Comments before the UVM Board of Trustees
Dr. Felicia Kornbluh
Associate Professor of History and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies
and President, United Academics, AFT/AAUP
February 6, 2016
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Board this morning. And hello to those legislative trustees with whom United Academics has had the pleasure to share its perspectives in recent months.
I am Dr. Felicia Kornbluh, an Associate Professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, at UVM and the President of United Academics. Here with me today are members of our elected leadership bodies, the Executive Council and the Delegates Assembly, and other active members of our union. We are all busy teachers and scholars, who join together in UA to forward our vision of the university.
Let me begin by acknowledging your service to the University of Vermont. As the representative of the organized faculty of the University, United Academics is indebted to you. We know that this is a hard-working board, and that you all have many other commitments in your lives as well. We acknowledge as well President Sullivan and other university administrators who use their best judgment to sustain UVM financially and steer it toward a stable future.
This morning I will say a few words about United Academics and share some of our current concerns, offering not a “state of the union” but thoughts on the state of the University from the union’s point of view.
Since 2002, United Academics has represented the large, diverse faculty of UVM. Our 800 members range from library and research faculty, to part-time faculty, with specialized knowledge as experienced practitioners in their fields, to full professors in the humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. We share a profound commitment to our students, to thi university, and to our own professionalism. We stand for the material wellbeing of each and every faculty member – including our access to high-quality, affordable health care and to the time that allows us to nurture our family lives and feed our intellects. We also stand for the values of the faculty. These include the accessibility and affordability of higher education to all who seek it; the importance of education that is challenging—and to courses that are small enough to allow for the most rigorous pedagogy; intellectual and political independence that permit us to challenge young minds; and a democratic, humane university that can serve as a beacon in an era in which the most truculent or meretricious voices are often the loudest.
We care more than perhaps you know about the fate of the University of Vermont and about the fate of universities generally in our society. These institutions value fairness and free inquiry, depth of engagement and the search for truth, and the ability to stand at a critical distance from the picture of the world provided by conventional media, political, and economic authorities.
Our over-arching concern at present is that a certain version of fiscal sense has taken priority over other values that define us as a community. Throughout the university, we seem to be experiencing a death of a thousand cuts. I say “seem” because UA learns about these only episodically and anecdotally. Under Incentive-Based Budgeting, the central administration has divested itself of responsibility for these decisions while imposing demanding fiscal targets upon the Deans and colleges.
We insist that the UVM administration at all levels hold the faculty harmless in the face of the many remaining unknowns of this budget model. We should not be taxed to enable its implementation. The letter and the spirit of our collective bargaining agreement with the university must be honored. Changes in the quantity or quality of faculty members’ work must be bargained and negotiated with United Academics as their organized representative. We call for a moratorium on administrative decisions that are ending the careers of some of our treasured colleagues and exposing others to uncertainty and unanticipated, exploding workloads.
As a partial solution, we ask this Board to demand that the UVM administration work with the faculty to establish new democratic procedures that give faculty the power to approve or reject any decisions that affect our and our colleagues’ wellbeing under the IBB system.
Last, we ask that this comment period be restored to FRIDAY AFTERNOON to enable more students and faculty to attend.
I fear that this Board has received a somewhat false sense of the level of satisfaction within the UVM faculty. The hope of Incentive-Based Budgeting is that it will provide for greater democratic participation because decisions are made within the colleges, which largely command their own budgets. However, we have seen the following:
* Disparity across colleges in implementation of IBB. This includes disparity in the degree of consultation and democratic participation that individual Deans have solicited, or even allowed. We must ensure that faculty have power under this system – not merely the ability to have their voices heard, but the authority to make choices based upon our experiences and expertise.
* Departmental chairs and deans operating in the shadow of IBB to cut costs pre-emptively. Some appear to be running scared, limiting or eliminating the contracts of nontenured faculty just in case the finances do not work out. This is no way to make decisions about matters of intellectual and academic value, which have implications for our students’ education and which may end the livelihoods of professors who provide enormous value to UVM.
* Increased class sizes—by fiat and against the best judgment of the faculty. This happened in the Environmental Program, a shared endeavor of the College of Arts and Sciences, CALS, and the Rubenstein School. It is one of our flagship programs at UVM, a national leader and one of the defining elements of the undergraduate curriculum.
* The withdrawal of Teaching Assistance. We know of one faculty member, a distinguished part-time Lecturer, who has left the university largely over this issue. The faculty member had taught essential courses for six years and is also a scholar whose research focuses upon urgent contemporary issues. Faced with rising class sizes, no assistance, and no additional compensation, this faculty member left UVM. Aside from the rising workload, this professor felt disrespected and devalued by a university that was apparently more interested in cutting costs than in preserving a high-quality education.
UVM can and must do better. United Academics is eager to work with you to take the next steps forward.