Marquette faces student and faculty pushback for planned cuts
Author: Lilah Burke
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Brooke McArdle, a senior at Marquette University, is facing a disciplinary hearing Thursday. Two weeks ago, McArdle helped lead a sit-in where dozens of students protested the administration’s consideration of deep cuts to the faculty. But of those students, McArdle was the only one to be disciplined, and she is now facing student conduct sanctions for refusing to hand over her university ID and not getting approval for the demonstration, which is required by university policy.
Other sit-ins in the same building, Zilber Hall — which houses the president’s office — have not resulted in sanctions for students to her knowledge, McArdle said. Faculty who support McArdle have also said they have not been able to find instances where the university has enforced its demonstration policy against other students.
McArdle said she believes she is being targeted by the administration because she handed out a packet of public records research she compiled, with information about the university’s financial situation.
“They know that they need student consent and they are trying to scare us into submission,” she said. “They’re so threatened by the undergraduate voice that they’re doing everything in their power to smother it.”
Faculty members who attended the sit-in have said it was a civil and nondisruptive event.
“It’s hard to come to another conclusion, based on what I know right now, than that they’re trying to make an example of Brooke,” said Peter Staudenmaier, a professor of history. “That looks like an attempt to intimidate her and try to silence dissent.”
“Marquette is punishing a student who wants to participate in the process at the university she attends,” said Sarah Kizuk, a graduate student in philosophy and member of the unrecognized Marquette Academic Workers Union. “She is being targeted and isolated from other students, graduate students, and faculty who participated in the sit-in.”
Citing privacy concerns, the university declined to comment on individual student conduct and discipline.
A Changing Marquette
The issue at the true heart of the matter for McArdle and some faculty members is the administration’s insistence on both downsizing and reinventing the institution.
Administration officials have said that while the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated financial challenges, much of the $45 million shortfall it has predicted by 2022 can be traced to demographic changes and lower birth rates in its traditional cohort. This year the university is 424 students short of where it needs to be for its budget, meaning that it has only about 1,650 students in its freshman class. The university is predicting that next year’s enrollment will be down another 250 students. Total enrollment is now about 11,550. Total operating expenditure in fiscal year 2019 was $442.39 million.
“This is not a one-year event or a two-year event where you can pick a pool of resources in a point in time to bridge a short-term gap. We are looking for permanent, strategic, long-term actions,” Chief Operating Officer Joel Pogodzinski is quoted as saying in approved Academic Senate meeting minutes from September.
“The university’s temporary mitigating actions, including merit suspension, 403(b) suspension, leadership pay decreases and discretionary spend reductions are simply not sustainable,” a university spokesperson said via email. “To truly address the challenges ahead and position Marquette for a strong future, the university must thoughtfully and strategically identify more permanent solutions, such as headcount reductions among staff and faculty.”
How deep those reductions will go and whom they will target is still being decided, but officials have said it may be in the ballpark of 225 to 300 faculty and staff layoffs. In April, the university reported it had just under 3,000 employees. Faculty said they’ve been told the College of Arts and Sciences could be cut by 25 percent.
Faculty members and graduate students have complained that the process has been opaque and top-down.
“Faculty have a lot of questions about what the university financial situation really is because we are not able to actually see any numbers,” said Julia Paulk, a professor of Spanish. “They are radically changing the mission of the university and that needs to be done in a much more thoughtful and careful way, not in a panic, which is what it looks like to me. And I don’t see evidence that furloughs have been explored. I don’t see evidence that pay cuts have been explored.”
Ericka Tucker, a professor of philosophy, said she believes the administration is trying to manipulate the process.
“It’s really one-way communication here at Marquette,” she said. “All of a sudden it was, ‘We’re going to be a totally different kind of institution now.’”
The university has created working groups from the Academic Senate to determine areas to cut, but members of those working groups have been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. Those contracts stipulate that not only is information related to salaries and proprietary information private, but so are individual opinions of members and any recommendations or conclusions of the group.
Gerry Canavan, a professor of literature and member of one of the faculty working groups, said the cuts are being presented as a finished product that faculty is permitted to “nibble on the edges of.” The aim is for working groups to have recommendations in the next few weeks, with the budget finalized in December.
“Trying to make changes in two months is a recipe for disaster,” Canavan said. “It’s all been presented as a done deal.”
Canavan, who is also secretary-treasurer of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Marquette, said the association feels the university has not adequately consulted the Faculty Council, a different body to the Academic Senate, as is required by the Faculty Handbook.
A university spokesperson said Provost Kimo Ah Yu has met with the Faculty Council and is working with them in line with procedures in the handbook.
Though administration officials have expressed concern about the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, much of the guidance for this downsizing, university officials have said in Academic Senate meetings, is drawn from a book from Nathan Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton College, called Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.
Grawe’s book argues that colleges are likely to face serious enrollment challenges in the near future owing to declining birth rates nationally and specifically in the demographic groups that are most likely to attend college — white students from the Northeast and Midwest.
“You could entirely close a couple of colleges and it wouldn’t necessarily fix this problem. You could eliminate every discretionary dollar we spend in Academic Affairs, and it wouldn’t eliminate this. You could close Athletics, and it would not eliminate this. You could close Advancement and it wouldn’t eliminate this,” Doug Woods, vice provost for graduate and professional studies, is quoted as saying in approved meeting minutes.
Enrollment challenges, officials say, mean the university needs to plan for a smaller Marquette and downsize its faculty to fit.
Some faculty members have argued that the administration has drawn the wrong conclusion from Grawe’s research. Tucker said she believes the assertions the administration has made about downsizing in the face of a declining white population have racist implications about who belongs at Marquette. Grawe’s model, she said, is one of many and has been challenged.
Grawe, speaking generally in an interview and not about Marquette specifically, said the right solution for a university to overcome demographic challenges is going to necessarily be individualized. (He is currently working on a book, The Agile College, about this subject.) Some universities, if they begin looking ahead early, may be able to accomplish downsizing just by attrition alone. Others may be able to recruit and retain new populations of students who have historically been less likely to attend college. Marquette currently has a commitment to becoming a Hispanic-serving institution, meaning that at least 25 percent of the student body would be Hispanic. Intentional recruitment efforts have raised the share of Hispanic students at Marquette from 10.6 percent to 14.8 percent since fall 2016.
But if recruiting students or starting downsizing early doesn’t work for a specific university, Grawe said, retrenchment will likely need to be part of the conversation.
“We do not want to build a university on the hope that students will come,” Ah Yun is quoted as saying in meeting minutes. “We do not have the opportunity to wait to have all of this addressed by attrition.”
Canavan said the university is looking to cut equally across the institution, not sparing academics, what he sees as the heart of the university’s mission. Multiple faculty members called the College of Arts and Sciences the “intellectual heart” of the university.
McArdle said this was her main motivation for the sit-in.
“Faculty and staff here have been fundamental to my academic success,” she said. “I would be nowhere without them.”
The research McArdle handed out at the sit-in on Oct. 21 concerned the university’s financial choices. Graphs demonstrated that Marquette spends less on instruction per student and more on administrative costs per student than the average for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, of which Marquette is one.
“Marquette is a university that overspends on the administrative side,” said Canavan, arguing that cuts should come from that area. “Without academics there is no university.”
The administration has said the comparison isn’t worth much.
“Marquette University ranks near the middle of the 27 AJCU schools for instructional costs per student and administrative costs per student according to data obtained from IPEDS — the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — which gathers information from every college, university and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs,” a university spokesperson said in an email. Furthermore, other institutions may differ in their accounting structures and how they classify expenses. “Essentially, these are apples to oranges comparisons as methods of classifying expenses into functional categories may vary widely in practice,” he said.
McArdle’s packet also contained public documents disclosing compensation for university officials. President Michael Lovell’s compensation of more than $968,000 is toward the higher side of presidential salaries, but not out of step with some peer institutions.
Public tax documents distributed by McArdle also disclosed that the Marquette Board of Trustees approved a loan of $1.25 million for Lovell in 2015 for “retention.”
Jim Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University who has studied presidential compensation, said that loans to presidents are not common, but also not unheard-of. Often they are related to real estate and used to help a president buy a home in a new area or get out of a previous mortgage.
But even so, they have the possibility to be improper. In 2013, New York University officials found themselves in hot water when it was revealed that in addition to being provided with university housing at below market rate, they were receiving loans from the university to purchase vacation homes.
“If I’m making a million bucks a year, it’s curious why I’m taking out a million-dollar loan from my university,” Finkelstein said.
Ray Cotton, a lawyer who has represented 400 university boards and presidents (but not Marquette), said such loans used to be common forms of compensation. But the Internal Revenue Service began taking a special eye to the practice over a decade ago, he said, and a university loaning money to anyone could now result in an institutionwide review from the IRS.
McArdle said the documents underscore poor financial management at Marquette before the pandemic.
But Cotton argued that whether the size of the loan is excessive cannot be evaluated by those who do not have a full sense of the university budget, meaning those who are not part of the Board of Trustees.
Marquette declined to comment on the purpose of the loan to Lovell.