By Gianluca D’Elia
A private college cuts programs and faculty as part of an effort to address a million-dollar deficit. Tension rises among students, faculty, administrators and a president who is new to the campus. This narrative sounds familiar, but it is a story that is not unique to Rider University.
When Rider announced the elimination of programs and faculty on Oct. 29, President Gregory Dell’Omo told students at an SGA-hosted forum that other schools were likely to close programs and reduce faculty as the higher education industry struggles to adapt to decreasing enrollment.
And he was right, at least in the case of the College of Saint Rose, a private institution in Albany, New York, with 2,773 undergraduates. Saint Rose cut 28 programs and 23 tenured or tenure-track faculty on Dec. 11 as part of a strategy to reduce a $9 million deficit stemming from a 16 percent decrease in enrollment over the past seven years.
While Rider’s announcement came in the middle of October as students were planning their spring semester schedules, Saint Rose’s program cuts were announced right before final exams.
“It upset a lot of students because they were attempting to take exams while some of their professors, whose classes they were sitting in, had been terminated,” said Dr. Angela Ledford, the vice president of Saint Rose’s non-collective bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
In a statement to the school, President Carolyn Stefanco, who has served the college since fall 2014, said eliminating programs was necessary to invest in areas with more student interest.
When students at Saint Rose learned the news, a concerned group, who named themselves Save OUR Saint Rose, reached out to a Rider student who had seen it all before: political science and arts administration major Kenny Dillon, who organized the Rider Students Union days after Rider’s announcement of program cuts and created a petition to “save my major” that gained almost 2,000 signatures. Similarly, students at Saint Rose petitioned to keep the 28 closed programs and 23 terminated professors at their school.
“Online petitions speak to our generation,” Dillon said. “They allow the message to spread across the world, collecting signatories from anywhere and everywhere. Saint Rose is seeing great success with their petition, and I hope they win their fight, one that the online petition will greatly help vocalize. Students must take a stand when we’re being cut out of the equation.”
Sarita Farnelli, a sophomore, was studying sociology at Saint Rose until her program became one of the 28 that was cut.
“It was a huge disruption,” Farnelli said. “It seemed almost like an afterthought, and one not in touch with the real world.”
The School of Arts and Humanities was hit the hardest by program cuts. Despite a steady decline in enrollment, Farnelli said the eliminated programs are important and relevant.
“They eliminated the brand new environmental science program — during the Paris COP21 climate conference, just after the pope’s encyclical and in the midst of climate chaos,” Farnelli said. “They cut programs based on how few students were enrolled in them, not considering their rate of growth or how relevant and complementary they were to society as a whole and to existing programs at Saint Rose. Sociology is closely tied to criminal justice, offering required courses for that program, and is also needed to prepare pre-med students for the Medical College Admission Test.”
As of now, the elimination of 28 programs at Saint Rose will take effect in 2017.
At the town hall meeting Dell’Omo held in October, Spanish professor Linda Materna commented that the potential new programs Rider planned to introduce, such as homeland security and health care-related majors, seemed similar to those of a community college or a for-profit institution — moving toward job training and away from liberal arts. Ledford, who teaches courses in politics and women’s studies, echoed this sentiment.
Ledford also said there was a lack of consideration for the professors in the decision-making process.
Prior to the announcement of Saint Rose’s program cuts, professors voted on recommendations for cost-cutting that would avoid laying off faculty.
“We wrote a set of specific recommendations that included more of a tiered approach,” Ledford said.
The plan included suggestions for the administration to take a pay reduction and cut back on contributions to their retirement since they get paid at a higher rate than professors. Though the faculty voted unanimously on the recommendations, Ledford said the administration never responded to the proposal.
“Students are now learning the importance of shared governance,” Ledford said. “Colleges have to be financially stable, but all of the stakeholders should have a responsibility in making final decisions. Administrators are supposed to facilitate a faculty, the board of trustees makes sure the college is financially sound, and the faculty is responsible for the curriculum. Now, the roles have flip-flopped because the administration is directing things and we’re working toward their vision.”
Ledford said there is a broad “corporatization” of higher education across the country, partially caused by congressional suspicion that colleges are “radicalizing” youth.
“Campuses are radicalized right now and lots of colleges and universities are being pressed by their students about unsafe and unwelcoming environments on campus. The long-term attempt to erode the power of higher education is peaking at the same time that campus radicalization is peaking.”
Other causes for the “corporatization” of colleges include competition for a smaller pool of applicants and less federal funding.
“If we follow a corporate model, the future won’t look too bright,” Ledford said. “Faculty and students are already having increasingly less say in what the campus is like and what they have the opportunity to learn about. It’s devastating to critical thinking.”
But Saint Rose officials said the decisions were unavoidable.
“The trustees have a duty to shift financial support to the programs that are in highest demand among our students,” said Judy Calogero, chairwoman of the Saint Rose board of trustees, according to the Times Union of Albany. “To do otherwise would fail our current and prospective students and our responsibility as trustees of the college.”
Students and professors at Rider also are concerned about the trend of higher education following a “corporate model.” Dillon said university administrations often act similar to governments.
“There is a trend across the country, like with the former presidential candidate and governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, to attempt to dismantle workers’ unions as a means of lowering operational costs,” Dillon said.
But Dell’Omo saw things differently.
“No one wants to do this,” Dell’Omo told professors at the town hall meeting in reference to the program cuts. “Believe me, this is not done out of trying to beat the union. We don’t run universities like that. We want challenges but we have to make decisions that put the university’s health first and foremost.”
At Rider, faculty negotiations and give-backs resulted in short-term success in reversing the decision to cut programs and faculty. But the agreement between the AAUP and the administration expires in 2017. How the budget deficit will be addressed in the future is still being worked out. At a meeting with SGA on Feb. 2, Vice President of Finance Julie Karns told students the university would take more initiatives to increase revenue — academic prioritization, new programs, real estate development and new methods for recruitment and marketing.
By Gianluca D’Elia