Students organize after non-tenure eligible faculty members receive contract non-renewal notices

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JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, Dec. 9, five non-tenure eligible faculty members at the College of William and Mary were notified that their contracts would not be renewed following the spring semester. Two days later, 12 more non-tenure eligible faculty members  learned that their contracts may also not be renewed for the 2021-22 academic year. A week later, affected professor Scott Challener sent an email out to a list of present and former students, notifying them of the decision. Within hours, the news spread throughout the student body, leading to online discussions, email blasts and a petition amassing over 1,000 signatures.

The reason for these potential contract terminations was a proposed 5% reduction in the College’s Arts and sciences budget. But Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Maria Donaghue-Velleca said that the decision isn’t concrete.

“The most important thing is that we don’t have a 5% budget cut,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “All we’re being asked to do is plan for that potential. So that’s the hard part, right? I think everybody just wants to know what next year’s going to look like, and we don’t know. So, what the main Budget Office has asked us to do is figure out how we would carve out 5% of our budget.”

The College’s budget uncertainty stems from a variety of factors, including a potential decrease in state support, the proportion of in-state vs. out-of-state enrollments in the fall and a decrease in revenue from auxiliary services, like dining and parking. However, Donaghue-Velleca said the main uncertainty comes from COVID-19 itself.

“The total kicker of all of this is we just don’t know what’s going to happen with pandemic … our plan is to open the university back up in January and start having face-to-face sessions when we can in February. And I really hope that’s possible. But if it’s not possible, then that will change our financial picture hugely, and we just don’t know.”

“The total kicker of all of this is we just don’t know what’s going to happen with pandemic,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “I’m a scientist. I’m trying to be realistic about this. I think all of us have such great hope in this vaccine. But we also know that disease load is really high right now. And so, our plan is to open the university back up in January and start having face-to-face sessions when we can in February. And I really hope that’s possible. But if it’s not possible, then that will change our financial picture hugely, and we just don’t know.”

Although contracts for NTE faculty are renewed or terminated on a yearly basis, Donaghue-Velleca decided to notify the affected faculty members earlier than usual. Despite the uncertainty of the budget, Donaghue-Velleca wanted to be realistic.

“I think that all of these individuals are extraordinary and superb,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “And if they could spend their whole career here, how lucky we would be at William and Mary, I really do think that. But not being open with them about what was possible just didn’t sit with me.”

Prior to considering faculty contracts, Donaghue-Velleca and her team implemented several budget measures, including limiting hiring, cutting non-payroll budgets and reducing research funds for eminent professor positions. But ultimately, Donaghue-Velleca looked at the 50 NTE faculty members whose contracts were set to expire in 2021. This group consisted of lecturers, senior lecturers and visiting assistant professors, all of whom make up roughly half of the teaching faculty and work on one or two-year contracts with the College. Each member of the 50 NTE faculty was placed into one of three groups: yes, no and maybe.

“Two-thirds of the NTE faculty were informed that new contracts will be offered for the 2021-22 academic year,” College spokesperson Erin Zagursky said in an email. “About a quarter (12) were informed we don’t have enough information yet to know if new contracts will be offered and that we will inform them as soon as we do know. A small number were told we will not be offering a new contract.”

Decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, using factors like course demand to make the final determination.

“The first thing was, where do we see a lot of student enrollment and a lot of student demand, and where do we know that we always have challenges offering enough courses?” Donaghue-Velleca said. “And then what we did for each of these 50 people, we looked at what enrollments looked like over the last few years. We looked at the courses they offered. So, were they offering required intro level courses, were they offering COLL classes? Were they offering classes that speak to diversity in the subject matter of the class? We also asked, are they themselves diverse? And then did they have special skills or expertise that made them so unusual that we would never be able to find that in the faculty that we already have in Arts and Sciences?”

Above all, Donaghue-Velleca considered if faculty members offered unique skillsets that other College faculty do not also possess.

“It could be that someone is teaching a class and they’re touching a small number of students, but they are truly the only person who does that at all of William and Mary, and if we don’t offer that person a new contract, then we won’t have that in our curriculum,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “As opposed to someone who is a super capable, beloved instructor, teaches great classes, but we have other faculty at William and Mary that can also do that and cover that material. That would impact our decision.”

However, for some of the professors whose contracts may not be renewed, these metrics don’t tell the full story. In his email to students, Challener pointed out that smaller departments were disproportionately hurt by these measures.

“As many of you know, I am one of few faculty members teaching courses dedicated to Latinx Studies,” Challener said in the email. “There is a profound and urgent need at our University for such courses. To me, the future of W&M, like the future of the humanities, depends on a strong, cross-curricular, cross-disciplinary commitment to Latinx, Black, Arab, Asian, and Indigenous and Native Studies.”

“There is a profound and urgent need at our University for such courses. To me, the future of W&M, like the future of the humanities, depends on a strong, cross-curricular, cross-disciplinary commitment to Latinx, Black, Arab, Asian, and Indigenous and Native Studies.”

Professor Fabian Arzuaga, another of the 12 faculty members whose contracts may not be renewed, concurred with this point, arguing that beyond the diversity of programs, NTE faculty members offer personal diversity at the College.

“Contingent faculty are disproportionately made up of people of color and women,” Arzuaga said. “Most of the faculty diversity goals are from this pool of instructors. And these instructors are, along with graduate students, probably the most precarious employees in terms of instruction. So, this is serious. This is significant.”

To Challener, these NTE faculty members represent the types of programs the College should be supporting, now more than ever.

“In the tumult of the summer, one of the phrases that was being passed around was, ‘how are we going to meet this moment?’ Challener said. “We’re not going to meet the moment by cutting faculty who teach Arabic. We’re not going to meet the moment by cutting faculty who teach political economy and political science. We’re not going to meet the moment by cutting the people who teach Latinx studies.”

Donaghue-Velleca countered this by pointing out that no departments are being eliminated.

“William and Mary is not considering cutting any programs,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “We are not canceling classes. So, the challenge here is how to make sure that we offer the curriculum our students deserve with the staffing that we know we can afford.”

However, for Challener, this clarification misses the point.

“By saying that, ‘we didn’t cut the program,’ that’s not the same as saying, ‘we’re going to sustain this program, or we’re going to support this program,’ Challener said. “We have to say, ‘okay, so you didn’t cut the program, but what does it look like to invest in the program?’”

Along with professors like Challener, many students also disagreed with these faculty changes. Zoë Bowen Smith ’21 found out about the contract terminations from a professor in the theatre department. This, along with accounts from other professors, inspired her to create a petition, which has amassed over 1,000 signatures, urging the College to renew all faculty contracts.

“I’m a theatre and a public policy major,” Bowen Smith said. “So, a lot of my classes I’ve taken in these departments that are most affected by this decision. And for me, I didn’t want to just sit there and see what happens. I thought, ‘the school should hear about this.’ And after seeing the sports teams that were going to be cut rise up and use their collective action to petition the school and to protest those cuts and then see those teams get reinstated, I looked at this very similarly, where my academics are essential to my William and Mary career. My faculty members, my professors, are essential to my William and Mary career.”

Challener sees this Bowen Smith’s petition as one in a long line of student protests against administrative decisions by the College.

“They’re very tired of the set of the kinds of decisions that have been made repeatedly without asking them, without involving them, over their vocal and continued protests,” Challener said. “Some students who wrote to me said, ‘well, I guess it’s time for me to write another email, or make another phone call or make another post.’ And they do it. They do it without hesitation, but I do think they seem quite tired and confused.”

Beyond her petition, Bowen Smith urged the College to look for alternative budgetary measures.

“We need to find something else,” Bowen Smith said. “There’s always more places to cut down the budget. I mean, look at President Rowe’s seventy five thousand dollar bonus this year when she already makes, what, six hundred thousand dollars a year? That’s ridiculous.”

College President Katherine Rowe’s $75,000 bonus, received for good performance from the Board of Visitors, followed her voluntary 15% pay cut in the fall. Some students view administrative bonuses negatively given the proposed budgetary cuts in other departments.

“I agree that the really unfortunate coincidence of receiving a bonus and then of notifying some faculty that we’re not sure we can give them contracts, is not a good look,” Donaghue-Velleca said.

“I agree that the really unfortunate coincidence of receiving a bonus and then of notifying some faculty that we’re not sure we can give them contracts, is not a good look.”

In light of accusations of unfairness, Donaghue-Velleca emphasized that her team’s decisions were thorough and difficult.

“It’s hard,” Donaghue-Velleca said. “These are not straightforward decisions, and I think that anyone who sums it up as, ‘we don’t care about people,’ or, ‘we don’t care about Latinx studies,’ or, ‘we are discarding, performing arts,’ I think that that’s just an oversimplification that’s not fair.”

But for students like Bowen Smith, these faculty decisions cut to the core of the College’s purpose.

“We are number four in the country for undergraduate teaching, and when we’re hit with this pandemic, when we need to make cuts and we’re in a financial bind, we’re going to cut our faculty who are nationally ranked, who are integral to our school’s purpose?” Bowen Smith said. “Absolutely not.”