a pay cut, his insistence that executive bonuses are deserved while dedicated, long-serving, and hard working employees are being laid off, and everyone is being asked to do more with less, have left faculty and staff at UVM feeling demoralized and undervalued. The clear message to so many of us outside the circle of power is that hard work and excellent service to UVM has become expendable. Something that set UVM apart from every other state university, its tight-knit community and small village feel is being sacrificed for expediency. President Fogel seems to think this is a necessary step towards some kind of progress, but what if he is as wrong as so many of us on the front lines, providing services to students believe?

President Fogel has articulated a vision of UVM as an elite institution. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to UVM and to the student body it attracts appreciate a pursuit of excellence, but not a pursuit of elitism. The two are not the same. National scandals in the banking industry have proven that excessive compensation is much more reliable at attracting self-interest and questionable ethics than talent and excellence.

I am told that President Fogel has been a very good fundraiser and of course that ability is important to the success of UVM, but I question whether it will ever be possible for UVM to sustain a president's salary that is competitive with that of the president of the University of Connecticut, e.g.. Vermont is not Connecticut. We will never have that kind of revenue stream to draw on. If President Fogel manages to finish destroying the sense of community and institutional integrity that have made UVM a diamond in the rough for so many like myself, all of us in Vermont will have lost something of rare value. I am one of many who have stayed in Vermont and at UVM in spite of knowing that I could earn more money elsewhere, because I have valued the total experience of being in a place that put integrity ahead of expediency and community ahead of self-interest. Perhaps UVM would be best served by a President who holds similar values.

I want to join everyone who has written in support of the students who have protested President Fogel's budget actions. If I was not afraid, I would have joined their protests. Their actions are the only thing that have given people like me hope in recent months that you, the trustees might look more closely and ask harder questions of Fogel and others. What has been happening at UVM, the way decisions have been made and carried out feels terribly wrong. I am one of many who have lost confidence in President Fogel's leadership and feel ashamed to be represented by his choices and decisions.

A sad and concerned staff member

United Academics-Students Stand Up Press Conference
May 12, 2009
Statement of Helen Scott, Associate Professor of English

In the decade that I have taught in the English department we have lost several tenure track positions, and have increasingly relied on lecturers, who, as several of my colleagues have asked me to make clear, cost less, and have less job security. As the make up of the department has changed, fewer faculty have taken on an increased burden of committee work and advising, which means that we have less time to spend on individual students. We have also struggled to provide the courses that are required both by the college and for our majors. At the same time our full time and part time lecturers have, despite carrying heavy teaching loads for little pay, nonetheless excelled as teachers and colleagues.

Last semester we were told that the university was facing a significant financial crisis and that there was no alternative but to cut positions. United Academics has consistently argued that there are alternatives to layoffs, and that any budget decisions should be driven by academic concerns. But the cuts that were announced earlier this semester were not based on a strategic plan to protect academic quality, but on abstract quotas and ratios. While I do not know all who have lost their jobs, I do know they include lecturers who are committed to UVM and have won tremendous respect and loyalty from their students and colleagues. Some faculty members have been compiling a list of the courses that will be lost: So far, with only a fraction of the reports in, the list has 67 courses. It is apparent from a brief glance that the hard won diversity of the curriculum is a casualty of these cuts, which include Afro-Caribbean Civilization, Art Addressing the Holocaust, and Global Violence against Women and Girls. In the English dept. we are losing courses at the core of the curriculum as well as one-of-a-kind Writing Workshops. We were already hard pressed to meet the needs of our students, and now we have to make do with fewer teachers. 

We heard with great relief and hope, therefore, that the budget gap was nowhere near as large as was initially thought, that money was to be restored, and that the Senate’s Financial and Physical Planning Committee was gathering information from the faculty about individual academic programs, which would then be used to guide future decisions. It was in turn a crushing disappointment to learn that those positions already eliminated are not to be restored. This is inexplicable, and raises questions again about priorities: Some faculty are hoping for an independent audit of executive compensation, looking in to the question, for example, of compensation packages for former administrators returning to faculty ranks.

In the English dept. we can restart one search that was cancelled last year, but this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to what we have lost. And while we have been told that the second round of cuts will not go through as planned, we have no guarantee that future budget decisions will be made strategically, with input from faculty, and guided by concern for academic quality. 

I want to end with some words about the students who are being sanctioned for participating in the recent sit in of Waterman. Over the course of the year, these students have researched, educated, organized, and campaigned against the budget cuts. Why? Because they care about their education, they care about the University, they do not want to lose beloved professors and classes, and they are concerned about underpaid and vulnerable staff who may not be in a position to campaign on their own behalf. After marches and speak outs and a walk out of around a thousand, these students still felt that their concerns had not been heard. So they decided to take the next step and carry out a sit-in. I and other faculty members visited them there: they were not threatening people or property, they were simply asking for a hearing from the president. And when they learned that the President had left the building, some of them decided to take this one step further by refusing to leave in the face of arrest. In doing this they were looking to the tradition of the great heroes of social justice, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, who maintained that non-violent civil disobedience was sometimes necessary in the course of struggle for a cause.

I have heard it said that the administration cannot and should not drop sanctions against these students because they must be held accountable. For myself and many of my colleagues in a department that feels itself to be under siege, this is the university turned upside down. I think of the negative stereotypes sometimes used against today’s students: that they party too much, binge drink, experiment with drugs, that they don’t value education and are not willing to work hard. And then I look at these dedicated students who are demonstrating the opposite: that they are willing to work hard and long to save their education and defend their professors. UVM often prides itself on being the Social Justice University, and draws attention to the student protests of the past: against apartheid in South Africa, for diversity in the university. These students are part of that tradition, and we should applaud, not punish them. 

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