Fighting the downsizing of education at the University of Vermont.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Teach-In to Defend Public Education at UVM

Marking the one-year anniversary of the arrest of student activists for sitting in to protest President Fogel's plans to cut faculty and staff while increasing tuition and the student body, some 100 students filled Livak Ballroom last week to consider where we've been and where we are going. Below are two talks from that teach-in plus a couple of charts to give us a picture of the UVM administration's continuing priorities: fewer faculty and staff, bigger classes, bigger salaries for those at that top.

Students Stand Up! is getting re-organized and will be using this blog through the summer to hit the ground running come fall. La lutte continue!

Introduction: Nancy Welch, Professor of English, United Academics Delegates Assembly Chair:

Last March after President Fogel announced that he had no choice but to downsize faculty and staff while increasing tuition and the number of students at UVM, 1,000 students, faculty, and staff walked out in protest. A month later 32 students held a sit-down protest in a hallway of Waterman, to which President Fogel responded by calling in the police. The administration did succeed in hamstringing the best activists on this campus with ridiculous court and campus judicial board charges. But because of last spring’s mass protests, the administration was also thwarted in carrying out the full extent of its downsizing plans. At the end of last school year the administration even announced that they’d miraculously found several million dollars to reinvest in faculty and staff positions that had been slated to be cut.

This year, however, it’s become increasingly clear that all is not well. Fifty-seven of 170 so-called part-time lecturers were given no teaching at all this semester – including Jay Moore, a Kroepsch-Maurice teaching award winner and historian who had been teaching at UVM for more than a decade. Some two dozen vacant professor positions have been frozen or eliminated. The result of fewer faculty and more students has been, of course, larger classes: This year, according to the registrar’s own figures, 2,682 fewer seats for students were in small classes of 12 to 29 students while the number of spots for students in large classes of 150 to 249 jumped by 6,980. And if you’ve been trying to get into a writing class, forget it: This year there were 33 percent fewer sections of English 1, our first-year composition course and 50 percent fewer offerings of English 50, the intermediate composition course. That’s just one example of the kinds of shut-outs students are experiencing.

So what has the administration done with their savings from laying off long-time lecturers and staff and herding more students, especially first- and second-year students into 200-seat lecture halls? They’ve given themselves raises: not the kinds of raises that faculty have received because we unionized to try to staunch the bleeding of resources away from education on the ground. For the average assistant professor in Arts and Sciences, for instance, a 5 percent raise last year on an average salary of $59,000 meant less than $3,000. In contrast UVM’s interim provost received a salary increase of $106,000. All told, ten top administrators received five-figure raises this year ranging from $11,536 for UVM’s vice president for research—bringing his salary to $251,718—to an $82,647 raise for the dean of Natural Resources—even while a long-time Environmental Studies faculty member was reduced from full to three-quarters time. Two administrators received six-figure raises, interim provost Jane Knodell, who now draws a salary of $251,300, and interm engineering dean Bernard Cole, whose raise of more than $100,000 raised his salary from $89,250 to $190,000—what has become typical for UVM’s administrative class which does no teaching, does no research, provides no direct services to students but who do dream up schemes like the transdisciplinary research initiative—that is, a plan to starve undergraduate education even further in order to try to staff and fund a handful of research “spires” that supposedly will attract grant dollars, national attention, and make it worth it for students to pay more than $40,000 a year to sit large lecture-hall classes and have your learning measured by machine-scored testing.

So all is not well at UVM and tonight’s teach-in will take us through some of the reasons why. But we also have some bright spots that tonight should also point us towards: First, it’s because of the activism on this campus last year as draconian budget cuts were raining down on public colleges and universities nationwide that students across the country this year, especially in California, are now protesting en masse. Next, three votes by the faculty and a key resolution from the Student Government Association have thrown up a roadblock in the administration’s plans to shift resources from undergraduate education to fund their TRI spires. We have a long struggle ahead and going around is a sign-up sheet: If you want to be part of organizing to bring arguments from tonight’s panel to the Board of Trustees next month and to hit the ground round next fall, please sign up. And we need to get educated. So let me introduce tonight’s speakers. Each will be speaking for about 15 minutes; after that, we should have a good half hour for whole-room discussion.

Our first speaker will be Kate Ash, vice president of the Student Government Association, who recently delivered to UVM trustees an argument against yet another tuition hike to pay for administrative bloat and mismanagement. Next is Pablo Bose, a professor in Geography, active in the Faculty and here tonight to also help us connect the situation at UVM with the attacks on public education that reach far beyond Vermont. Then we’ll hear from Stephen Hannaford, an SGA senator and organizer in Students Stand Up, which spear-headed last year’s fight against budget cuts. And we’ll conclude with Nagesh Rao, a professor of postcolonial literature from the College of New Jersey, a founding member of the Free the Academy network, and an activist in struggles against public education and public sector cuts in New Jersey.

My Students Stand Up Story: Stephen Hannaford, SGA senator and SSU organizer

In the early winter of 2008, as the spectacle of the Wall Street meltdown was in full swing and (in language that echoed President Obama and Chairman Bernanke who urged us to “tighten our belts,” and “prepare for tougher times that lay ahead”) the powers that be on this campus had begun sending out terse, placating e-mails to the community about the University’s sudden, unexpected budget deficit, a small group of astute students, staff and faculty members formed a coalition called Students, Staff and Faculty Together (SSFT). This coalition was the first to respond, quite loudly, to the communications in November and December from the President and his “Ad Hoc Strategic Budget Advisers Committee,” a committee of campus elites including Vice President Grasso, the former SGA President Taylor, and President Burgmeier of the Faculty Senate, which had begun a rhetorical campaign—or rather an onslaught through e-mail and through visitations with the governance bodies on campus—with the clear objective of resolving the deficit by pushing the cuts through with as little opposition and democratic input as possible.

I was writing for the Vermont Cynic at that time, reporting on SSFT’s first press conference, and after doing the research for this article, looking at the President’s initial estimates for the deficit—$22 million dollars as of December 2—and then examining the recent financial history of the his administration - $60 million for this building, something like $10 million to implement human resources software that didn’t work, an additional $ 6-7 million dollars a year (compared to the beginning of this decade) for upper administrative salaries…

After doing this research, well, I decided I had better join the coalition—because it didn’t take a Vice President of Finance or Research or Development or Enrollment Management or any of the other 20-some-odd vice presidents we have now to figure out that the argument that UVM’s sudden deficit was due solely to “unpredictable” market forces and not to an irresponsible, overzealous strategy of “focus and invest” deployed by the Fogel administration—it didn’t take a Vice President to figure out that that argument did not hold water—and that the hole busted in our already frail budget by the collapse of the housing market was going to be patched by cutting lecturers, cutting staff, cutting academic support, cutting student athletics, terminating searches for much-needed tenure-track faculty, and continuing to raise tuition.

Under intense pressure from the unions and the various contingents on campus he released initial estimates of the amount of people that would be laid off in the Spring, but from the outset we saw that down in the Wing, in his offices, they were immediately shifting the focus away from themselves. While talking about making “tough but necessary decisions,” the president sent out letters that lauded his committee for all their work, attempted to pacify a concerned university community by highlighting the “strategic” nature of the cuts, transforming the word “layoff” into the more benign “non-renewal,” claiming that the rise in student to teacher ratios was actually a good thing because it helped us reach our targeted goals, and of course throwing in the obligatory mention of diversity, congratulating his own administration for the increase in ALANA applications. I don’t think the obvious solution of cutting the salaries of the people responsible for managing the school’s budget—he and his Vice Presidents—was mentioned once.

Now this is all to say that we, as students, were sensing a clear and present need to take action. The students in SSFT formed Students Stand Up! At our first meeting we drew up some action plans and divided into groups to handle flyering, literature, fact sheet production; we put a zine together with poetry and drawings as well as a guide to understanding the deficit and deconstructing the administration’s shock doctrines. I believe there was another group handling the planning for our first march. It seems now that overnight, almost like it was an automatic response to the tension we felt on campus, there were 15 or 30 of us meeting every Tuesday in the Martin Luther King Lounge, three and four of us sitting down every day together in the library discussing tactics, discussing the latest e-mail from President Fogel. You had kids from the Student Labor Action Project who were tight and full of fight coming off their recent livable wage campaign, you had students from the ISO there ready to organize. But what seems amazing to me now (it wasn’t amazing then because it was the moment, it was my first experience with activism and I had no idea what it was supposed to be like) was that many of us were not the ones you would plug as “radicals” or as “campus activists.” We were athletes, we were psychology students, we were artists—we were just an average sample of the student body blessed with the guidance and experience of some amazing, charismatic, seasoned activists. And I think this was because at that time, with the worldwide media spectacle going on around the crash and the tension that was so high on our campus, the feeling of crisis was very salient to all of us.

I remember someone saying to me last spring, “It seems like every institution we know of right now is in crisis,” and we saw the gaping holes in the administration’s explanation of the budget crisis, holes in their assurance that we had nothing to worry about, that President Fogel and the Deans and the campus leaders were going to handle this deficit, and we were going to make it out okay, almost the better for it because we were reaching our strategic goals and we were, to paraphrase the poetics of President Fogel, an island of calm in an ocean of troubled waters. I think this all exacerbated a feeling of dissonance we as students at UVM are all very accustomed to at this point. You know, we are on a campus that is saturated with the rhetoric of diversity, of sustainability, of social justice and gender equity and all these things that so many of us care so deeply about, but that are terms the University has commodified, really just beaten into submission and robbed of their true meaning in its public relations literature. Because regardless of the beautiful, convincing language he uses when he talks about these things, the President is wrong if he thinks we are a sustainable campus and a diverse campus, President Fogel is wrong when he stands behind the really quite offensive assumption that this school embodies the ideal of social justice. We are a campus that is as segregated as ever. We do nothing, nothing at all to subvert the socially unjust practices in public education in this country; in fact we perpetuate them in the way we select students for admission. And this room, this $60 million building we are sitting in right now is proof that our commitment to sustainability is a wash, it’s a green wash that we sell here at UVM, notwithstanding the work some of our faculty are involved in.

So this, I think, captures some of the feelings and the thoughts that drove Students Stand Up! last Spring. We distributed our zines and our fact sheets, and in February we held our first march with Students, Staff, and Faculty Together. It was a funeral for public education. About fifty or 75 of us met here in the Davis Center with a coffin and some placards in the shape of tombstones and we marched to Waterman, chanting along the way, and stopping on the steps of the Royall Tyler theater to listen to the more eloquent among us speak out. We delivered the coffin to the President’s wing to let him know we were all very concerned and then next month when the Trustees were in town the students marched again. We had made a beautiful puppet of President Fogel and written a script and a score for a guerilla theater piece—very much inspired by the Bread & Puppet theater—and we performed it downstairs here in the Atrium to rave reviews, and then we sent out a welcoming committee to the renovated McCauley hall where the president and the provost and the trustees were going to be touring the newly renovated office building— now dormitory into which they were cramming the additional 300 students we admitted this year.

At some point, probably after turning the corner at Spring Break, SSU started meeting twice a week to continue building up towards the end of the semester. We kept distributing the zine and our other literature, and we also began our own sort of teach-ins in our classes and the classes of willing faculty members. We were so well-versed in the budget and the crisis at this point, so two at a time, we would get up in front of a class—sometimes a 20-person seminar in Living and Learning, sometimes a 300-person lecture in the Billings Theatre—and for the first ten minutes of their class period we would present the figures around the deficit, explain the process the administration was taking to resolve it, the anticipated layoffs, and the projected cuts to academics, and then we would make our case for taking action—for walking out on April 9th. We also started having at oatmeal breakfast in front of the President’s wing two days a week, and we would welcome everybody to work as they came in, remind them to put people over profit, and the cops would come and stand guard at the door and it was all very humorous because we knew we were not doing anything against the law or university policy, so these huge, armed police officers only succeeded in intimidating the administrators and office staff on their way into the wing.

One of the grand ironies of the spring too was that, during these breakfasts, Richard Cate, the man whose job it was to fix the whole mess former CFO Michael Gower created with Peoplesoft and all the other unbudgeted expenses, was the only administrator who came out of the office and sat down and talked to us. And it was, he, not President Fogel, whom we contacted over and over again throughout the semester, Richard Cate was the only administrator who agreed to hear the concerns of the students last year because he realized what we were doing was entirely valid and justified, and that we were using the tactics we did, in large part, because our student representatives, Jay Taylor and the SGA, were failing us. I think the irony of that taught us a lot about how power works, and how confounding and frustrating it can be to confront it.

So we got 1,000 students to walk out of class on April 9th and rally, we cut out cardboard figures to represent the staff and faculty we were losing, we made a list of our demands, we spoke out in front of our student center, and on the steps of Waterman, we delivered our demands to President Fogel, requested he meet with us to discuss them, and we were ignored. I should say, the student body as a whole was ignored, as more students turned out for the walkout than vote in most SGA elections.

So, in the face of continued uncertainty, and with our actions ignored by President Fogel and his administration, we began planning an occupation. I want to pause and congratulate all of the students from SSU here for our perseverance and our solidarity last year. Looking back it was nothing short of amazing that we were able to stick together, to operate on near consensus in everything we did, to revisit all year our internal dynamic, and hold ourselves (more or less) to an extremely high standard in the way we treated one another and in the awareness we maintained of the gendered and racialized power dynamics that inevitably pervade groups in our society. I really did not know until visiting UC Irvine this past winter how special the people in SSU were. I want to finish up soon and leave time for discussion, so I will say, we organized an occupation—I think it was a year and a week ago today. A small group of students entered the president’s wing, declared peaceful intentions, sat down quietly in the middle of the hallway and locked themselves together. The three of us on support made sure they were comfortable, fed them cookies, called the ACLU, and the other organizers who were up here at the sit-in diversion we had staged to let them know to bring the party down to Waterman. We presented our demands to President Fogel who was extremely indignant, dismissive, and paternalistic. He basically scolded us, told us our concerns were ridiculous, and then snuck out the back door of his office to attend a gala at the Fleming museum, leaving, again, Richard Cate to sit with us, and explain why he could not make any decisions on our demands without the approval of President Fogel. The cops came, those who were locked down got arrested, and we sat-in outside the wing for the remainder of the evening, singing, eating pizza, generally feeling more alive than we had ever felt anywhere else on campus. We had a Twitter page up at the time, and we tried to get students down to join us with the hopes that we could occupy Waterman itself without using chains and barricades, and it would have worked because 300 people showed up. Unfortunately, Chief Margolis was a close follower of our tweets and he and his officers beat the students down there, and closed off the building. When it was all said and done, I think twenty seven of us were arrested and charged with trespassing. We were released from Waterman, which, had it not been shut down prematurely, would have still been unlocked…

So, where are we now? The upheaval last spring caused the university to change its tone and its actions around the budget cuts dramatically. I think any of the organizers and participants in this room will agree that we never felt tangible victory in any of our actions last spring, but each time we pushed, they relented just a little bit. We did not succeed entirely in any of our demands—baseball and softball were eliminated; though they were covered up, eliminations, non-renewals—layoffs—went through; empty positions were eliminated; tuition went up; and when it was all said and done, Fogel made out with $9,000 more than the year before—presumably a bonus for handling things so well. But we got more money for financial aid, there were reinvestments in academic units, and the layoffs were nowhere near the initial estimates. We continued the work of, and I think we honored the work of, the students who organized the divest from apartheid campaign in the early 80s and those who took over Waterman in 1988 and 1990 to demand that something be done to address the climate on this campus and to start an ethnic studies program among many other demands around diversity that remain unmet. We continued and honored the work of students in the Livable Wage campaign as well as all other organizers who have blessed this campus with their presence.

But where are we now? The Transdisciplinary Research Initiative and the rest of President Fogel’s 2009-2014 Strategic Vision is a continuation of the shock doctrine of 2008’s budget crisis, as well as a new chapter in the Fogel Administration’s transformation of UVM that is bringing it further away from its mission and its responsibilities as an institution with commitments to diversity, social justice, sustainability and affordable public education. We are not and will never be a premier small research university as President Fogel and Vice President Grasso and Provost Knodell assert we will become. Nor should we be. I think the others here can speak to this more knowledgably than I, so my conclusion will be sort of abrupt and flat compared to the stories from last year. As students, we need to remain vigilant. The university has ratcheted up its policies against free speech, revising the solicitation policy this year so that you can essentially be silenced and reprimanded for anything a university official deems “disruptive.” The transparency around the TRI is awful, and we are plodding along with an astounding amount of institutional amnesia—you would think that the President and his administration have forgotten about last year. We need to continue to watch and to read and to listen in on what is happening in the offices and conference rooms on this campus, and we need to continue to hold the SGA accountable, in fact we need to get involved with the SGA and legitimize it by actually turning out and voting in its elections. Faculty and staff need to join students—not wait for them to lead—in organizing against the continued privatization and corporatization of our school. We are in a trough in terms of the energy and vitality among the student organizers here. But that does not mean we have been defeated. Far from it. Apartheid was not the last protest, the diversity takeovers were not the last protest, SSU will never be co-opted the way activism has been in the past by the administration and its PR department. Stay awake. Stay alive. Keep fighting…

Loss of Seats for Students in Small Classes, Rise in Seats in Lecture-Hall Classes (from the Faculty Senate Policy and Planning Committee, using Registrar Office Figures

Changes in the Salaries of UVM's Top ($150k+) Administrators from 2009 to 2010 (excluding medical school positions)

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