Academic cuts and queen sacrifices across the country

Bryan Alexander 2023-11-14

Greetings from a dark November.   The past few days have been rainy and chill, the perfect atmosphere for this post.

(It’s November?  I’m not sure how that happened.  I’ve been on overdrive mode for months now and calendars have become… blurs. On a given day I only know what to do based on what my calendar and to-do lists tell me.)

Today’s topic is cuts to higher education.  Some readers know I’ve been tracking what I’ve called “queen sacrifices” for years.  The term comes from chess, and describes the move of giving up one’s most powerful piece – the queen – in a gambit to win the game. It’s usually seen as a desperate move. I applied the term to higher education, where tenured faculty play the role of the queen, given their tenure protection and institutional governance roles; colleges and universities can cut them in various ways, often as an attempt to get out of a financial crisis.

cloudy skies over a bare tree

A gloomy sky from a winter month

Usually I write about a single instance, typically in the American northeast or midwest.  Oftentimes the institution’s leaders cite declining enrollment and ballooning budget deficits as motivating forces.  Sometimes a reduction in state funding plays a role for public institutions.  Occasionally there are stories of financial mismanagement ranging from bad strategies to actual crimes. Typically – but not always – programs with low enrollment (either majors or total students) face the ax; the humanities stand out among others on the chopping block.

Now it seems that the queen sacrifice appeals to a lot of campuses this season.  In addition, other colleges and universities are making or preparing to make other kinds of cuts, which fall upon other populations: staff, non-tenure-track faculty.

Let me offer some evidence, broken down by states.

ILLINOIS Bradley University announced a series of cuts, called for by “[t]he university’s provost and deans, and a faculty review committee,” which can “potentially eliminate over 20 academic programs and cut 68 faculty positions.”

Which programs and people face the ax?

The announcement unveiled plans for cutting math programs like statistics and actuarial science, as well as programs in the arts, such as printmaking and ceramics. For five programs — economics, French, mathematics, philosophy and physics — the plan calls for continuing classes but dropping majors and concentrations.

The reason for the cuts?  The appearance of “a $13 million [budget] shortfall, which amounts to about 10% of the college’s operating budget.”   One reason for that gap is declining student numbers: “[t]he university recently counted 5,217 students enrolled for fall 2023, down from 5,552 students the year before.”

MISSOURI Columbia College will end 122 jobs and close nearly 20 sites.

The reasons given are interesting.  The first, “a declining number of high school graduates,” is to be expected, as my readers know.  Two others, though, are a bit narrower: “an increasingly competitive online education environment and ‘evolving student instructional preference’ as reasons driving the changes at the nonprofit Christian college.”  I’m not sure if that second point refers to decreasing religious affiliation among Americans, but that is plausible.

VERMONT In October Vermont State University announced it would end 33 faculty and staff positions across its four sites, in addition to “cuts to the schools’ health insurance and retirement plans.”  Reasons include a reduction in state support, as well as realizing staff efficiencies through merging multiple campuses.  Indeed, a report described the institution as “about 20 percent overstaffed, based on the ratio of students to full-time staff.”  Most of the positions targeted are administrative, from assistants to a budget director.

This month VTSU scaled back its original cuts, firing only one professor, after more than a dozen accepted buyouts for early retirement.  The school increased the number of  programs to be merged and closed.

WEST VIRGINIA West Virginia University has gotten a lot of publicity and criticism over the past few months for the cuts president Gordon Gee has directed.  What the leadership ended:

28 of its majors, or about 8% [of the whole catalog], and cut 143 of the faculty positions, or around 5% [of the whole instructional staff]. Among the cuts are one-third of education department faculty and the entire world language department, although there will still be seven language teaching positions and students can take some language courses as electives.

Here’s a rare thing: a sympathetic portrait of five of those professors.

The reason for the cuts: Gee launched a massive effort to grow WVU enrollment and it failed, with student numbers actually reversing, and so driving a major budget crisis.

WISCONSIN Several public universities are planning cuts, in part in response to Republican anti-DEI pressure:

The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh cut 140 jobs.  In addition, 76 took early retirement offers.   34 full time positions will be unfilled.  The composition of these jobs is a mix: “The layoffs affect UWO administrative employees and staff while no faculty members were laid off. Of the 76 who accepted voluntary retirement, 49 are staff, 21 are faculty and six are instructional academic staff,”

The rationale?  To save nearly $15 million.

The University of Wisconsin-Parkside is cutting 55 jobs, or “about 9.5% of its workforce positions.”  These cuts are in addition to furloughs.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville announced major cuts, costing 111 people their jobs, or “12.2% of its workforce.”  The goal is to save $9 million, which represents a structural deficit. Which people? “there were 49 academic staff, 27 university staff, 20 limited appointments, 11 faculty retirements, and four positions from other categories that were included in the cuts.”

The University of Wisconsin system also shut down a two-year campus, UW Platteville Richland.  This is from its official webpage:

University of Wisconsin-Platteville closing

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac will no longer teach in-person classes, but only online ones.  Note the rationale for the latter move: “[system president Jay Rothman stated that]  online enrollment has been trending up.”

Beyond cuts to tenure-track faculty, other faculty, staff, and program cuts are in the air.  San Francisco State University announced plans to cut 40% of its adjunct population, which is now organizing in response.  Simmons University in Massachusetts will end (“sunset”) eight majors: “Art, Art Administration, Asian Studies, Chemistry Management, Economics and Math, Financial Math, French, Music, and Philosophy.”  Other programs will be folded into other majors:


Biostatistics, Math, and Statistics will be absorbed into a Mathematical Sciences major, Environmental Science will become a track in the Biology major, and International Relations will become a track in the Political Science major. The Spanish major will become an Applied Spanish Language and Culture major.

Simmons University majors changes 2023

I would not be surprised to see the administration encourage some faculty in those fields to retire, or to remove them directly, in the near future.

Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is openly discussing a series of program cuts.

UWGB is considering cutting majors in economics, environmental policy and theater and dance, according to an email sent to faculty and staff Tuesday. It’s also looking to discontinue minors in international environmental studies, geography and physics.

I haven’t found Green Bay officially airing personnel cuts yet.

Also along these lines are cuts from Newman University in Kansas: “english [sic], finance, history, marketing, math, philosophy, social work and theater.”  Newman isn’t just cutting, but adding new programs  “[i]n a strategic effort to realign educational offerings with changing student trends, market forces and emerging industry demands.”

Despite cutting some programs, the university said it implemented new undergraduate majors in the 2023-24 academic year, including agribusiness, computer science, digital design and adult and professional studies. Additionally, graduate degrees were added in biomedical science, business administration, data science, online social work and education.

Once more we can see the humanities overrepresented in the cuts and invisible in the additions.

Meanwhile, other institutions have been signaling the possibility of cuts to come:

ITEM: the University of North Carolina-Greensboro is undergoing a financial planning exercise, and it’s not one based on plenitude.    The Chancellor charged participants thusly:

All divisions are asked to engage in a budget reduction exercise at 1%, 2% and 3%. The table below provides amounts per division. All divisions should plan for submission of the 1-3% scenarios by Thursday, January 18, 2024.

There’s no call for staff or program cuts so far.

ITEM: Nevada’s state higher education system is trying to figure out how to close a big deficit.  They don’t have to share their deliberations in public, so their plans are thus far unknown.

ITEM: The University of Arizona announced it was in a financial crisis, with only 97 days of cash on hand.

ITEM: the state of Alabama decided not to financially assist Birmingham-Southern College in its economic crisis.  BSC has position this as an existential crisis.

Now, news of these proposed and actual cuts has elicited commentary and protests from within and beyond those institutions.  A Bradley University graduate and current French teacher wrote this moving appeal.  Vermont faculty criticized the layoff plan and students protested.  University of Wisconsin system faculty are open about the new pressures they face.  West Virginia University faculty voted no confidence in their president and some students, organized by their union, protested.  An accounting adjunct organized an alternative plan to save the same amount of money by cutting some administrators and staff compensation instead.

WVU_protest_Ryan_Quinn_IHE_2023 Sept

A critique of these cuts as a whole, especially queen sacrifices, has been rising.  This New Republic piece offers a useful example, arguing that cut programs can actually be profitable and that administrators ax faculty before staff.  Indeed, in the West Virginia case the president was actually completing a scheme to  “manufacture a fiscal crisis as a pretext to reengineer the academic core of WVU.”  Labor historian Myya Helm argues that the WVU showed a preference for physical buildings and administrative salaries over faculty and student support, tied to a lack of state support and refusal to seek more public funding.

Where does this leave us?  What do these stories suggest for higher education’s future?  Let me offer a few quick thoughts for a post which has already gone on too long:

  1. Some of these stories share elements, notably enrollment pressures and cuts to the humanities.  We should watch for this to keep appearing and in other locations.  Perhaps there’s a through line, a commonality to be identified.
  2. At the same time each cut story is specific, with particular or even unique details.  It’s vital to not lose sight of them and their individual salience.
  3. The critique that appeared around WVU might grow in popularity, especially as cuts and queen sacrifices grow.  I’d very much like to see more of it.
  4. American higher education often behaves in herds, with multiple members seeking to follow what looks like an established direction.  If this post’s summary of cases holds up, then we should expect other colleges and universities to follow along.

Over to you, readers.  What do you think?  Are you seeing any signs of cuts elsewhere?  Is this picture too gloomy?  The comments box stands ready for your thoughts.