Letter to the editor, from UI professors: COVID-19 budget cuts are leaving faculty — and education — out to dry

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld speaks during the dedication of the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall. Friday, July 28, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village
By Lois K. Cox, Clinical Professor of Law Emerita; Ann Rhodes, Clinical Professor of Nursing; and Katherine Tachau, Professor of History Emerita, on behalf of the Executive Committee of the University of Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Professors

The University of Iowa’s response to pandemic-related budget cuts places the fiscal tail in charge of wagging the educational dog. Though cuts are necessary, university administrators seem determined to make them without regard to the quality of the overall educational program; some are in direct contravention of faculty judgment on educational matters. Two examples — one immediate, one more long-term — illustrate risks to the quality of education inherent in making budget decisions without thorough consideration of educational priorities.

Recently, media commentators and University of Iowa community members noted with alarm the decision not to renew the contracts of 15 lecturers in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). When asked to comment or intervene, President Bruce Harreld in essence threw up his hands, stating that those decisions are the purview of collegiate deans. If so, deans are acting with very little input from faculty, because public statements of department chairs and other faculty members reveal frustration at not being listened to. Indeed, several in CLAS have expressed strong disagreement and offered alternative solutions designed to retain valuable faculty members and the courses they offer.

The budget model that permits Pres. Harreld to disclaim responsibility was adopted only a couple of years ago. Though it may offer advantages in terms of fiscal planning for a large institution, it does not absolve the university administration of its duty to engage in shared governance with the faculty. Sound reasons support the academic imperative that the faculty have the primary role in making decisions about an institution’s educational program, even in times of financial crisis. In a policy entitled “On Institutional Problems Resulting from Financial Exigency,” the American Association of University Professors notes that “[t]here should be early, careful, and meaningful faculty involvement in decisions relating to the reduction of instructional and research programs.” That involvement has not happened.

A longer-term issue, brought into prominence now, is the university’s increasing reliance on lecturers to teach undergraduates, particularly in CLAS. Brutally put, lecturers are cheap and are treated by administrators as dispensable. Though any large teaching institution must have some short-term teaching staff to fill in when regular faculty are ill or on leave, current use of lecturers goes well beyond that. In seeking to achieve budgetary “flexibility,” CLAS employs scores of lecturers who undertake crippling teaching loads, work for low salaries and who may then be cast aside with little or no notice. From a management point of view, the obvious attractions of that arrangement, along with the deep pool of talented and highly accomplished Ph.D.s in the Iowa City area, have made over-reliance on lecturers too seductive to resist. Now CLAS administrators are exercising their flexibility by failing to renew lecturer contracts, without regard to the human cost or the gaps in the curriculum that will result. Yet as other colleges such as the Carver College of Medicine have demonstrated, ways exist of sharing the sacrifice more equitably, such as temporary salary reductions or reducing the salaries of highly paid faculty and administrators, without loss to the educational program.

Eventually, this approach to balancing the budget will harm the standing of our flagship university in the academic world and destroy the vitality of our academic community. World class scholars will not come to a place where governance is top down and conducted without regard for educational quality. Iowa faculty members should devote themselves to a lifetime of teaching and scholarship without the fear of being unemployed on a moment’s notice. We owe it to all Iowans to put educational quality first, even when cutting the budget.

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