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Some UI Faculty Raise Concerns Over Budget Cuts, Reopening Plans, As Coronavirus Cases Increase

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As coronavirus cases increase, some University of Iowa faculty are raising concerns about the school's plans to reopen this fall.

The University of Iowa is facing steep budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, as are institutions across the country. The school is grappling with how to create an on-campus experience that will attract students to return in August, while protecting public health. Some faculty within the school’s largest college are raising concerns over how budget cuts are being handled, and how administrators are planning to reopen this fall.

For some within the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, seeing 15 lecturers laid off in the first round of budget cuts was an early sign of how the school would handle the COVID-19 crisis.

These instructors have some of lowest levels of job security on campus. They’re lower paid and logistically easier to cut than tenure-track professors or administrators, who often make hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

Among those let go are people of color, women and first generation college graduates.

Ashley Wells, a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, said faculty offered to take salary cuts in order to save the positions.

“We've tried to offer up solutions too to try to save people's jobs. And were not really getting, were not given that opportunity. Although we were given, told we were going to be given autonomy,” she said.

As much as we want to spend time with our students in person, this is scary. And I think everybody I've spoken to is nervous and they're really worried about the possibility of getting sick. - Ashley Wells, Lecturer, UI Rhetoric Department

Wells is leaving the university, in part, she says, due to the layoffs.

Meanwhile, other colleges at the UI are cutting salaries to avoid layoffs, at least for now.

But Steve Goddard, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or CLAS, told IPR that salary cuts would just be temporary, and would not be enough to cover the loss in revenue.

“We're going to have this loss of revenue for at least three to five years. So that means we have to make, we have to take actions that fundamentally change the budget,” he said.

The first round of CLAS cuts go into effect July 1, totaling $15 million. Goddard says he’s bracing for the possibility of more cuts from the Legislature, depending on state revenues.

Faculty have said seeing positions cut right away has affected morale. But it’s not their only concern.

“As much as we want to spend time with our students in person, this is scary,” Wells said. “And I think everybody I've spoken to is nervous and they're really worried about the possibility of getting sick."

In the midst of the pandemic, the UI is trying to recreate a college experience this fall, with dorms, dining halls and football.

But there are limits: all classes with more than 50 students will have virtual lectures.

If in the end, you go against all the directives that have been set up, is your job in danger? I guess the answer would be, yes. It could be, if you're not doing the job that you, you know, are being hired and paid for to do. -Steve Goddard, Dean, UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

For all other classes, Goddard says the goal is to have as much in-person instruction as possible, especially for certain first year courses.

He says the UI is working to put classes in rooms that normally hold twice as many to allow for more social distancing.

And the school is supplying face masks and a face shield to all faculty, staff and students, and requiring everyone to wear a face covering indoors, unless alone in a private office.

Testing will also be available for symptomatic individuals, and the school is working with local public health officials to contact trace positive cases.

Still, some faculty shared doubts about whether students will stick to these and other public health guidelines, especially in off-campus housing, restaurants and bars.

At a time when case numbers in Iowa are on the rise, especially among young people, some are worried these steps are not enough to keep them safe.

“I'm super scared about it. I really am,” said Naomi Greyser, a professor of American Studies, Gender and English. “I just feel like, what are we doing? But I also respect that like these are tough and unprecedented decisions for large institutions to make.”

Greyser says she believes instructors, and students, should not be forced into any particular learning setting, especially when public health is a concern.

“There are ways to make remote leaning an amazing, dynamic, engaging experience that many of us have been working on for a long time,” she said. “So basing this on swirling misinformation about what students supposedly want and need doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, from a safety perspective or from an education perspective.”

I'm hoping that the university will start to scale back the ambition of some of their reopening plans. I'm deeply skeptical that the university will be able to open anything approaching normal in the fall. - Loren Glass, President, UI Chapter of the American Association of University Professors

Faculty will be able to request an exemption from teaching in-person. But as of late June, the UI Human Resources department had not finalized that process, so it’s not clear what it will entail.

Staff and faculty are directed to contact their local HR representative if they have concerns about their own medical vulnerability or a family member’s; students are encouraged to contact Student Disability Services.

Goddard faced questions about this process at a CLAS town hall in June. He said that while the school will try to make accommodations, and there will be an appeal process, jobs could be on the line if instructors don’t do what’s asked of them.

“If in the end, you go against all the directives that have been set up, is your job in danger? I guess the answer would be, yes. It could be, if you're not doing the job that you, you know, are being hired and paid for to do,” he said.

In-person instruction is part of the UI’s mission, Goddard told his department, questioning why families would choose to pay full university tuition, only for their students to enroll in an all-virtual semester, logging in from the safety of their parents’ basement.

Still, faculty are urging administrators to be flexible and to walk back their expectations.

Loren Glass is the incoming Chair of the English Department, and president of the UI Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

He says his sense is that the current plan was built on “a forced optimistic public rhetoric” meant to boost enrollment.

“I think this was initially started in order to get the students to commit to enroll and in order to conform to the pressures from the legislature to open up the state,” Glass said.

Glass says he’s hoping and expecting the university will adjust its reopening plans, especially if coronavirus cases continue their current upward trajectory.

“I'm hoping that the university will start to scale back the ambition of some of their reopening plans,” Glass said. “I'm deeply skeptical that the university will be able to open anything approaching normal in the fall.”