The coronavirus has infected the University of Vermont’s finances to the tune of at least $15 million, and potentially double that if fall enrollment figures fall short of expectations. UVM, like all other universities, is putting in place plans to cut costs where possible, not unlike the exercise many American families are undertaking as the unemployment rate soars.

Meaningful reductions at the university level mean cutting jobs, reducing salaries and benefits. Universities are labor dominated; when tuition revenue drops, the balance has to be found in reduced labor costs.

And that’s when the friction erupts. The self-named “UVM United Against the Cuts” labor group has already struck back against UVM’s circumstances before they have been fully clarified. The group plans to protest the school’s trustee’s meeting this Friday.

As with most such protests, there is more to the story than what can be assumed though a headline. For example, the school has no plans to cut tenured positions, or even professors on a tenure track. They couldn’t if they wanted to; these are contractual positions. The average faculty salary at UVM, by the way, is $108,500, which is a nine-month commitment for teaching four to five classes. Benefits are on top of that.

The jobs being considered for reductions are non-tenured lecturers. And those would be matched according to student interest in the classes, hardly a radical thought.

The question, obviously, is what is the alternative? Does the union have any other response other than to say don’t cut us, cut them?

It’s a given the depth of the current crisis demands shared sacrifices. The University of Vermont Medical Center was smart to lead with its own set of administrative cuts before trimming elsewhere. UVM President Suresh Garimella cut his own pay by roughly eight percent by giving up April’s salary. The more formal and inclusive the administrative response, the easier it is to make the case for the union to be part of the solution.

But it’s also important to separate truth from fiction and the fiction constantly pushed by the union is that UVM’s administrative staff is outsized and overpaid. That’s not true in either respect when the school is compared to its peers nationally. In fact, UVM is closer to the bottom tier in both pay and numbers.

What’s unfortunate about the union’s mischaracterization of the facts is that this is precisely the time when both the union and the administration should be joining forces to convince Vermont legislators, and the administration, as to the importance of the higher education cause in Vermont. As the fall enrollment numbers become clearer, it will also be more apparent how crucial state support will be to the school’s financial health.

Consider the very real possibility that UVM does okay on its enrollment figures, but that instead of 73 percent of the fall applicants being from out of state — as they are now — that number drops to 50 percent [more Vermont kids wanting to stay nearer home]. The tuition difference between in-state and out-of-state is about $25,000. For the additional 800 plus Vermont students, the cost in lost revenue would be about $20 million.

That loss invites a real discussion with legislators as to the value of UVM to the state. That’s where the focus needs to be. All else is noise.

by Emerson Lynn

Recommended for you