Budget crunch forces first layoff

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March 2, 2010

2:38 AM

Monday was Courtney Dowell’s last day at work.

After suffering a series of budget shortfalls, the College of William and Mary has been forced to implement the layoffs promised at November’s Board of Visitors meeting.

“I’m trying to pretend like it’s a normal day,” Dowell said. “No sad goodbyes.”

Dowell learned that she would be let go last November. She has been a faculty member at the College for the past two and a half years, serving as a Substance Abuse Educator through the Office of Student Health. She also taught a three-credit Peer Health Education course with fellow health educator Sarah Menefee.

Upon being told that she would be laid off, Dowell’s initial thoughts were about the students who come through her office.

“We took measures to make sure no students were left high and dry,” she said. “We started referring students to [other] services on campus and off campus.”

According to Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06, Dowell is the only person within Student Affairs who has been let go, although other departments made personnel cuts as well.

“For an institution our size, we’ve been blessed to have three health educators,” Ambler said. “This decision is not a reflection of her … our current budget just doesn’t allow for [redundancies].”

Ambler added that in the coming months, other departments will have to pick up some of the responsibilities that were handled by Dowell. However, there is no immediate plan to determine how those responsibilities will be divided.

At its November meeting, the BOV approved the cut of 18 positions to be cut to accommodate the College’s deflating budget. After former Gov. Tim Kaine announced a $105 million cut from in the state’s higher education budget, universities throughout Virginia were forced to tighten their belts. The University of Virginia and George Mason University have not had to resort to staff and faculty layoffs yet but have instead let unfilled positions lay fallow until funding becomes available.

The College has implemented this strategy as well — six of the 18 positions cut by the BOV were vacant.

According to Dowell and Menefee, the budget cuts to the Office of Student Health and Dowell’s layoff came as a surprise. However, they acknowledge that their services often fly below the College’s radar.

“If we’re doing a good job in prevention, we wouldn’t be on people’s radar,” Dowell said. “No one’s out there saying, ‘Thanks for preventing me from getting an STI.’”

Effective prevention strategies frequently include working closely with student groups and individuals to develop healthy lifestyles.

Dowell worked closely with Health Outreach Peer Educators to implement strategies geared toward improving public health outreach on campus. This includes conducting programs promoting sexual health, drug and alcohol abuse prevention and healthy body images.

“She’s been huge in prevention,” H.O.P.E. President Wesley Ng ’11 said. “Losing her means we’re losing someone who educates for the health of our students.”

Despite Dowell’s layoff, Ambler said that public health prevention strategies will remain a priority at the College.

According to Menefee, Dowell’s absence will definitely be felt by the Office of Student Health.

“Courtney made great strides in the field of prevention; if we can maintain what she has started, we will have succeeded, but there still may not be anything noticeable for the rest of campus,” she said.

In the meantime, Dowell said that she has a few job leads in public health, and that she will not be leaving the area. She lives in Newport News with her husband and daughter.

Dowell often thought of some of the students who came through her office as her kids and said saying goodbye to them was the hardest part of leaving.

“That was worse than being told you’re being laid off, having to tell the students you’re leaving,” she said. “I didn’t think there was going to be such an emotional response.”

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