Campus struggles with aftermath of layoffs

Phoenix Larsen, Editor

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a reference to a non-disclosure agreement to a former SNU employee. No such reference was made.)

As the 2021 school year gets under way with the return of in-person instruction at Sierra Nevada University, students may notice some missing faces among a diminished number of faculty. On June 21, nine faculty members were laid off from SNU. Some, like June Saraceno, who was head of the English department, had been with the school for 30-plus years. Former president Robert Valli, who started at the school in the fall of 2020, was also out of a job after SNU merged with the University of Nevada, Reno. He declined to comment on the layoffs.
The Eagle’s Eye reported this summer that staff whose contracts were not renewed included: Chuck Levitan, science professor, Sheri Leigh O’Connor, head of the fine arts department, Saraceno, humanities chair, and Chris Anderson, English professor, among others.
Professor Gayle Brandeis, who had been at the university for six years, quit when she learned of the release of the long-tenured faculty. While those laid off signed a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of severance, Brandeis is grateful she has the freedom to speak about college’s move.
“When you heard the layoffs were coming, it was very upsetting,” Brandeis said. “Unfortunately, there is no job security on campus. There isn’t any tenure. I worried so much for all my friends, many of whom have been here for 30-plus years. Even before it happened, I Just had this bad feeling that the college was going to be decimated.”
When Valli took over the role as president in the fall of 2020, Shannon Beets, the executive vice president and provost, and Dan O’Bryan, a professor in the humanities department, were both laid off.
“The fact that before all these faculty layoffs the president let Shannon Beats and Dan O’Bryan go, that was a big red flag. She was provost. He cut her position and then created these new positions for his friends,” Brandeis said. Valli declined to comment on the story. Following the announcement of the acquisition of SNU by the University of Nevada, Dr. Jill Heaton was named executive vice president and provost.
O’Connor stated that when she heard the layoffs were coming, she felt deeply saddened, scared, and anxious, but declined to answer questions about the aftermath of the layoffs.
Jonathan Breiter, currently a professor in the business department, declined to comment about how this issue has affected him.
Conover, SNU’s director of academic services, has been with the university for 14 years.
“The approximate two-month window of nine faculty being laid off at the beginning of June and then President Valli leaving at the end of July was a challenging time of transition,” Conover said. “It felt very chaotic and turbulent, and I had to just focus on my job and what I needed to get done. Due to our continued lower enrollment, I understood the downsizing that needed to happen, but it still saddened me to see some very special people leave SNU. It felt like I had survivor’s guilt because I was still working here.”
Students, such as sophomore Riley Slane and freshman Sierrah Edralin, felt the blow as well.
“I was extremely upset when I was informed about the professors that were laid off. I am thinking about leaving SNU just because of what is going on. It’s a disgrace to why people chose the university in the first place,” Slane said.
“I didn’t think President Valli was that good of a fit and I don’t know what to say about this because the university lacks informing their students on what is happening in the school…these changes that would change SNU forever. It disgusts me how little students know.”
At the time of the layoffs, Valli pinned the cost-cutting decision on declining enrollment. The college has experienced enrollment declines for years, and cost-cutting measures, including faculty layoffs, have also occurred under previous administrations.
Endralin chose the college because she was recruited for the soccer team in the fall of 2020, as well as the school offering a dual major in digital arts and entrepreneurship.
“It looked bad from the outside. Even if the administration did have good intentions, the school does a terrible job at relaying this kind of information to students,” she said. “Emotionally, everything about this school is so up in the air.”
Katie Zanto, chair of the interdisciplinary studies department, felt a deep sense of loss when the nine professors, her friends and colleagues, were let go. She felt the layoffs were ominous and as a collective whole, faculty were worried about the future of the college.
“I would not have returned to SNU if Valli was still at the helm,” Zanto said. “I am only back to support the students we care about. The decisions made about the firings were not well made.”
In June, SNU made an overture to University of Nevada, Reno, to merge with the public school, in hopes that its size and popularity as a university would offer the campus a sustainable future. The merger is in process, but not plans have been announced about what the future looks like for the University of Nevada, Lake Tahoe Campus.
“I think one advantage of the merger is the resources and expertise, and level of professionalism and numbers. SNU has been challenged by lowering admissions numbers and the difficulty of marketing ourselves and getting the word out to the country about this incredible product that we offer. The advantage [of the merger] is that UNR has numbers,” Zanto said.
Both Brandeis and Zanto hope that SNU does not lose the autonomy, the student-centered classes, and individualization of the campus. Heaton was unable to comment at the time of this story.
“It feels like [Valli] didn’t really understand the heart of the school and the people that make up the heart of the school. I think of June who has done so much for the school. The newspaper wouldn’t exist without her,” Brandeis shared. “She started the literary journal and the Writers in the Woods serious, which brought me to the campus.
“I think of other professors like Chuck who had been on campus for so long and so beloved by many. All the professors who were let go helped make school what it was. They have had lifelong impacts on so many students and they were dismissed like they were nothing. Valli breezed through campus, thew a big grenade at it and we are dealing with the fallout.”