By Merrie Najimy and Max Page | Aug 27, 2020

‘We can’t cut our way out of a pandemic’

Massachusetts Agrees that public higher education has always been one of our calling cards, providing access to high-quality learning for students from all walks of life, regardless of income, language, or race. The education our students receive informs our future for generations to come. We teach our students to value science, health, and most of all, each other — so why do our funding policies tell a different story?

Since the start of the pandemic, public colleges and universities across Massachusetts have made debilitating cuts and instituted widespread furloughs and layoffs. The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees recently laid off 500 workers — many of whom are essential in maintaining safe, functional campuses. The university has declined to rehire hundreds of adjunct faculty and furloughed 3,000 more educators.

This situation is mirrored at public higher education institutions all across Massachusetts. From our small community colleges to our state universities, campus executives are cutting the very staff and resources that make our Commonwealth’s public higher education system one of the best in the nation.

It’s becoming clear the consequences of the proposed cuts will both damage the futures of our most vulnerable students and jeopardize the standing of our entire public higher education system.

A few examples provide a stark look at the human and educational costs of these cuts:

  • UMass Amherst, the system’s largest campus, has told departments to make $30 million in cuts or else face potential layoffs. [News outlets reported 780 furloughs are planned for this fall.]
  • Springfield Technical Community College is closing seven certification programs including student certificate programs with a 90 percent post-graduation employment placement and laying off 21 tenured faculty from those programs.
  • UMass Lowell has failed to recall 28 percent of the adjunct professors for fall, and has increased the class size and course load of other faculty. Furloughs, salary reductions, or workload increases apply to all employees. One hundred full-time campus staff positions have been eliminated with additional layoffs expected, even as the Uuiversity has added a third shift for cleaning and maintenance. Nearly 1,000 total jobs have been cut, including teaching assistants, graduate employees, student employees, and other workers.
  • Salem State University imposed four weeks of furlough for professional staff, proposed a 13 percent pay cut for faculty and librarians, and is planning to downsize its instructional staff.

Who are these cuts affecting most? Most often, the students who can least afford to lose. Students who are the first in their families to go to college. Students who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds, but share the same dreams of a bright future for themselves and their families. Students from low-income communities who rely on campus jobs, housing, and support services to reach their academic and career goals.

Public universities are an essential launchpad for underserved students. Bunker Hill Community College serves a population that is 67 percent students of color, many of them first-generation college students. Similarly, UMass Lowell’s student population is 32 percent first-generation college students, and 40 percent students of color. Springfield Technical is one of only three Hispanic-serving institutions in Massachusetts.

We can’t provide an equitable education for all students while simultaneously dismantling our most accessible campuses. We can’t cut our way out of a pandemic.

The choice between cutting staffing or educating students is a false one. Some of our universities already have the necessary resources set aside for just such a moment. The UMass Foundation’s total portfolio in 2019 was $973.3 million — more than enough to preserve staffing and programs. Our state also has the resources to preserve and protect public campuses, by increasing funding and filling the holes left by this crisis. No campus needs to go it alone.

It’s time for public higher education administrators to get creative. It’s time for executives like UMass President Marty Meehan to use his influence to push for increased funding — rather than cuts. It’s time for the leaders of our public higher education institutions to stand with faculty and staff to develop a robust health and safety plan that includes adequate PPE and free COVID-19 testing.

In this critical moment, it’s time for all of us to defend and invest in the future of our Commonwealth, instead of cutting it to the bone.

We urge President Meehan, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, Gov. Charlie Baker, and leadership across our public higher education system to work together to preserve and protect the quality of higher education in the Commonwealth. To act thoughtfully, with an eye towards the future, before it’s too late to safely and smartly reopen campuses across the state. We are committed to providing a high-quality public higher education in Massachusetts to empower our next generation of scientists, teachers, and critical thinkers. We believe that Massachusetts agrees.

Merrie Najimy and Max Page are, respectively, the president and vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents more than 18,000 workers on Massachusetts public higher education campuses.

Read the full article on CommonWealth Magazine.

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