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UNL faculty groups say budget-cutting process has been flawed

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Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design

University of Nebraska assistant professor Sandra Starkey (left) offers input to UNL junior Alexandra Zacharias as she works on hard draping using a half-scale model in Draping Class in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design, part of the College of Education and Human Sciences.

As the committee responsible for weighing potential budget cuts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln continues its deliberations, a pair of faculty groups are pointing to what they say was a flawed process leading to several departments being put on the chopping block.

In a pair of statements read during the Academic Planning Committee's Oct. 21 meeting, the groups said faculty who would be affected were not told about the proposed cuts until just before they were announced and were not informed of how they could participate in the review process.

Both cases represented potential breaches in the principles of shared governance, the UNL Chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee said.

Faculty leaders in both groups came out against the cuts, which were recommended by administrators in September to close a $38.2 million budget gap.

UNL faculty, students prepare defense of proposed cut to Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design

Chancellor Ronnie Green's plan calls for eliminating $18.9 million in faculty and staff positions over the next three years — proposals that triggered an extensive review process because they would eliminate academic programs.

In response to administrators' calls earlier this year to plan for an array of potential budget reduction scenarios, Yiqi Yang, interim chair of the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design, submitted proposals that would have cut the unit's budget by 5%, 7.5% and 10% while preserving faculty jobs.

But by the end of the summer, the College of Education and Human Sciences, which oversees the department, decided to eliminate that unit altogether, only notifying the faculty shortly before the announcement was shared in a campus-wide email.

Claire Nicholas, an assistant professor in the department, said faculty were told their jobs were on the line during a Zoom call at 4 p.m. on Sept. 2. The email announcing the proposed cuts was sent at 8 a.m. the next morning.

"Our department was given the news less than 16 hours before it was announced publicly, limiting our chance to provide input on the proposed budget cuts," Nicholas said.

It was a few days later when faculty and staff in the department were provided with the statement justifying eliminating the department, she added.

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Sherri Jones, the dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, defended in a statement the decision put forward by the college.

Leadership of the college, "was asked to work in their units to identify options for budget reduction," Jones said. "The leadership team engaged in thorough and thoughtful discussion of all options. The difficult circumstances of budget shortfall have required difficult decisions."

In addition to leaving out a faculty advisory committee that included a representative from the department, the AAUP chapter alleged a subgroup of the Academic Planning Committee responsible for long-range planning at UNL was also left out of the discussion.

"We appreciate that the (Academic Planning Committee) is reviewing the proposed cuts, but this is not a substitute for sustained and meaningful discussion with appropriate faculty representatives prior to the announcement of impending cuts when the university's academic and land grant mission is involved," the AAUP's statement read.

The Faculty Senate Executive Committee took exception to UNL's plan to eliminate a Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management program in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, saying the effort singled out a tenured faculty member.

While UNL said eliminating the program from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources would remove a duplicate from the course catalog, Myunghwa Kang, an associate professor in the department, told the Academic Planning Committee that's not the case.

The program, Kang said, was popular as a double major or minor option for the more than 100 students in UNL's PGA Golf Management program, and allowed them to stay in their home college, rather than take courses in the College of Education and Human Sciences, which has its own Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management program.

"It is not small and it is not duplicative," Kang said.

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In its statement, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee said Kang met with administrators at various levels after learning she could lose her job, but none informed her of what avenues were available to her.

"Through those meetings, Dr. Kang was left to believe there was little she could do — that the decision had already been made," said Steve Kolbe, an associate professor of the emerging arts who read the statement on behalf of the Executive Committee.

"It was only in the next few weeks did she come to learn that she could fight to keep her job," Kolbe added. "While the intent may not have been malicious, the appearance is of a tenured faculty member being left to fend for themselves, with no one in her own administration intent on helping to muster a defense."

The AAUP chapter and Executive Committee also said they were concerned that the academic programs proposed to be cut this year would disproportionately affect women and minority faculty members.

Doing so would be counter to initiatives announced by Green earlier this year to review racial disparities across UNL, as well as a goal set by NU system President Ted Carter to close the wage gap for women and minority employees.

The Academic Planning Committee did not respond to either faculty group's criticisms last week. The committee is scheduled to comment on the recommended cuts in November.

Deb Fiddelke, UNL's chief communications officer, said the budget reduction process was designed for recommendations to originate in the colleges and larger academic units and move upward to the chancellor's office.

At that point, the chancellor issues his recommendations, and allows for faculty, staff, students and alumni to offer feedback during public hearings before the Academic Planning Committee, which can respond in a range of ways — everything from accepting the plan to offering a new course of action to consider.

"It's difficult, but when you're faced with a budget cut, you as a leader have to make a decision and then you have to own that decision and explain it," Fiddelke said. "It's never easy, but it's the unfortunate reality we're all living in."

UNL proposes cutting $18.9 million in faculty, staff positions over three years
UNL eliminates 60 positions, will seek $6.9M in operational savings
UNL to cut $38M over 3 years, including $22.5M from academic programs

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Higher education/statehouse reporter

A native of Beatrice, Chris Dunker has reported on higher education, state government and other issues since joining the Journal Star in 2014.

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