Fighting Back: The Human Cost of Layoffs

Laying off junior faculty has consequences, too.
By Cathy Wilson

Until this year, I hadn’t felt the pinch of the economic downturn—not me, not personally, not really. When gas prices were high, I cut down on travel, but when the prices dropped, I eased into a little more travel.

Where I live, in a little rural town of ten thousand in the high desert of Utah, three big institutions run the local economy: the school district, the hospital, and the College of Eastern Utah, a two-year institution with a central campus and several small, even more rural satellite campuses throughout the state. It is the smallest college in Utah.

When the legislature revised the budget in response to falling tax revenues, the biggest cut it made by far was to higher education. Every institution received an initial budget cut of about 15 percent. The day the legislature ended, the cuts were finalized at 9 percent, and each institution in the state has had to figure out how to cope with diminished funding.

Feeling the Cuts

At present, I don’t teach at the college. I used to teach there full time, but eight years ago I accepted a position teaching in the local school district’s juvenile corrections system. My husband, though, is a tenured faculty member, as are many of our friends.

The college administration reacted to the budget cuts (perhaps reasonably, logically) by deciding to cut all faculty members who were probationary for tenure. But the results of that decision are horrific (personally, experientially).

Tenure comes with retention after seven years of service. Seven years of service in a small town means home ownership, friendships, and strong connections to the community, to churches, to cultural organizations. Seven years! It’s almost enough to make you an old-timer in a small town. No matter— any tenure-track faculty member who had not served long enough to be granted tenure faced losing his or her position.

The positions of forty-one faculty members from our campus (and from one satellite campus serving Navajo students further south) were slated for termination. That’s forty-one out of seventyone full-time positions—more than half of the full-time faculty. Aside from devastating the academic life of the campus, such terminations would represent a strike at the heart of the institution. True, the administration promised to reappoint these nontenured faculty members if the legislature restored funding, but that was a big “if.”

I casually interviewed several faculty members, tenured and nontenured. Almost all of them declined to be quoted directly, especially the tenured: “I still have my job, don’t I? So I’m not saying anything.” They all responded similarly, though.

Tension runs high in the college, but no one is talking about it. Just about everyone sees places to cut budgets: reducing the number of full scholarships for athletes who rarely win a game or for the “ambassador” scholars who show visitors around campus, for example. This type of cutting could have covered the deficit and also provided money for some advertising. (The college hasn’t advertised in two decades—no one knows why. Everything we say depresses us further.)

College policy requires notification of nonrenewal for probationary faculty in December, so that faculty can look for other jobs. “So we stand to lose our bright, new, capable faculty,” mourned one tenured instructor.


I didn’t blame the administration—what could it do but deal with what came down from the legislature? What a pity, though,that education had to take the hits. It’s easy to cut higher education, especially for a legislature that sometimes is characterized as “uneducated” itself. The education cuts revealed the priorities of Utah’s policy makers, and the administration was prepared to reduce the college’s budget in a way that would have had devastating consequences for the residents of my community.

But this year, at least, we were granted a reprieve. Near the end of April, the faculty was notified that probationary faculty members would retain their positions for another year, thanks to new federal funding and a restructuring of the staff. One year’s reappointment is better than none, but probationary faculty members are still insecure. We can only hope that the economy improves and the legislature reconsiders its priorities.

Cathy Wilson is an artist, author, and musician. She teaches writing and art in a juvenile correctional facility and art in a small junior high school.



"Almost all of them declined to be quoted directly, especially the tenured: "I still have my job, don’t I? So I’m not saying anything.""

I can't figure out, from the article, if the tenured in Utah are vulnerable or cowardly.  Tenured senior faculty often depend on the good graces of an administration for release time and research support, and they cross an administration at their peril.

I wish the writer had told us more about the tenured faculty's teaching and research conditions, about what makes the tenured reluctant to speak up.  Don't all administrations "adjunctify" those classes to maintain tuition revenues?

It calls to mind Patricia Limerick's story about newly-unshackled birds refusing to fly:  getting tenure had beaten the courage out of the faculty.


Thanks to TH for the thoughtful response to my article. I think part of the faculty's reticence has been that if financial exigency were declared (as has been bandied around campus), all faculty could be at risk. This implied threat has silenced many.

As an update: the Utah Board of Regents announced a merger of our little college with another university, Utah State, that has many satellite campuses throughout the state. College of Eastern Utah will not be a satellite and will retain much of its autonomy, or so we are told.

The merger brings stronger resources so with good luck in the economy, nobody need lose his/her job.