Amid cuts, faculty and staff fret about jobs

While some fight the proposed changes, others have prepared for the belt-tightening ahead.

Lee Billings

Confronted with $25 million in departmental cuts for 2003 and another round of budget reductions expected for the 2004-05 biennium, University faculty and staff are finding ways to combat the financial crisis.

Last Friday, as University President Robert Bruininks’ inauguration ceremony commenced, throngs of University staff members lined Northrop Auditorium’s perimeter to protest Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed $185 million funding cut to the institution. Pawlenty, who attended the inauguration, did not address the protesters.

Organized by AFSCME – a union representing 1,800 University clerical workers – protesters hoisted signs with slogans like “Save Public Services” and “Privatize Pawlenty” as University officials and faculty passed by on their way inside. Some officials applauded and waved to the protesters as they went.

“We want to send a strong message to Governor Pawlenty that there’s a formidable group of people in Minnesota who do not support his approach to dealing with the budget shortfalls,” said Phyllis Walker, president of the University’s AFSCME Local 3800. “If Governor Pawlenty is allowed to dismantle public services, the citizens of the state of Minnesota will have to pay for these services out of their own pockets.”

While some are fighting the proposed changes, others around the University have already begun tightening their belts in preparation for the cuts that many say are inevitable.

“We’re going to do everything we can, from turning off lights to copying on both sides of the paper,” said Mark Pharis, art department chairman.

“If we do have to actually cut, we’re cutting money for books, recordings, instruments, building hours, practice hours, even the frequency that we tune our pianos,” School of Music director Jeff Kimpton said.

Besides these cost-saving measures, most colleges and departments are also faced with other decisions, such as whether to cut jobs and services.

The department of chemistry is losing two positions – one faculty and one staff – as well as charging more for services it provides, said department chairman Wayne Gladfelter. The department’s nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy and x-ray crystallography labs are all expected to hike rates for students, teachers and outside companies using the facilities, he added.

Kimpton said faculty and staff are already feeling more nervous. “When you lose 30 percent of your funding, it creates unease,” he said.

Faculty members around the University said some cuts will be absorbed by increasing class sizes and decreasing numbers of teaching positions, which could have negative long-term consequences.

“Teaching load and research dollars are intimately, inversely connected,” Roger Rusack, a University physics professor said. “If the level of support diminishes it will be harder for us to maintain our position as a major research institution in this country, and the consequences will be long term and may even be irrecoverable.”

For some faculty and staff, the consequences of wage freezes and layoffs could be catastrophic.

“For a single parent and two children to live in bare subsistence – no extra costs – it costs $17.76 an hour,” said Walker, citing statistics from the JOBS NOW Coalition, a Twin Cities nonprofit organization. “The average hourly wage of a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota is $15.40 an hour.”

Sandy Novatney, a School of Dentistry clerical worker, is a single mother supporting three children, with one already attending college. Novatney said she’s worried about her future at the University.

“I’m worried that I could be eliminated,” she said. “We’ve had several people in the School of Dentistry who have been laid off, with no other options. That’s a huge concern of mine.”

Novatney said if she loses her job, she could also lose her home and could not afford medical treatment for a neurological condition from which she suffers. She added she could not finance her children’s higher education on a clerical worker’s $25,000-per-year salary.

“We aren’t going to take this lying down,” Walker said. “We can’t put up with a wage freeze. Our salaries and increases are so low that we’ve been going backwards in our income for years.”

“It’s just uneasy,” Novatney said. “From the supervisor mentioning every once in a while that things don’t look good to co-workers wondering what’s going on, and there still haven’t been any definite decisions made.”

Lee Billings welcomes comments at [email protected]