The Impossible Conversation

In October the provost of Ithaca College logged into a virtual faculty meeting and dropped what felt like a bomb: The college would have to cut as many as 130 of its 547 full-time faculty positions to help close a $30-million budget gap.

Enrollment was down — way down. The 15-percent drop last fall was even more staggering than the pandemic-induced decline at many peer institutions. Far more students than usual had deferred enrollment or taken leaves of absence due to Covid-19, according to The Ithacan, the campus newspaper. And based on enrollment projections for the next few years, officials said, the New York college just wouldn’t need all of its professors.

In the five months since then, the campus has become mired in a complicated, painful debate about what its future should look like.

Shirley M. Collado and La Jerne Terry Cornish, the president and provost, say Ithaca must shrink its faculty and academic programs to match a smaller student body. In late February they approved the elimination of 116 full-time-equivalent faculty positions, three departments, and more than 20 majors and programs.

Meanwhile, many professors, students, and alumni don’t buy that logic and are sounding alarms about what they see as unnecessary austerity measures. Professors are organizing to protest the decisions, founding an American Association of University Professors chapter, and considering a vote of no confidence in the administration.

Collado and Cornish say the cuts were years in the making, and are part of a long-term plan that will set up the college for a successful future. Both are women of color, a rare leadership team in higher ed, and they say some of the criticism leveled by Ithaca’s predominantly white community has racial, gendered undertones. Some professors agree.

With virtually all of the campus meetings about the cuts happening in impersonal formats on Zoom, many say it has felt impossible to hold productive, human conversations about what’s already an emotionally charged situation.

The fallout at Ithaca College might be a sign of what’s to come across higher ed as more financially strapped institutions grapple with how to survive the pandemic era.

Five years ago, Ithaca had 6,700 students. But based on enrollment projections, Ithaca’s leadership has landed on 5,000 students — 4,500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students — as a realistic target for the future. The college needs to be smaller and more focused, Collado said during an hourlong interview of her and the provost, expanding programs only in response to student demand while preserving a student-faculty ratio of between 11.5 and 12 to 1. Currently, the ratio is 9 to 1.

courtesy of Ithaca College

Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College

It’s an anxiety-inducing idea, Collado said. But it’s the reality.

“What you’re seeing is an activation of what is very natural in our strategic-planning process,” said Collado, who became president in 2017. While Covid-19 accelerated academic-program cuts by a year, “it was not the genesis of this story,” she said. “We planned for this. This was proactive. This was not about a global pandemic.”

A key tenet of Ithaca’s five-year strategic plan — spearheaded by Collado and approved by the college’s Board of Trustees in March 2019 — was reshaping its financial model, Collado said.

Close to 90 percent of Ithaca’s budget comes from tuition revenue. Meanwhile, the number of high-school graduates in the Northeast and Midwest has been declining, and will continue to fall over the next several years — a phenomenon known as the demographic cliff. It’s not sustainable, said Laurie Koehler, vice president for marketing and enrollment strategy, to chase a few additional students every year with high tuition-discount rates to make ends meet.

“When you look at the data, it’s clear that, from 2013 on, the size of the faculty continued to increase and the size of the student body continued to decrease,” said Cornish, the provost, who took office in 2018. “Had we been paying attention” — “the collective we,” she clarified, reluctant to blame her predecessors — “we would not have been in this position.”

Faculty and staff cuts are always painful, Cornish said, but she stressed that the reductions aren’t as dramatic as they’ve been portrayed. Thirty-one full-time faculty members will lose their jobs. Thirty-eight full-time-equivalent positions will be eliminated by not renewing part-time instructors’ contracts and by curbing overload payments to faculty members who are teaching extra courses. The rest, she said, will come mostly from retirements and attrition over the next two to three years.

The approach will also protect tenured faculty members from being laid off, she said. But in a recent op-ed, she and Collado pointed out that “the college will lose some wonderful academics due solely to their status as non-tenure-eligible faculty.” They suggested that faculty leaders discuss changing the faculty-handbook policies that privilege tenured positions, a proposal that angered some professors who said the president and provost don’t value tenure. “We are not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that tenure be dismantled,” Cornish said in an interview. “What we are saying is that tenure is a power structure, OK? It is a caste system.”

“I think people struggle with the fact that La Jerne and I are naming something that has produced outcomes in the academy that are not always great for everyone and for students,” Collado added.

Collado and Cornish believe they were hired as change agents, with a mandate to make things a little uncomfortable. Collado, who is Latina, and Cornish, who is Black, took the helm after impassioned students of color protested racism on campus and attracted national attention. Those protests led to the resignation of the previous president.

Collado has declared that she wants to make Ithaca a national model for diversity, equity, and inclusion, even amid budget cuts. One-third of the college’s 24 tenure-track hires in 2020 were professors of color. Some critics have alleged that the cuts disproportionately harm faculty of color. Data provided by a college spokesman show that 12.2 percent of Ithaca’s professoriate are faculty of color and 2.8 percent are international faculty, while 8.9 percent of those affected by the cuts are people of color and 3.7 percent are international faculty.

As Collado and Cornish see it, Ithaca’s 116 faculty cuts were determined through shared governance. But it didn’t feel that way to many on campus.

In an “academic-program prioritization” process that ran from late September to mid-February, a committee made up of senior administrators and one dean took the lead in recommending what to cut. Another group, which included the college’s four other deans and one professor, gathered faculty input. Both committees followed the principles established by an “action group” of mostly faculty members in the spring of 2020.

The president and provost said they had followed the procedures outlined in the faculty handbook. But the deliberations happened way too fast, many faculty members said, and without meaningful involvement by professors. And the outcome was a gut punch: Beloved faculty members, who’d been at the college for 10 to 20 years, found out they were losing their jobs. They’d founded programs and centers. They’d been department chairs. They’d mentored countless students.

Dan Breen, an associate professor of English, doesn’t understand why this had to be Plan A. And when he’s asked senior administrators why the cuts were necessary, he said, he hasn’t been satisfied with the explanation.

Instead, Collado and Cornish tell the campus that they know what they’re talking about, Breen said, and seem tired of answering questions.

“Any plan that’s designed to reduce the faculty so significantly over the course of what basically amounts to two years — of course people are going to want to hear about it as much as possible,” he said. “I’ve been here for 16 years. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

He said his department is losing five of its 18 faculty members — two full-time and three part-time professors — even though its classes have been almost entirely full this academic year.

Yes, retooling Ithaca’s finances was in the strategic plan, said Thomas Pfaff, a professor of mathematics. People on campus knew a few programs might be eliminated. But no one expected the outcome to be a college roughly 20 percent smaller. There also wasn’t any discussion of what exactly Ithaca’s size should be, he said.

Pfaff believes the rationale for a 5,000-student Ithaca College comes from “misinterpretations of data.” Many experts have predicted that there will be significantly fewer college-going students in the Northeast, where most of Ithaca’s students are from, in the second half of the 2020s. But why, Pfaff asked, is there so much urgency to lay off people in 2021? “To me, what they’ve done just doesn’t add up,” he said.

Cutting professors and programs, Pfaff said, brings the kind of negative attention that could make it even less likely that students choose Ithaca, hurting its already-low yield rate.

A standoff between the college and its contingent-faculty union has added to the tension. In the spring of 2020, a part-time faculty member wrote an open letter to full-time professors, describing his fear of potential layoffs and asking for their support, and posted it on an online message board at Ithaca. The college threatened the part-time faculty member with disciplinary action, alleging he had violated a no-strike clause. An arbitrator recently sided with the union.

Last month, in response to what many professors see as a complete breakdown in shared governance, Ithaca’s faculty founded an American Association of University Professors chapter — what Breen calls one step away from a union.

The chapter sent a petition to Collado and Cornish in late February, asked them to hold off on the faculty cuts, reconvene the committee that recommended the cuts with seats for professors, extend the timeline, and provide detailed financial information about the college. The petition, Breen said, garnered 315 signatures, including 219 Ithaca faculty members — about one-third of the college’s professoriate.

The college-wide Faculty Council discussed taking a vote of no confidence in the administration at its meeting last week, according to several professors. The vote would be a symbolic but serious showing of disapproval in the college’s leadership; Ithaca’s faculty voted no confidence in the previous president. The Faculty Council recently asked faculty members whether they approved of the academic-program prioritization. Of the 319 professors who responded to the survey, 78 percent voted no.

Many students and alumni have organized to back the faculty. The “Open the Books” coalition has held socially distanced protests and drummed up support through an Instagram account. A private alumni Facebook group, “IC Alumni Against Austerity,” now has 1,700 members.

Meabh Cadigan, a sophomore and member of the coalition, said cutting certain programs is “disconnected from what Ithaca College is and what opportunities we offer.” Axing several master’s programs in music, Cadigan said, seemed like a misguided choice for a college that was founded as a music school 130 years ago.

Ithaca is distinct from other colleges, Cadigan said, because it blends an intimate feeling with a more comprehensive education, including several professional schools. “Are we trying to become this generic East Coast liberal-arts college?” Cadigan asked.

Faculty members, students, and alumni also expressed concern over the administration’s lack of transparency in general, and with Collado’s plea of no contest to a sex-abuse charge in 2001. Collado has maintained her innocence, saying that she had made the no-contest plea because she couldn’t afford to fight the claim, and that she was upfront with Ithaca’s search committee and board when she was hired.

To some on campus, it feels as if Collado and Cornish are two strangers who are trying to tell them what their college should look like.

“I don’t think there was an awareness on the part of the upper administration about how integral the contingent and [non-tenured] faculty were to the running of this school,” said James Miranda, a lecturer in the writing department who leads the contingent-faculty union and who will lose his job after this summer. Once the cuts go through, he said, the union’s membership would drop to a handful of people.

Sandra Steingraber, a nationally known expert on climate change who has been a distinguished scholar in residence in the department of environmental studies and science at Ithaca for nearly two decades, announced in an op-ed in the campus newspaper last week that she would be leaving the college. Steingraber’s own position wasn’t being eliminated. She had just secured grant funding for a Center for Climate Justice.

But, she wrote, at least nine Ithaca faculty members with expertise in the climate crisis — professors she was counting on to help shape the new center — were losing their jobs. “I can’t launch an intersectional Center for Climate Justice by myself,” she wrote.

Collado and Cornish don’t appear to have considered what their decisions will mean for the faculty members who remain, said Naeem Inayatullah, a professor of politics. “It’s easy for them to dismantle these things because they are abstractions to these administrators,” he said.

Inayatullah has been at Ithaca since 1996. While his job is safe, “I feel this as part of a community that’s dying right now,” he said. “I’m losing colleagues. I’m losing friends. I’m losing programs that I put my work into.”

Before the crisis over faculty cuts began, Inayatullah mostly kept his head down and focused on his teaching and research. But two things drove him to speak out. One was his frustration with administrative decision-making.

Cornish has shown that she doesn’t value research or tenure, Inayatullah said. He asserted that she hadn’t risen up through the traditional faculty ranks. But in fact, she was on Goucher College’s faculty for 16 years before joining the Goucher administration. An Ithaca spokesman said she had been Goucher’s first African American alumna to earn tenure.

But Inayatullah still sees the president and the provost as outsiders. “Fundamentally, they do not understand academic life,” he said. “They don’t love what we love about it.” In an interview, Cornish countered: “I am a dues-paying member of the AAUP. Let’s be clear about where I stand.”


courtesy of Ithaca College

La Jerne Terry Cornish, provost of Ithaca College

The other thing that drove Inayatullah to speak out was that some white faculty members have told him they are afraid to criticize Collado and Cornish for fear of being called racist. Inayatullah, who is from Pakistan, said that, in his view, the language that senior leaders and some faculty of color use when they talk about race has had the effect of silencing white professors. As a person of color, he believes he has some cover that his white peers don’t.

“Criticism doesn’t necessarily mean racism,” he said. At an academic institution, he said, people are supposed to criticize one another.

But Belisa González, an associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca, said she clearly sees how race and gender are influencing the debate.

Some of her colleagues, she said, have repeatedly undermined Collado and Cornish by suggesting that they don’t know what they’re talking about in their analyses of admissions and financial data — even though higher-education management isn’t the faculty critics’ area of expertise. “As a woman of color myself, I have been in the position where people questioned my competence,” she said.

González believes senior leaders when they say the college has too many faculty members. She also believes that they’ve been upfront about the strategic plan. “It’s not a pretty reality. I hate it,” she said. “But I do believe it.”

Rose Howard, a part-time lecturer in the theater-arts department and an Ithaca alumna, will lose her job at the end of this semester. Of course, Howard isn’t happy about how the process has played out. And yet, after last week’s faculty meeting, she wrote to the chair of the Faculty Council to advocate against a no-confidence vote in the administration.

“There’s so much ‘glass cliff’ written all over this,” Howard said, a reference to the research-backed phenomenon that women are more likely to assume leadership roles during periods of crisis, when the possibility of failure is high. Based on comments made in recent faculty meetings, she said, “some of the assumptions that are going into people’s criticisms are really racist and sexist.”

For instance, almost no one is talking about whether the college’s Board of Trustees might be directing Collado and Cornish to take such drastic actions, Howard said. “There is a push to focus any kind of blame or recriminations on the president or the provost, regardless of who’s really driving these things,” said Howard, who is white. “It’s really easy to pick a scapegoat when they don’t look the same as you.”

Howard believes Collado and Cornish have moved the college forward on antiracist work, and she worries that demonizing them will demoralize students of color.

Collado, for her part, put it this way: “I do not think that every criticism that’s come at us or every disagreement is because I am a first-generation Afro-Latina leading a predominantly white institution.” But there are elements of the criticism, she said, “that absolutely are affected by the fact that I happen to be a woman of color at this institution.”

The pandemic era, with all meetings happening virtually and few spontaneous interactions with colleagues in the hallways, has hardened people’s beliefs about the faculty cuts, González said. In a time of heightened emotions, it’s “easy to throw around” a number like 116 cuts, she said. But what “full-time equivalent” actually means is nuanced. It’s hard to explain in an email.

“That lack of human connection has really given it a life of its own,” said González, who has led workshops on how to hold difficult conversations in the workplace. Campus discourse has become a matter of “you’re with us or against us,” she said, a dangerous place to be.

Faculty members also need a place to grieve the coming departure of their colleagues, she said, and “in this space that we’re in, where do we process that?” Without such opportunities, angry professors aren’t seeing the humanity of the president and the provost — who, González is certain, didn’t want to make these decisions either.

Instead, it seems as if many people are stuck in a bitter cycle of talking past one another. Administrators say they’ve answered people’s questions; faculty members say the answers have only come in controlled, chat-turned-off Zoom webinars. Administrators say the cuts are happening humanely; faculty members say the loss of their peers is far more vast than numbers can convey.

Koehler, the Ithaca vice president, felt that pain as she co-chaired the committee that recommended which positions to eliminate. The meetings often became emotional. “I’ve never had to be a part of anything so difficult,” she said.

Sometimes, she said, she’ll wake up in the middle of the night, wishing for a silver-bullet solution that would avert layoffs, even though she knows that doesn’t exist. “You just so desperately don’t want it to be this way,” she said.

Koehler tries to hold onto the idea that, a few years down the road, Ithaca should be in a better place because of these decisions.

The Board of Trustees continues to support Collado, an Ithaca spokesman said. Collado said the college was having the tough conversations it needed to have. “We will be thriving and soaring into the future, and not be an institution that becomes irrelevant,” she said.

Breen isn’t ready to give up yet. The AAUP chapter will continue to push back against the cuts, the English professor said. “From our point of view, it can’t be over.”

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