By Jacob Force, Currier Times Correspondent//
Editor’s Note: This is a three-part series written by Currier Times reporter, Jacob Force, a senior Communication major, who chronicles one of the most challenging academic years in the history of Curry College.
Part One: Curry and Covid: A Tale of Survival
For Grant Burrier, the ultimate source of pain was powerlessness. The verdict was final. Like all faculty, Burrier is binded to a union contract that retrenches faculty members based on tenure. The reality of fact is harsh. A professor who always went the extra mile to better the experience and education for his students being let go is a bitter pill to swallow.
“I mean I just can’t verbalize how shocked I was by the way it was done,” Burrier said, “and kind of the finality of the process in some ways. There was no way to appeal this. The college had made its decision.”
Burrier is not the only faculty or staff member to be let go due to budget shortfalls. Longtime softball coach and administration counselor, Bruce Weckworth, and former Student Center Director, Scott Daube, are just two of the campus favorites whose dismissals were met with significant backlash from the student body.
Retrenchment involves lengthy and rigorous negotiations between the faculty, its union and the administration. There are many factors involved, some of which can be divisive and contentious subjects.
“An incredibly challenging process, and a worthwhile and appropriate process, but one that has impact on people we care about and respect that is not the impact at all that they would seek and we regret the impact on them,” Curry College President Ken Quigley told The Currier Times.
For the Curry community as a whole, the process began with President Quigley’s September 29, 2020 email to all students and families stating that the college was entering a period of retrenchment. The email details how the pandemic placed Curry in a difficult financial position that would require time and difficult decisions to resolve.
“Management of this complex crisis created a significant structural budget deficit for Curry,” the statement read. “Though we are fortunate to be anchored by a strong endowment, we have a critical responsibility to take fiscally prudent steps to balance our operational budget.”
Although the statement did not directly address program, faculty or staff cuts, many believed such actions were inevitable.
“I can assure you that our intent is to limit the number of academic majors impacted to minimize the impact on students, and that the College is committed to supporting every student as they progress towards completing their degree in their chosen major,” the statement continued.
In September and early October, it seemed to Burrier and many others that only minor changes would be made.
Then came a followup email to the Curry community on October 29, 2020.
In that message, the college communicated that programs, faculty and staff were indeed going to be cut before the end of the academic year and that these cuts would take effect in the Fall of 2021. By this point the college had more of an idea of who and what would be cut.
Among the most notable subjects under consideration for retrenchment in the October 29th notice were the English (major and minor), Philosophy and Religion (major and minor), Politics and History (major and minor), Black studies (minor), Asian studies (minor), Women’s and Gender studies (minor) and Information Technologies (major and minor).
At this point, these programs were only being considered for elimination, and the college had not yet made its decision on what exactly would be cut. The next email, in early December, delivered the final verdict of the programs that were being eliminated. However, anyone already declared in any of these majors or minors will be allowed to finish out their degree, a practice commonly referred to as a “teach-out.”
Many questions remain as to exactly how the decisions to remove these programs and personnel were reached.
While the retrenchment news was difficult for many in the Curry community to receive, the communication about the financial situation is a step that other small, struggling institutions have failed to take in the past.
The sudden closing of Mount Ida College in May 2018 sent a shockwave through the world of small colleges. Schools learned from this scandal and the associated lack of communication preceding the closing. The emails from Curry were an effort to avoid a similar fate. Though for some students that came to Curry from Mount Ida, the frustration around campus over the last year about the program, faculty and staff cuts brought back memories from a few years ago.
“With them cutting the programs, they did handle it a completely different way,” said junior Communication major, Brandon Dickens, who attended the now-defunct school for his freshman year. “A 360 from Mount Ida. Professors at Curry had some time to look for new jobs, which is more than I can say for Mount Ida.”
Small colleges learned from Mount Ida’s mistakes. They learned that if their institution is having financial issues, tell people so they can plan for the future and so the programs that remain can plan accordingly.
Haillie Johnson, a junior philosophy major who will see her major go defunct after she graduates, is the youngest philosophy major remaining at the school. Also the station manager (highest ranking student) at WMLN-FM, Johnson had once upon a time put down a deposit to attend Mount Ida in the fall of 2018, only to have the school suddenly close that spring. She spoke with The Currier Times about some of the similarities between Curry in the last year and Mount Ida during its closing.
“Granted, Mount Ida was a way bigger deal,” Johnson said. “All the students and faculty at one time, got one email saying ‘the school is closing in a month…figure it out,’ essentially. There was no formal talking about anything. They accepted a whole new year of students. They’d given out all of these scholarships.”
Obviously, we can all appreciate that the process at Curry has been much more transparent and doesn’t involve the school closing its doors. However, Johnson noted that some of her professors at Curry are facing similar challenges to professors at Mount Ida because of how quickly they had to seek new employment.
“It’s just been sad,” Johnson said. “Most of my professors are leaving, the ones I’ve gotten really close to. We’re a very tight-knit major. We all know each other personally, and it’s really unfair to see them scrambling for jobs. They have doctorates and no colleges are hiring. One of the professors had to miss class for an interview for a position he didn’t even end up getting.” She added, “It was a terrifying thing to see for your professors, you know?”
Despite the transparency from the administration about the overarching situation, some faculty members were unhappy with how the data that guided the school to its decisions was presented to them. It seemed the administration picked and chose what to share and what to keep quiet.
For professors, this made a stressful situation more so, especially while trying to focus on providing an adequate educational experience for their current students while not knowing what the short-term future holds for them. The problem here, and how it relates to retrenchment, is collaboration. According to professors in various departments, the communication and data presented to the faculty didn’t tell the whole story.
“It just seemed like most of that information was not provided,” Burrier said. “And when we asked for that data, frequently they dragged their heels. It came out very slowly in a controlled way. For such a dramatic, radical change, the data that they used to justify these decisions is not there.”
That left many professors to navigate the current semester while not knowing if a job will be available to them next year. Or in some cases, knowing it won’t be. Johnson also talked about how some of her professors were affected by the uncertainty of the future.
“What I’ve heard from most of our meetings was that there was no reply back from the school with regards to whether they were being kept or getting fired after the end of the semester,” Johnson said. “A lot of them had no idea what their futures entailed. They had no idea if they would be cut, if they were staying, there was just no reachback from the school.”
Many within the faculty seconded Burrier’s notion regarding a lack of quality and clarity in the information used to convey why certain programs were being cut. Alan Revering, a professor in the soon-to-be retrenched philosophy and religion department and member of the faculty union executive committee, outlined similar concerns when speaking to The Currier Times.
“The administration did share a lot of the overall financial information so that we had a good picture of the overall shape of the institution,” Revering said. “I know some faculty were very dissatisfied over the quality of information they used in the choice about which programs to close, so that’s one example of a place we could’ve collaborated more.”
The retrenchment process also impacted students, some of whom have said morale is low in their classes because many professors know that they’re teaching their final classes here. Dickens pointed out how he feels bad for students in that situation because they feel as though they’re a lit fuse on what seems like a time bomb.
“There’s a teach-out. But, for me, I feel like it’s not the same for [those students] knowing that that program’s not going to be there after they graduate,” Dickens said.
Retrenchment is never an easy process for any business or institution, and for Curry it was no different. Among the difficulties the administration faced were trying to do what was financially necessary for the college, keeping a curriculum that will optimally serve students after they graduate, and staying consistent with Curry’s mission.
“We’re looking to build programs that align with students’ post-Curry careers while at the same time making sure that we don’t lose what we think is really important, the grounding in the liberal arts,” Quigley told The Currier Times.
Quigley made sure to highlight that the school’s commitment to the liberal arts is displayed through the general education program. What the school will be doing now is taking some of the courses from majors that are being cut (such as English and Philosophy) and funneling them into the general education program, which is now set to become a full-fledged department.
Quigley, Curry’s President of twenty-seven years, is no stranger to dealing with retrenchment. In 1996, he stepped into the presidential role with the school expecting to soon close its doors forever. Amid rapid cost-cutting and a mandate of absolutely no spending, Curry made an eventual recovery that Quigley is often credited with spearheading. However, Quigley said the mid-90s crisis was nothing compared to what the school currently faces as a result of Covid.
“This [current situation] is tremendously more challenging,” Quigley said. “We worked well with both the faculty union and the faculty because there were parallel discussions with both the faculty and with the faculty union through their representatives on the bargaining team. And there were hard and challenging conversations because A) they were so important, B) people cared so much, C) it involved human beings.” In regard to the impact of Covid, he also said, “What I’ve said about Covid all along is ‘there’s no right answers and there’s no good answers.’”
The negotiation process began with the faculty examining a number of different options based mainly on academic principles with a few financial elements involved. Since the school has a mission to stay true to, they approached the situation from an academic perspective first and foremost.
The faculty governing team, undergraduate curriculum committee and, eventually, the full faculty provided seven different proposals detailing their desire to keep certain programs such as Asain studies and Women’s and Gender studies.
Of the seven programs the faculty initially proposed to keep, only Black studies was ultimately saved from this specific round of negotiations.
The second round of negotiations involved the faculty union executive committee discussing the collective bargaining agreement between the administration and faculty. These talks took months, and the faculty union fought hard to keep as many programs as possible.
Sarah Augusto, a member of the union executive committee, broke the process down for The Currier Times via email.
“The agreement between the union and the college has particular protocols in place for what happens when retrenchment is invoked,” Augusto wrote. “The College must meet with a union bargaining team to discuss ‘alternative to retrenchment,’ which essentially means that we have the opportunity to offset some of the budget deficit and save programs and positions through agreed upon faculty ‘givebacks.’”
“Givebacks” essentially mean that faculty members will need to take a pay reduction to lower institutional costs. This strategy was an integral part of what helped the college recover in the 1990s.
Fortunately, the faculty was able to save Black Studies before their union executive committee took over negotiations. The negotiations at the union level are then what resulted in the saving of the sociology department.
Considering the college had to make difficult decisions that involved people losing their jobs, the negotiations that led to these decisions were difficult and tense.
“I felt a lot of pressure to do right by everyone and try to save as many programs and positions as we could,” Augusto wrote. “We were also working on a tight timeline, and negotiations continued right down to the wire. At times it felt rather adversarial between the faculty and the administration. And I don’t think it had to be this way – the whole process could have played out differently.”
Revering also detailed what seemed to be a very intense and unfortunate reality for all faculty.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Revering said. “Everybody was sad all the time because it’s a hard thing to go through. You know, trying to figure out where to make cuts, that’s just not fun. So yeah, there definitely was some intensity there.”
Quigley, when speaking with The Currier Times, expressed his gratitude for the professionalism. “All of the discussions by all of the parties, in my view, were in good faith, respectful, challenging at times but everyone knew everybody was dealing in good faith,” he said.
What contributed to the intensity of the situation was the cooperation and communication–or lack thereof–from the administration as well as the Curry College Board of Trustees. Some within the faculty were curious about the role of the board in this process.
At private institutions, the board of trustees have heavy influence over what direction the school plans to pursue. At Curry, communication between the board and faculty primarily goes through Quigley, who said direct communication between the two parties in this situation “wouldn’t be typical.”
This could point to why some faculty have questioned the board’s role throughout the process.
“We, the faculty, have not heard one word from the Board of Trustees during this entire time of retrenchment,” Augusto wrote. “The Board is a complete mystery to me. These people have a lot of power, and yet faculty and students have no way of communicating with them directly and no input into their decisions.”
Augusto wasn’t the only member of the faculty who voiced concern over the board’s involvement—or lack thereof—in the process. Revering also said clearer communication and collaboration from the faculty, administration and the board would have made the process flow better.
What remains unclear is how the administration collected data on which programs would go and which ones would stay. Although he is currently finishing his last semester before being retrenched, Grant Burrier mentioned one resource that he deemed integral in the college’s decision-making process, and that is a research firm called Burning Glass Technologies.
According to their website, “Burning Glass Technologies delivers job market analytics that empower employers, workers, and educators to make data-driven decisions.” Though the company is run out of Boston, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a global private equity investment firm that owns multiple well-known American companies, bought a majority stake in Burning Glass just last year.
Burning Glass published a collaborative report in 2018 with the American Enterprise Institute called “Saving the Liberal Arts” that seemed to overlay the need for significant change within liberal arts education. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is a Washington, D.C.–based think tank that studies government, politics, economics, and social welfare.
When asked about the role of Burning Glass, Quigley said, “Burning Glass Technologies is a research firm that Academic Affairs uses.”
The full involvement of Burning Glass in Curry’s decision making is unknown. However, when asked about what they knew about the company, many within the faculty, including Revering and Augusto, said it would’ve made things easier to know where the justifications for program eliminations were coming from.
“When we pressed on one or other examples, they seldom brought out anything specific from Burning Glass,” Revering said. “This is one of the frustrations for us is that it felt a little bit like a moving target. You know, not being clear really what the criteria for the decisions were. I wish we knew how big of a role that played but I don’t feel like we do.”
In the final part of our three-part series, we will investigate what the future holds for Curry in a post-pandemic world.