On Thursday, May 14, a line of around 100 cars, with headlights blinking and horns honking, stretched from Staples Plaza to South Williams Street, the site of the University of Vermont president’s house.
The stately home known as the Englesby House has been the home of the school’s president for more than 60 years. It was a destination for the caravan of protesters because they wanted UVM President Suresh Garimella to hear their complaints about budget cuts.
Traffic was “gridlocked completely” by the caravan from the Staples Plaza to South Prospect, where the university’s administrative offices are, said Cobalt Tolbert, a junior majoring in philosophy and English.
Tolbert said he did not think the president was home when they visited.
Their vehicles were adorned with placards and paper banners. The most popular messages were “cut from the top” and “open the books.”
One of the organizers, Helen Scott described the group of protesters as an ad hoc group of faculty, staff, students and community members whose main concern was the university’s announcement of a hiring freeze and 25% pay cut.
The group is called UVM United Against the Cuts, she said.
“Many are expecting to lose their jobs,” said Scott, an English professor who has been at UVM since 1999.
“As a tenured professor, I have relatively high security but people like me have an interest in challenging these cuts because, one: they fall on our colleagues and two: damage the program. We’ll be losing courses and valuable people,” Scott said.
Coronavirus budget shortages
In a letter to the campus, Garimella said if national surveys prove to be true the school will experience a $26 million loss in revenue, or more than 7% of its general fund budget.
Garimella said the administration has taken steps like restricting all university-funded travel, imposing a hiring freeze, delaying borrowing on $30 million for a portion of the construction of a multipurpose sports facility and renegotiating contracts for third-party services at the university.
“The reality is that about 68% of UVM’s budget is directed toward personnel costs. Consequently, this most important budget line must be examined,” Garimella said.
A question about whether the university’s books are open or required to be open was not answered by school representatives by press time.
Scott said the university administration has announced cuts that threaten the jobs of part-time faculty who make around $6,000 a year and cutting the salaries of non-tenured lecturers. The average salary of a lecturer is $60,000.
Worrying about paying bills
In a press release, College of Arts and Sciences Lecturer Mary Burke said, “I have worked at UVM for nearly a decade, taught thousands of students, and received the highest evaluations for my work, and I am worried about how I will pay my bills next year.”
Scott said a main thrust of the coalition is a call for a more equitable approach in dealing with budget shortfalls caused by the COVID crisis.
“In a moment of crisis, they should start cutting from the top,” Scott said. “The most giving is coming from those who earn the least.”
Garimella’s salary is $480,000. With perks and other bonuses, it comes to $630,000. He offered to forfeit one month of his pay, which is a little more than 8% of his salary.
Tolbert supported progressive cuts rather than cuts he characterized as regressive and inequitable. He said anyone making more than $300,000 at the university should receive a 30% pay cut.
The Middlebury chapter of the American Association of University Professors recently sent a letter to the Middlebury College administration and board of trustees calling for the school to stop “endowment hoarding.”
Scott said UVM United Against the Cuts agrees with the Middlebury professors.
Garimella’s letter said the endowment can’t be used to balance the budget because “the university can draw no more than 4.5% of the endowment value each year” and most of the endowment gifts came with restrictions about what they can be used for.
“What kind of budget model wouldn’t allow you to draw on the endowment in an extraordinary pandemic?” Scott asked.