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UVM Dean On Program Cuts: 'COVID Really Shined A Light On This Structural Deficit'

A sign urging social distancing greets visitors to the Davis Center on UVM's campus.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR File
The University of Vermont's College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Falls says low enrollment trends that started during the Great Recession have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, administrators at the University of Vermont announced that they plan to cut 12 majors, 11 minors and four master's programs from the College of Arts and Sciences. University leaders say persistent budget deficits and low enrollment in certain programs make these cuts necessary.

The cuts include majors in geology, religion, classics, Asian studies, Latin and Caribbean studies, among others. The university says many of these programs graduate fewer than five students per year.

This announcement caught many students and faculty by surprise, and it's caused a quick backlash.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Bill Falls, UVM’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who announced these cuts. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So faculty and students say that they were blindsided by this announcement last week. Why were these cuts presented before receiving input from the affected faculty and staff and students?

Bill Falls: Yeah, Henry, I agonized over this, you know, facing a budget deficit, facing having to make some really difficult decisions about possibly closing programs and consolidating departments. How could you involve faculty in those conversations? Ultimately, I decided that there is a faculty-involved process that involves the Senate. And I knew that once a proposal had been made, it would be possible to get feedback, and the process would continue. And that's happening now. And I'm grateful to my colleagues for engaging and it's unfortunate. Sometimes you need to make decisions in a top-down fashion, and I'll own that.

I will say that we've been dealing with a structural deficit for five years, and my colleagues and I have been engaged in figuring out ways to try to save programs and try to grow enrollments. And so hopefully people will be able to reflect a little bit on that and realize that while this does come as a shock and a surprise in the details of the plan, this is something that's been ongoing for several years now.

Well, let's talk more about that financial situation. The College of Arts and Sciences had a deficit of $2.46 million in the 2020 fiscal year. Why did the financial standing of the college become so poor?

I think it was a variety of factors. I mean, we've been dealing with a structural deficit brought on by the Great Recession to 2010, where we saw a significant decline in enrollments in the liberal arts, and our humanities and arts programs have suffered the most. And that's what we've been dealing with since I became dean in 2015. But I think COVID really shined a light on this structural deficit.

More from VPR: UVM Maintains Low Coronavirus Numbers, But Still Faces A Tight Budget

Well, is part of that due perhaps to a lack of investment from the university as a whole or from a lack of recruitment to the College of Arts and Sciences specifically?

Yeah, well, you know, the College of Arts and Sciences accepts, or I should say the university accepts on behalf of the College of Arts and Sciences, about 9,000 students a year. And we're able only to yield about 17% of them. A lot of the effort that we've made over the last several years is, how do we improve that yield? So I do think the possibility is there to attract more students, it's just that they're choosing not to enroll at UVM.

How does that square, though, with then cutting a number of programs within the College of Arts and Sciences, limiting the options that students have in terms of taking languages, taking studies of different parts of the world, classics, those kinds of things? Wouldn't that seem antithetical to having a program of study that would attract more students?

Yeah, I take your point, Henry. But, you know, the truth is that if we look at students who are applying to UVM and what they intend to major in, students don't intend to major in the programs that we're proposing to terminate, they're more what we call “discovery majors.” These are majors that students discover once they're here. So if they certainly were majors that were very attractive to students coming to UVM, then I'm sure that they would be larger majors and perhaps, you know, enroll more students.

But that said... I want to be careful to let folks know that while we are proposing to phase out these majors, instruction in these areas will continue, because it's important that we continue to support, as best we can, the breadth of the liberal arts. And then I would just finally say that when, you know, when there are limited resources, it's really important to make sure that we are appropriately supporting those areas where students are enrolling.

I want to hear from one student who's enrolled in one of the programs that's proposed to be cut, this is Annaliese Holden. She's a sophomore at UVM majoring in Greek and classical civilization:

“What's next for the College of Arts and Sciences? I was actually hoping to get my master's in Greek and Latin from UVM before they decided to cut it.”

So, I mean, she has some concern there that there could be further cuts to the College of Arts and Sciences. So what's your answer to that? What's the future of the college?

Oh, the future of the college has to be strong. You know, UVM is at its core liberal arts university. And when I took this job in 2015, I said we have to support the breadth of the liberal arts. That is the future of this university – it’s the future of this nation. And we should be proud as a nation, because we have liberal arts education.

But I think my thinking around what the breadth of the liberal arts means is evolving. And I don't think it's possible anymore with the pressures on higher ed to equate the breadth of liberal arts to the breadth of majors and the ability to have in-depth study in every individual major.

"I don't think it's possible anymore with the pressures on higher ed to equate the breadth of liberal arts to the breadth of majors and the ability to have in-depth study in every individual major." — Bill Falls, UVM Dean

Well, I want to talk a little bit more about funding. Vermont is often ranked near the bottom of states in the country in terms of support for higher education funding. Do you think UVM should be asking for more state funding right now in order to potentially reverse some of these cuts, or at least fund the breadth of the liberal arts, as you've been speaking about?

I know our leadership for years has been talking with the Legislature about how we can, in this small cash-strapped state, continue to support its flagship institution. I trust that those conversations will be going on, but I do think that the college also has to make sure that it's doing its due diligence and using its resources as best we can.

And finally, Dean Falls, in terms of faculty positions. Will some faculty lose their jobs under this proposal?

I am working very hard, Henry, to ensure that that does not happen. I can't say that it won't happen because we're not at that point yet. We don't have a final proposal. It still has to go through faculty governance. But for me, that's the last resort. We've got to figure out all other ways to close this budget deficit.

And I am working with my colleagues and with the president, the provost and the vice president for finance to really think about ways in which focusing on the proposal that we're moving forward and knowing that there will be some savings, administrative savings, by closing departments and consolidating departments. But what other things can we do short of letting faculty go? And that's what my attention is focused right now.

Anna Van Dine contributed reporting to this story.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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