Trouble in paradise: Mass layoffs at private universities continue as the pandemic rages

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Photo: Brook McArdle, for The National Catholic Reporter

Trouble in Paradise: Mass layoffs at private universities continue as the pandemic rages

By Aaron Padilla

In late November of 2020, a group called the Coalition of Jesuit Higher Education Workers and Students organized against austerity measures enacted by Jesuit universities hoping to ease the financial blow caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition’s petition called for a moratorium on job and pay cuts, demanding that Jesuit universities “seek all other avenues of ‘fiscal solvency.’” The petition also advocated for staff and faculty oversight of budget decisions, greater budget transparency, a fair process for unionization, and to give faculty the choice of how they wish to work during the pandemic.

The petition additionally emphasized that the firing of such workers and faculty was in violation of the Jesuit value of “cura personalis,” which holds that Jesuits have a commitment to the nurturing and care of the spirit, intellect, and body. The Coalition extended the interpretation of “cura personalis” to mean that this care is extended to all students, workers, and faculty who make up Jesuit institutions.

The Provost’s office at LMU stated that austerity measures were taken to provide additional student aid in an email

“The [student aid] funding comes from budget reductions, employee furloughs, executive pay cuts, and other sacrifices made by faculty, staff, and administrators working around-the-clock to support our students through this pandemic,” the email read. 

Many ASLMU senators and body members including Vice President Elsie Mares, Speaker of the Senate Kyle Saavedra, Senator for Diversity and Inclusion Camile Orozco, and Senator at Large Sally Dean signed the petition.

Marquette University in Milwaukee received perhaps the harshest criticism among these Jesuit universities. According to Inside Higher Ed, the university laid off 225-300 faculty and staff in response to enrollment deficits and other financial shortcomings resulting from school closures. 

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, a Marquette spokesperson claimed that leadership pay cuts, 403(b) suspensions, and spending reductions were not sustainable for the university.

This response fueled mass in-person protests at the university by faculty and staff. Because of these protests, petitions, and widespread criticism, Marquette entered into labor negotiations with its workers. 

Other universities also faced fierce backlash, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is investigating Canisius College in Buffalo and threatened John Carroll University in Ohio with investigation if they enacted austerity-driven layoffs.

This pattern of austerity cuts and backlash from students and labor groups has continued as the pandemic drags on and universities endure further financial shortfall.

On Dec. 31, 2020, the University of Southern California (USC) laid off a large number of its janitorial and service employees, as well as several adjunct faculty. As a result, organized labor groups such as USC’s Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (USC SCALE) organized in-person protests and drafted a petition in hopes that President Carol Folt would hear their demands.

President Folt responded to SCALE via email, citing financial troubles and cut revenue streams brought on by the pandemic to justify the recent wave of layoffs. Since the start of the pandemic, USC has reported an estimated $34 million in damages and lost revenue. In response, the university furloughed and later fired employees who worked in services that made up a large portion of its revenue, such as housing, retail, and janitorial and food services. 

Although the university claims that fired employees will return to work as soon as it is possible to do so and will receive the same benefits, labor groups at USC are suspicious of such claims, as many of the employees furloughed in late June were informed their contracts would expire on Dec. 31.

“In June, we informed the employees that the benefits program would expire on Dec. 31 if we were unable to return to normal campus operations. Even with six months’ notice, it is not a welcome situation,” President Folt wrote in an email to SCALE.

Stephanie Solis, a representative from USC SCALE, says that the university has been secretive and dismissive in its response to workers, faculty, and labor groups. Solis characterized Folt’s response as “generic,” delivering the same message with small alterations to all groups at risk of being laid off.

“Time and time again, throughout contract negotiations in the past, this has happened,” Solis said. “This shows its true colors, that it’s not looking out for its ‘Trojan Family’. Most workers are getting their healthcare cut off in the next couple of months, in the middle of a pandemic.”

The petition sent by USC SCALE posed alternatives to furloughing workers during the economic downturn. Signed by over 1900 students and faculty, the petition proposed liquidating assets from USC’s endowment fund, estimated to be worth nearly $5.7 billion.

In one of SCALE’s Instagram posts, SCALE highlighted the fact that the $34 million lost due to closed athletic facilities, postponed seasons, closed student housing, and closed student hospitality services is worth “less than 6/10 of 1% of the university’s endowment.”

The president’s office did not respond to Agency’s request for comment.

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