The faculty union at the University of Akron rallied over the weekend to ask for support of what they feel should be the school’s core mission: education. They’re concerned about efforts to plug a $65 million budget shortfall that could deeply impact teaching positions. And they argue that the university spends too much on athletics.
Streamers fluttered off dozens of cars, many with painted-on slogans such as “Teachers Before Bleachers” and “Protect Our Students.” The caravan wound from the university through downtown, Highland Square, and West Akron on Saturday afternoon – just days before the University of Akron’s Board of Trustees is set to vote on a reported 25 percent cut to the academic budget -- which would include layoffs of full-time faculty, regardless of tenure or rank.
Pam Schulze, president of the university’s faculty union, addressed the crowd before the rally.
“The administration thinks it can cut its way to prosperity. The administration thinks faculty are not essential to the university's growth and to the students. They seem to think they can get by without us. Or that we're replaceable. Or that we're interchangeable. Or that they can just get by with adjuncts for a while. And that's not right and it's not fair to the students. Honestly, we are the university. We are the people the students remember and thank. I've never heard a student thank an associate provost in my life.”
— WKSU (@WKSU) July 11, 2020
Enrollment down, then not-so-down
In a video released this month, UA officials outlined a financial picture which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and continues to change. A projected 20 percent drop in enrollment has been reduced to 15 percent. A projected decrease in state funding was scaled back, and the university will be getting some stimulus money from the CARES Act. Interim CFO Steve Storck says they can’t dip into their reserves, since that could affect the school’s credit rating.
“The $65 million of reserves includes funds that are not easily accessed, and we would have a difficult time meeting payroll and paying our bills once we used reserves beyond the first $50 million. At the same time, the rating agencies that have assigned credit ratings to the university would downgrade our credit rating from an investment-grade rating to that of a non-investment-grade rating. And the Higher Learning Commission – our regional accrediting body -- would have serious concerns about the viability of the university in the future.”
Bleachers Before Teachers?
On Saturday, Lori Kidd asked why the school won’t make additional cuts to its athletic programs. She’s been a nursing professor for 21 years at UA, and she participated in the rally – which began its route at InfoCision Stadium.
“The liability of the stadium: I mean, it’s beautiful but the seats are empty at most of the football games.”
In May, University President Gary Miller acknowledged the need to trim athletic spending. UA cut $4.4 million from the athletic budget, eliminating men’s cross country and golf, and women’s tennis. The faculty union has questioned the costs of remaining in Division I. WKSU Sports commentator Terry Pluto has been critical of the school’s need for a $7 million, Division I football program. Miller defended the effort to remain a Division I school.
“We’re a public research university. We believe that Division I athletics brings us a certain kind of competitiveness, not just in athletics, but in our profile to students and to the community, so we believe that it is important.”
And Athletic Director Larry Williams, in announcing the three programs being eliminated, said football essentially pays for itself.
“The unique thing about football, of course, is that it offers access to revenue streams that no other sport has,” such as broadcast rights.
In our interview with President Miller in May, he told us there is a $4 million exit fee to leave the Mid-American Conference -- and possibly another $12 million to liquidate contracts related to the football program.
“To move to one of the other two divisions is problematic because those are not schools that are like us. They don’t have the same kind of profile. We’re a research university. Our competitors academically and research wise are all schools playing in Division I and that’s where we believe we will belong.”
Miller points out that a third of the school’s student-athletes are not on scholarship, and they contribute to revenue by paying for tuition, fees, and housing.
“We believe it’s more prudent to cut our expenditures and continue to work with our MAC partners as division one evolves.”
A Lexus progam?
Ian McCullough is a science librarian and also on the faculty union’s executive committee. He says there needs to be a rebalancing of priorities.
“The students aren’t the problem. The student athletes aren’t the problem. It’s the amount of money that we’re spending – which is so out-of-line with everything else we do at this university – it is a Lexus program for an economy car school.
“The focus is to make the University of Akron a technical teaching school without a lot of research and expensive faculty. And the thing is, the strength of the engineering program [and] the polymer program – all the things that people are proud of, rightly, in this university – involve research. That’s what sets a university apart from a community college.”
Nursing professor Lori Kidd agrees.
“I don’t really know how many faculty they want to cut but a university is more than a trade school. You can’t just have engineering and business and healthcare, like myself, and think that that’s enough. It’s about broadening your world and your mind.”
The faculty union is set to meet with school officials this morning to continue discussing a path forward.
Tomorrow during Morning Edition, WKSU’s Jeff St. Clair has more on the challenges facing the University of Akron’s Polymer program.
— WKSU (@WKSU) July 11, 2020