School year starts with budget cuts, layoffs

Professors claim layoffs were retaliatory


Kyly Clark

Collyn Aubrey holds a sign at a student led protest on campus during the spring semester, 2017 to urge the college to continue pursuing a liberal arts mission.

Kyly Clark, Managing Editor

Deep cuts designed to balance Sierra Nevada College’s budget were handed down just weeks before the start of fall semester, leaving six full-time faculty members jobless and crippling the humanities and art departments. The cuts were delivered alongside operating budget, athletics, and other staffing reductions to the tune of nearly $1.4 million.

In the wake of the layoffs, at least two of the professors, SNC Faculty Council chair Samantha Bankston and council vice-chair Dan Aalbers, claim their jobs were terminated as political retribution for criticizing administrative decision-making and attempting to unionize the college’s academic workforce. SNC Tahoe administrative leadership rebut the charges, holding steadfast that staff reductions were a necessary, “data-driven” decision, designed to have minimal negative impact on current and future students.

In addition to Bankston and Aalbers, full-time faculty whose contracts were not renewed include Daniel Kelly, Jared Stanley, Courtney Berti, and Pierette Kulpa. The latest round of cuts comes on the heels of three tumultuous years at the college, marked by annual enrollment declines that have diminished the financial lifeblood of a college with limited endowment, which already requires fundraising for general operating purposes.

Finances and public trust

The college’s financial turmoil is well known, but Aalbers disputes claims about the motivation behind his firing.

“I was providing the core classes of the psych program,” he said. He has taught a heavy load of required psychology classes and boasts strong academic credentials: He has written programs to rehabilitate abused dogs and for treatment of severely autistic children. Aalbers is also known internationally for his activism in the movement that resulted in the American Psychological Association’s call for the removal of psychologists from Guantanamo Bay.

He believes he was targeted by the administration because he used his leadership position in faculty council to promote unionization of the college.

“That’s why I believe that I was removed, because I made it clear as faculty council chair to collectively organize the faculty, to get the faculty to unionize,” Aalbers said. In spring of 2017, he planned to bring a union representative to a faculty development meeting. “If you look at the pattern, all of the people who were chosen to be fired were all people who had made public statements in faculty council critical of the administration. All the people on the list were people who I expected to support the unionization effort.”

Aalbers said that college Provost Shannon Beets would not allow the union representative to attend a faculty council meeting. Beets said that “it was inappropriate to have a union representative come to a faculty development meeting” where attendance was mandatory, effectively forcing the faculty to participate. She says she encouraged Aalbers to schedule another time when attendance was not mandatory.

Some in the academic community have raised concerns about the motivation behind the layoffs, partly because they say information about the budget/strategic plan has been a private process involving college leadership and trustees. Because this cut came on the heels of several other cuts, Beets insists it was inevitable that positions would be eliminated. “We tried to reduce as few positions as possible while still closing the budget gap,” she said.

Why were the humanities and art departments dealt the deepest cuts? In a letter to fired faculty, college president Dr. Alan Walker said the decision was based on criteria about overall budget reductions, strategic identification of individual departments where cuts should be made, and how those cuts would be affected by selecting individuals within those departments. “Three consecutive years of declining enrollments at SNC Tahoe created financial conditions necessitating the elimination of six faculty positions,” Walker wrote. The college must “live within its means.”

The faculty were given a “separation agreement and general release of all claims” contract immediately following the firing. They were offered severance packages with the condition that they sign the separation agreement.

Timing and methodology

Although faculty were given notice in May that contract renewals would be delayed from their traditional spring time frame, the late nature of the non-renewal announcement in July – well outside the traditional higher education faculty hiring season – may have helped fuel the acrimony. Almost immediately after the cuts were handed down, a petition calling for a reversal of the firings was launched by alumnus Chris Muravez, attracting more than 750 signatures. Articles in local media and the national periodical Inside Higher Education have created unflattering attention.

“They gave us Hobson’s choice: We could either choose to sign away all of our rights and get a little bit of extra money, or we could keep our rights and get nothing,” Aalbers said, stressing that fired faculty would have trouble finding work elsewhere in this academic year. “I had to vacate my apartment after meeting with my landlord at 11:30 at night because that’s the financial turmoil they’ve thrown my life into.”

Aalbers claims that he had the highest enrollment in the psychology major, even in the middle of June, at 38 students. Samantha Bankston, a professor of philosophy, French, and literature, claims to have had the third highest enrollment at the college, at 66 students. Like Aalbers, her academic pedigree is strong: She holds a PhD in philosophy, is a ranked faculty member, and has taught at the college for seven years, including serving as director of the honors program.

Bankston is skeptical of the criteria for department reductions related to how many credits each faculty member “sells,” according to Walker’s budget. Department chairs determine which faculty teach individual courses, so enrollment numbers relate to courses and not necessarily to individual faculty.

“It’s egregious that the faculty who have PhDs in philosophy and are published in the field aren’t allowed to teach the only required philosophy class at the college, senior ethics, which is, instead, monopolized by administration,” Bankston said. “That shows you a glimpse of the corruption that’s going on at the level of academics.”

Enrollment “is not a function of how many credits each faculty is selling, or popularity, or choosing to take a class with a certain person. It’s related to what is required and who is doing your advising,” Bankston added. “They are not acknowledging our service to the college and everything that we’ve done for the college community.”

In addition to the faculty layoffs, the subsidy for dependent healthcare was cut for all faculty. Sustainability professor Nick Babin believes that younger faculty will be affected disproportionately. “Honestly, it is a huge cut that will have drastic implications on my family’s financial situation and our ability to make ends meet,” he said. “It really is a statement about the college’s commitment to the faculty and their families—and ultimately their willingness to retain young faculty.”

Beets doesn’t dispute the severity of the healthcare cuts. “It’s definitely problematic, and the cabinet is still discussing how it will be implemented to minimize any negative impact on people with dependent care coverage.”

Students caught in the middle

Student Government Association President Nicole Ross worries about the college’s liberal arts focus, that targeting cuts at humanities and fine arts is creating a “cultural identity crisis.”

“I don’t know who we are as a campus,” she said. Ross, an English major, is also an adjunct professor at the college, employed to tutor remedial English (English 90) to students who were mainstreamed into the English 101 course. “Our students are changing wildly, and it’s so observable.”

Ross delivered written messages to the school from concerned alumni after the layoffs, “just so people understand that liberal arts is important to us and it’s important to me,” she said. “I think my biggest concern is that we keep moving away from academics.”

“Nobody wants to have their favorite professor get cut,” she said. “Nobody wants to come to school and learn that their genre is no longer on the schedule, or their workshop is going to be an 18-person workshop that’s two genres. Nobody wants to be tutored by an undergrad in English.” Ross is concerned that incoming students determine the academic trends and that administrators aren’t concerned enough about developing existing programs.

Liberal arts under the microscope

June Saraceno, SNC Tahoe’s English department chair, is living with the aftermath of profound cuts to her department.

“English was eviscerated, with three positions cut. Only Chris Anderson and I are left standing,” she said. “Our program has fewer students than most others, so we were deemed inefficient. Unfortunately, the faculty who were fired all taught core composition, a freshman class that all students take, so the impact will be felt outside of the major.”

Jared Stanley was also let go. He was the curator of the poetry center at SNC Tahoe and taught English classes. “The students love him. He’s an internationally renowned poet,” said Bankston.

The reduction in liberal arts-focused instructors mirrors a general growth trend toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and career-focused majors in higher education. Combine that with a national decline in the number of graduating high school seniors, and it is clear that the market for liberal arts education is going through the equivalent of an economic recession.

According to Inside Higher Education, there was a 14 percent decline in enrollments in the humanities and an 8 percent decline in the social sciences between 2008 and 2016 in the U.S. At the same time, there was a 29 percent increase in enrollments in math and the sciences. Interdisciplinary courses have also seen an 18 percent jump in enrollments. Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Service states that “as many as 15 institutions a year could shut their doors for good by 2017.”

Beets said that the layoffs were uncomfortable, but necessary. “We understand that students have a very close relationship to their faculty,” she said. “We understand they are sad to have faculty leave… It’s not something we take lightly. We are going to make sure [students] have everything they need to complete their majors and have a positive academic experience here.”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote a letter addressed to President Walker claiming that the faculty members were improperly fired with inadequate notice and written reasoning, under the “Standards for Notice of Non-reappointment,” which require at least 12 months of notice before their appointments expire. A related standard states that members are entitled to review if said faculty believes the decision entailed a violation of academic freedom, was based on discriminatory considerations, or was the result of inadequate consideration.

President Walker responded to the AAUP that the dismissal of the two faculty members was when they weren’t under contract and were considered at-will employees. “We respectfully disagree with the AAUP that this universal notice did not comply with our internal policy regarding faculty notification,” he wrote.

“While we appreciate the position of the AAUP on the best practices for timely notification of faculty on position eliminations,” Walker wrote, “we also know that the AAUP understands that the circumstances of all institutions are not equal and that occasionally circumstances may dictate other actions to protect the overall mission and future financial sustainability of the college.”