A Drastic Turn for UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences: A Series of Perspectives from Professors, Current Students and Alumni Part I


Professor Elizabeth Fenton’s sign that she prepared for the car protest against UVM’s budget cuts. Photo Credit: Prof. Elizabeth Fenton (UVM English Department)

Olivia Belrose, Writer

The University of Vermont has long been known for division 1 sports, STEM research, a state-of-the-art teaching hospital and an emphasis on liberal arts programs, but this year students and faculty were given devastating news in the weeks preceding semester one finals. Due to an $8.6 million deficit, UVM has been forced to cut 27 low enrollment programs in liberal arts. Students will no longer be able to major in religious studies, geology and anything related to classical civilizations such as Greek and Latin, but with the department cuts comes a difficult question: what will happen to the faculty in these departments? 

Professor Elizabeth Fenton is in her 14th year of teaching in the UVM English department and an alumna of the class of 2000. An expert on early American literature, she loves working with, learning from, and talking with students about their future plans. She enjoys the fun, vibrant culture of UVM that comes with a different experience each and every day, but this year aroused an especially difficult experience when the recent cuts in the College of Arts and Sciences  impacted the English department too. 

“I think it will be a long time before we fully understand the magnitude of what this is going to do,” Fenton said. “There are some immediate practical ramifications, such as a student not being able to major in geology in the era of climate change, which I think could make it harder to recruit some students.” 

According to Fenton, the faculty from the affected departments might be able to transfer to other departments. For example, some professors in the religion department could transfer into anthropology, sociology or history, but the course they teach would have to shift disciplines to satisfy the curricular needs of those departments. 

“Students might lose out on the specific perspectives of those professors on the kind of discipline in which they completed their own PhDs or their training,” Fenton said. 

Even so, Fenton said if those faculty cannot be reassigned, they will most likely lose their jobs, and with a limited job market for professors, this could be a permanent loss for those professions. 

“These are people who have built lives here, and they’re important to the UVM community. Some of these professors have received grants and teaching awards. If they leave, that’s a permanent loss to the institution of their intellect and their talent for mentoring students,” Fenton said. 

While some of these departments in the college have smaller major numbers, they teach a large number of students, especially in religion and geology, in order to fulfill students’ requirements for their liberal arts degrees. Furthermore, Fenton said departments like classics interact with a smaller number of students, but it has a really “rich and vibrant community.” 

“Students will still be able to complete their majors and minors, but that community is going away. That’s a practical tangible consequence, but there all of these intangibles like mentoring immunity, intellectual interactions and a kind of enthusiastic pedagogy that these faculty bring to the classroom,” Fenton said. 

According to Fenton, many department chairs found out about the cuts only hours before the rest of the faculty did. A lot of department faculty feel they had nothing to do with the decision. The decision to eliminate religion, classics and geology was based on the number of majors, and in some cases, a “slightly larger cohort” of minors. Some majors and minors, specifically in the foreign languages and performing arts, were eliminated without cutting the departments, but instead consolidating them. 

“The timing of the rollout seems to have been very fast and designed to prevent the information from being disseminated widely before administrators had time to prepare their own statements,” Fenton said. 

When the administration goes about determining who to cut, Fenton said it is difficult to cut faculty members with tenure, which grants a professor permanent employment, without eliminating their department. In this case, the whole tenure line of faculty could be fired. Several faculty on the UVM campus are considered senior lectures, which means they are likely on a multi-year contract without the protection of tenure and are at risk of being terminated anytime their contract is up for renewal. The decision is usually dependent upon job performance, curriculum or budget. 

“I have a colleague who has taught at UVM for 30 years and was about four years away from retirement. He was a highly-respected, valued member of the department because of his exceptional job performance, and students really liked him, but his contract happened to be up this year, and he was terminated,” Fenton said.  

Fenton refers to the process as a “roll of the dice.” The university can only terminate professors whose contracts are up for renewal. This is especially concerning for faculty whose contracts will be up this spring or within the next year. 

In early December, Fenton participated in a car protest with a group of students and other faculty. While the turnout was smaller than she expected due to the semester closing out, a lot of people made signs, and they were still able to generate public awareness for 45 minutes. 

For many, the faculty layoffs and cuts of nearly two dozen programs is a sign that UVM is turning away from liberal arts programs, instead focusing their investments elsewhere on campus. 

Despite the low enrollment for majors and minors in some of the programs, they are still vital areas of study in a world of conflict. Fenton said that even though departments like religion and geology don’t attract a lot of majors, they teach some of the most valuable courses in the College of Arts and Sciences. Religious literacy can be applied in any field, but students don’t have to major in religious studies to develop an understanding of different religions. 

“I think the mistake that UVM is making is it’s treating certain disciplines like luxuries, and treating classics, for example, for the wealthy with no place in public education,” Fenton said. “We’re treating religion as optional, a kind of nice add on to what is really important and ignoring the functioning of a civil society.” 

For students who may not have the option of going to school out of state, it’s important to have a wide variety of areas of study. 

The cuts certainly came unexpected to faculty members, and some feel that the cuts have been in the works for a few years. While the pandemic has certainly strained UVM’s financial plan, building projects continue to cost a lot of money in order to maintain state-of-the-art labs and other resources. While UVM has a half-billion dollar endowment, they’ve been underfunded for a long time, and trying to save for a “rainy day that is yet to come,” as they invest and address financial gaps all at once. Incoming funds are not likely to be spent on instructional costs.