Illinois College Faculty Say Continued Cuts Have ‘Ripped the Guts Out’ of Public Higher Ed

Branko Marcetic

(IlliniGradResearch / Wikimedia Commons)

When David Cochran arrived at John A. Logan College (JALC) in 2001 to teach history, the first thing he noticed was the quality of the faculty at the Carterville, Illinois community college. He remembered reading a 1999 study published in an issue of Rolling Stone that ranked the small institution in the top 10 of community colleges nationally. The 7,000 student-strong school punched well above its weight, and in his view, the faculty was the chief reason why.

Fifteen years later, the very aspect Cochran viewed as the backbone of the institution was the first thing on the chopping block when JALC needed to cut costs. This past March, squeezed by the ongoing budget crisis in Illinois, the college’s board of trustees voted to lay off 55 employees, eliminating entire disciplines and services from the school’s curriculum.

The 55 employees, which include Cochran, consisted of 15 non-teaching professionals, five teamsters and 35 full-time faculty members — more than a third of the college’s 91 faculty members.

These were tenured faculty members, some of whom had been there for 23 years,” says Gary Caldwell, who has taught psychology at the college for 42 years. JALC declined to comment on this story.

Administrators hope the layoffs will help plug up a $7 million hole in the school’s operating budget left partly by the failure to receive state funds.

While these cuts are particularly devastating for a small institution like JALC, they are by no means unique. Over the last six months, Western Illinois University (WIU) — a public university serving the rural and sparsely populated area of western Illinois known colloquially as Forgottonia” — has seen 143 staff members lose their jobs, a figure which includes 30 faculty members. WIU President Jack Thomas is hoping the layoffs will save the university $1-2 million to get it through the year.

Although the exact details of each case are unique, there are key parallels, not least the lack of transparency that critics say has been used by administrators to ram through the layoffs, and the way faculty — specifically those in the liberal arts — have been forced to disproportionately bear the burden of cost-cutting. Former faculty members and union leaders at both institutions say that the firings are part of a goal of pushing Illinois’ regional institutions of higher learning to become centers of vocational training, as well as a wider trend that has seen the transformation of university teaching positions once considered elite into casual, low-wage work.

Faculty the first to go

If the numbers are the sole basis of a higher-ed administrator’s calculus, the targeting of faculty for cuts seems a rational course of action. Faculty salaries and benefits are the single largest category of expense at private and public nonprofit colleges and universities, and the second largest in for-profit institutions.

But those opposed to the cuts say the intangible losses that result from faculty firings that cannot be crunched on a calculator. They say that the decision by administrators at both schools to cull the ranks of faculty members has severely damaged the schools’ reputations and hobbled their ability to adequately serve their functions as educational institutions. WIU spokesperson Darcie Shinberger says that institutions must continually evolve” and that WIU’s reputation and ability to serve its students remain strong.

At JALC, the layoffs have meant a sharp reduction in several departments, including English and social science, and the elimination of the school’s cosmetology and dental hygiene programs. Cochran says his former department of social science went from 10 members to only four, with layoffs accounting for six losses and one faculty member retiring early.

The school’s English department similarly fell from six members to only three. Cochran says there are now no historians left at JALC, and while some fired faculty have been recalled, none of these were in the social science department.

This has simply ripped the guts out of the college,” he says.

The situation is similar at WIU, where many of the layoffs were focused in the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Fine Arts and Communications, and Health and Human Services, and hit the humanities — subjects traditionally focused on imparting knowledge for its own sake — hard. Although some of those initially slated for firing have been recalled, history professor Peter Cole (a regular In These Times contributor) says the cuts in his department originally proposed would have meant the elimination Asian history. The sole professor teaching Latin American history has been fired. 

We would have no one who teaches whole regions of the world,” he says.

Shineberger says the university is simply adjusting its faculty to levels consistent with current enrollment numbers. The university’s latest enrollment numbers show that between 2011 and 2015, enrollment for subjects like African-American Studies, English, History and Philosophy have dropped 35 percent, 47.4 percent, 24 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively.

Even though some of the low enrollment degree programs may not longer exist, some of the courses will remain to ensure that students do certainly have access to a variety of courses,” she says.

In any case, the result has been a decimation of morale at WIU, to the point where the university’s president was forced to issue a statement denying a persistent rumor that the school was headed towards closure.

A pall has been cast over the students and faculty,” Cole says.

That also means a larger burden will fall on the faculty that are left behind. William Thompson, chapter president for the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) Local 4100 of IFT, AFT, AFL-CIO, says the teaching load for those who are left will rise to the contractual maximum, leaving less time for faculty to prepare for classes and research. Shineberger says the faculty reduction won’t have a widespread impact on existing teaching loads.

However, it’s the students who stand to lose out the most. First and foremost, the elimination of departments and subjects means a narrowing of academic opportunities for students. Critics also point out the replacement of full-time staff with part-time teachers mean students will lose mentors, as well as staff who are regularly on campus and committed to helping them pass.

Speaking to the Southern Illinoisan about the plans to hire part-time instructors at JALC, one student revealed she had changed her mind about re-enrolling because of this issue, saying she would gladly take [her] grade point average and [her] money to a school” with better opportunities. (Shineberger denies that WIU, for its part, has any plans to replace full-time staff with part-time teachers).

Adjunct professors, who earn on average around a quarter of what full-time professors and instructors do and often don’t even make minimum wage, may spend much of their time off-campus teaching at other schools or working at part-time jobs in order to scrape together enough to get by. Because they are typically on short-term contracts, they also may not be as invested in their students’ success as full-time and tenured faculty.

These cuts can also hurt students in other ways. One of the most controversial layoffs at JALC was that of Angela Calcaterra, the former coordinator of the school’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services who had served in the position for 18 years. Calcaterra, who is married to David Cochran, says she’s the only one in JALC’s Student Services department who can communicate in American Sign Language. She now plans on embarking on an early retirement, but is concerned that deaf students will find life significantly harder on campus from here on out.

There is no alternative

Adding insult to injury is the way in which the firings were pushed through. Union leaders at both schools say administrators leapfrogged the usual process and failed to consult the respective unions about their plans to lay off staff.

WIU’s Shineberger denies that the university has been anything but open and transparent.

University administration has been communicating with the University community, including union leaders and representatives, for several months, both via letters to the campus community and in meetings with campus constituency groups,” she says.

She also says the budget situation and the possibility of layoffs … have been discussed” in various committees, such as the faculty roundtable, and that staff reductions have been at the focal point of board meeting discussions.

UPI’s William Thompson disagrees. He attended meetings with the administration, and concedes that while staff reductions may have been brought up as a possible outcome, they were never discussed. Moreover, he notes that the university’s response carefully avoids stating that it ever spoke with the union about the layoffs, which he says it never did.

Individuals interviewed by In These Times say it’s not clear how the list of names to be laid off was drawn up at either school. When it came to civil service staff, Thompson says the school was slow to provide a list of those laid off, which the union ultimately had to obtain through a Freedom of Information Act request. The list showed 92.5 percent of those initially laid off were union-affiliated, he says.

In the case of JALC, the administration also never discussed the plans with employees or department chairs as it has in the past — and the lack of transparency continued after the fact. Calcaterra charges that when former employees and the union requested the reasoning from JALC administrators for each position that was being cut, they were given a list of vague criteria consisting of one or two words, such as cost effectiveness.”

Brandi Husch, the former student representative on JALC’s board of trustees, had first-hand experience with the administration’s questionable tactics. Despite serving on the board, albeit in an advisory role, Husch was never shared on the administration’s decision-making process before the board voted to approve the layoffs (Husch cast the sole nay” vote).

At a March 2 executive session, hours before the vote, Husch says another board member tried to intimidate her. After she posted a photo of herself holding a sign criticizing the poor decisions” of the administration in a Facebook group organized around the cuts, a trustee pulled out a folder at the meeting, saying, You want to talk about poor decisions of trustees? Well, here’s the poor decisions of Brandi.”

Husch, who calls the action malicious and unprofessional,” says the folder contained details of a criminal misdemeanor in her past. She notes that the board member in question is a former Jackson County sheriff.

When Husch tried to talk about the incident at a later, open session, board chair Don Brewer interrupted her, accusing her of violating the sanctity of an executive session.”

Those opposed to the layoffs also question if there weren’t alternatives. They point out that while the cuts at both schools were faculty-heavy, administrators got off lightly. At WIU, while 15 administrators have taken pay cuts, only four—or a little over 1 percent of the total 311 administrative personnel at the school — are being let go, compared to 30 of its 679 faculty members (4.4 percent). Meanwhile, only one administrator is losing their job at JALC, despite the fact that the school is 60 percent higher than the state-wide average in terms of administrators, according to Bret Seferian, a local Illinois Education Association-NEA representative. 

It fits neatly with the trend of increasing over-administration at colleges and universities. Between 1993 and 2007, administration expenses rose 61 percent, while total university expenses rose nearly half that. In the same period, administrators employed per 100 students jumped nearly 40 percent, while enrollments only rose 14.5 percent. It’s a far cry from decades ago when professors comfortably outnumbered administrators — a circumstance that is reversed today.

Faculty members, both former and current, also point out that the cuts have ignored certain areas. While there were some cuts to the athletics department at JALC, no staff lost their jobs, and the administration continues to run its expensive Community Health Education Center despite the fact that it’s been bleeding money for the school for years.

Critics also point to the fact that vocational programs at both schools have been hit less hard than subjects like the humanities. Peter Cole and William Thompson believe this is part of a broader trend towards vocationalizing higher education institutions in Illinois, leaving only a few research universities in Illinois to focus on imparting knowledge for its own sake — the traditional function of higher education.

Shineberger says that WIU’s programs simply reflect the students and region it serves, and are appropriate given enrollment numbers. She points to the university’s list of signature programs, made up of law enforcement and justice administration, agriculture, accountancy, biology, sports broadcasting, teaching education and others. Sure enough, many of those subjects have experienced little to no drops in enrollment from 2011-2015 (aside from educational studies, which experienced a 16.1 percent drop in enrollment).

The war on higher education”

The current predicament JALC and WIU find themselves in wouldn’t have been possible without Illinois’ ongoing budget crisis. Illinois is now in the middle of its eleventh month without a state budget, suspending vital state services and denying paychecks to thousands of state workers.

The crisis is a result of the stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state’s Democratic legislature. Rauner, whom the conservative Chicago Tribune dubbed Scott Walker on steroids,” insists on an austerity budget that would include various anti-union measures, deep cuts to the state’s Medicaid funding and the slashing of various other government services, including $387 million worth of cuts to higher education.

The impasse has affected more than just JALC and WIU. As a direct result of the crisis, Eastern Illinois University had to lay off 177 workers in February, while the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne is also planning layoffs. Chicago State University has warned that it may have to close its doors if the gridlock continues. 

Whole regions of the state are going to be eviscerated of access to affordable higher education,” says Peter Cole.

Cole points out that the budget crisis isn’t all to blame. He points to an enrollment crisis happening in Illinois right now, a result of the state’s declining population, leaving schools like JALC, WIU and EIU to compete for a dwindling number of high school graduates — and for a smaller share of tuition fees. That means that when state funding dries up, the situation is tailor-made for drastic cost-cutting by administrators.

What is unique about the cases of JALC and WIU, however, is the way faculty have allegedly been targeted by administrators. Bret Seferian says that Southern Illinois University, next door to JALC in Carbondale, developed what it called the onion model” for cost-cutting, which left faculty at the core” to be cut last, underneath several layers of other cuts. JALC and WIU appear to have reversed this model, with faculty going first.

I’ve been working in higher education for a decade, and I’ve never seen an institution whose first move is to attack the faculty,” Seferian says of JALC.

These incidents may be reflective of the general devaluing of academic professions and neoliberalization of higher education institutions over the past several decades. As teaching positions at universities once considered elite are transformed into low wage work, so universities are veering away from their traditional role as purveyors of knowledge and learning, increasingly being viewed as assembly line factories for jobs.

We’re seeing a really concentrated form of what’s been going on in the last 20 or 30 years in the war on higher education: the attack on unions, the attack on tenure, the shift to cheaper, more easily intimidated part-time teaching faculty, the bloating of administration,” says David Cochran.

Gary Caldwell believes the case of JALC is a union-busting operation,” and an academic version of off-shoring jobs.

They’re using this opportunity [of the budget crisis and school deficit] to reshape the nature of community college teaching,” he says.

How did it get this way? The shadow of the ongoing Illinois budget gridlock looms large. While past and present faculty note various internal and external factors at both WIU and JALC that have contributed, none of it would be possible without the funding crisis that has created conditions ripe for cost-cutting.

The more cynical among them believe this is all going as planned. By starving the beast,” the governor is forcing the schools’ hands — or even providing a pretext — for cuts that would otherwise be too unpalatable to push through.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue