Higher ed workers claim public colleges are unprepared for fall semester

 In General
bostonbusinessjournal

By Hilary Burns  – Associate Editor, Boston Business Journal | Aug 3, 2020, 2:57pm EDT

Higher education faculty and staff across Massachusetts have launched a campaign claiming that public campuses are unprepared for students to return this fall amid the pandemic.

More than 20,000 workers from the Bay State’s 29 public campuses have banded together and created a multimedia campaign to “warn parents, students, and elected officials about what they say is a lack of preparation on public higher education campuses,” the group said in a Monday press release.

The faculty and staff behind the campaign, called “Massachusetts Agrees: Defend public higher education now,” argue officials at public campuses have not done enough to advocate for funding while moving quickly to lay off and furlough employees.

Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in an interview that the group believes public higher education leaders should have asked faculty and staff to join in a campaign to advocate for more state and federal funding when the coronavirus pandemic first struck. He believes that cutting faculty, staff and programs could have a detrimental long-term effect on the schools and communities they serve.

“Behind closed doors, they are ignoring the voices that make public higher education what it is: The staff. The faculty. The parents. The students. The workers. The community,” reads the campaign’s message, which will air across the state on television and social media platforms.

“At a time when the White House is abandoning science, we need public higher education executives like UMass President Marty Meehan and Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago to step up and do more. Right now, they’re coming up short and eliminating one student program after another,” the message adds.

UMass spokesman John Hoey said Meehan and the campus chancellors are “making a fact-based case every day for state and federal investment in UMass during this unprecedented financial challenge.” 

UMass officials have also “implemented a series of strategic efficiency and effectiveness measures that have saved $124 million over the last several years, and recently initiated a centralized procurement system that will save another $15 million to $20 million by the end of this fiscal year,” Hoey added in an emailed statement. “These actions have made financial aid increases possible, and allowed the university to freeze tuition for in-state students for the upcoming academic year.”

The UMass system has been “fully engaged with public health experts and each of our campuses’ surrounding communities in planning for a safe fall semester for students, faculty and staff,” according to Hoey.

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education did not respond to a request for comment. Santiago did call for more public higher education funding at a Board of Higher Education meeting in January.

“Over time, Massachusetts’s support for higher education has slipped – cuts imposed more than a decade ago still resonate today,” Santiago said in January. “Our system is old-fashioned compared to many states with most of the money ‘block granted’ to individual institutions rather than following the student or providing incentives and rewards for performance.”

The new campaign, which is led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and other representatives of workers within the state’s public higher education system, said that higher education leaders “should be leading the charge for additional funding to restore staff cuts and should be tapping into reserves.”

In addition, the coalition is calling for robust health and safety measures to be implemented across all campuses, including mandatory wearing of masks and free testing. Many buildings on public campuses have inadequate ventilation and crowded facilities, the group claims.

“Above all, this is an appeal to the employers within the public higher education system to work with us, not against us, as we attempt to preserve safety and the integrity of education for public higher education students this fall,” said Margaret Wong, an English professor at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. “Our employers are shirking their responsibility to not just the students, faculty, and staff, but to the surrounding communities.”

Finally, the group is calling for a full reversal of all layoffs and program cuts made since the onset of the pandemic. The campaign said dozens of student programs have been cut in the past month including seven certification programs at Springfield Technical Community College and the Childcare/Early Education Center at Quinsigamond Community College.

“Through these cuts, the public higher education administrators in Massachusetts are creating not just a potential public health crisis, but also a crisis of equity,” said Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “Using the pandemic as an excuse to dismantle programs and to cut thousands of higher ed staff at the universities and colleges that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color is a disturbing approach, one that needs to be reversed and rebuked. That’s why we are taking this campaign to the airwaves statewide.”

Several higher education institutions have announced budget cuts this summer. The coronavirus pandemic has strained colleges’ budgets by creating a bevy of financial investments in order to transform campuses into safe havens and move curriculums online. The pandemic has also created uncertainty around revenue as institutions do not know how many students will return for in-person classes this fall, or how many will enroll at all as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus.

UMass Lowell, for example, said in late June that the university anticipated a fiscal year 2021 budget hole of more than $50 million — “a deficit significantly larger than anything we faced even during the 2008 economic downturn.” To balance the budget, UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said that the institution would temporarily lay off about 100 people and said an additional 100 employees were leaving through retirement, buyouts and other departures.

In addition, UMass Amherst is asking departments to find $30 million in cuts within the next few weeks after the system said it would freeze in-state tuition for the upcoming academic year, MassLive reported. If the departments don’t make the cuts, layoffs are possible.

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