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Open Letter on the 2020 Challenges Facing Northern Arizona University

We thank President Cheng and her Senior Leadership Team for making decisions in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Arizona Department of Health Services which respects the safety of students and university employees during the COIVD-19 pandemic. This is a complex and evolving situation and the diligence of the NAU Administration to respond and adapt in these immensely challenging circumstances is recognized.


However, as members of the University Union of Northern Arizona - American Federation of Teachers (UUNA-AFT), we are concerned by the response from the University to the impact of the pandemic and economic crises. These crises present opportunities for the University to shoulder both the enrollment and budgetary implications with transparency and equity, and to draw on the collective intelligence of our university community. UUNA urges a holistic approach that takes into account not just budgets and cold efficiencies, but also the moral ground and cultural leadership that universities can offer in these challenging times.


This is a rapidly evolving situation, information has been limited, and the changing explanations by the administration have served to obfuscate rather than clarify. With data and data access being fluid, we use the information available to us at this time.


We call for…

  • Clear guidelines for unit leaders from the upper administration that urge them to retain staff, faculty, and grad employees, with non-renewals/non-continuation used only as a last resort. These guidelines should also require unit leaders to communicate the details of the process with their constituencies who have, in many units, been left in the dark.

  • The Administration to clarify and publish transparent details of the processes and decisions underlying the proposed deep cuts to university budgets beyond the unit level, and to carefully consider a full range of creative options for meeting budget cuts at the university level.

  • Course caps to remain unchanged in order to protect student health and align with CDC guidelines which require physical distancing, to prevent worsening working conditions for NAU faculty, and to retain our valuable teachers and graduate student employees.

  • The University to share information concerning the deployment of specific COVID-19 precautions on campus, provisions of protective gear (e. g. masks, gloves, sanitizer), testing for all, and accommodations for constituents who are medically high-risk or have vulnerable family members.

  • NAU Administrators to clearly and publicly outline how they plan to share the burden of layoffs and budget cuts.


Challenges

  • NAU expects a decrease in enrollment in the Fall which translates to a decrease in tuition. This will be especially pronounced among the Freshman class. This decrease in enrollment is caused by a combination of the COVID-19 crisis as well as predicted demographic and decreased higher-education enrollment trends throughout the United States.

  • The state of Arizona is projected to incur a significant deficit in the coming year, which will almost certainly result in even deeper cuts to higher eduction given the current legislature which has demonstrated itself to be hostile to adequately funding public education.

  • NAU must cut its budget to correspond with the loss in revenues and it has been confirmed by the Provost that this will include personnel, especially the non-renewal of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty. NAU Provost Diane Sterns has predicted cutting approximately 300 full-time faculty on top of other cuts. No such specific predictions have been made available to the university community regarding cuts to staff or graduate employees.

  • The NAU administration is pushing for the raising of course caps to decrease instructional need.

  • Individual units/departments across campus have been tasked with reducing both the courses offered and/or their budgets by 20-25%, though later communications suggested some units will be hit harder than others.

  • As of May 1st, President Cheng announced that NAU will hold in-person classes in the Fall 2020 semester.

  • A variety of safeguards have either been put in place or are being considered in light of this new plan including hybrid and HyFlex class models, mandatory virus testing, physical distancing requirements, and contact tracing, among others, in accordance with the CDC and local health guidelines.


Concerns of Our Constituents

Many actions undertaken by University Administration to address these challenges lack transparency, are exploitative, and are contradictory. “Keep Chopping NAU” is the perplexing public battle cry chosen by NAU Athletics as a way to presumably build community solidarity. Keep chopping? That is exactly what NAU Administration plans on doing.


Creative and innovate ideas generated by faculty and staff to avoid potential job losses have been repeatedly ignored or dismissed by Administration. Instead they are pushing for, or in some cases have already enacted, unprecedented layoffs. These cuts will hollow out the University and reverberate across Flagstaff and other communities. As Administration has said, these structural changes have been in motion long before the pandemic hit and the University is using this pandemic to eliminate positions and to achieve its longer term goals of increasing workloads. If these forecasted cuts stand as indicated by the Provost, by some measures NAU will undergo the largest cuts in the nation (https://bryanalexander.org/higher-education/the-first-wave-of-pandemic-cuts-to-colleges-and-universities/).


The NAU Mission states: “We develop solutions to challenges and drive innovation in a supportive, inclusive, and diverse environment.” We ask the University Administration to honor that mission statement. To ensure transparency, all must be able to share their concerns regarding working conditions, childcare, and health issues and work to identify ways to respond that collectively can sustain our work over the long term—from our staff whose roles are fundamental to the basic function of the University, to our graduate student employees who depend on their positions to continue with their education, and to the faculty who are working to create meaningful opportunities for students.


Deep Cuts and Non-Renewals

Every unit across campus has been given a directive to plan to cut their budgets in preparation for an expected 20-25% enrollment decline. While we understand that financial planning is necessary, this process has been opaque and has led to differential and inequitable attempts by different units to meet a 20-25% cut. With the inevitable elimination of part-time and NTT faculty embedded in this process, we will undoubtedly lose valuable members of our teaching staff. The NAU vision statement claims that NAU “leads the way to a better Arizona and a sustainable world through personalized attention to student success and scholarly excellence.” A lack of clear direction and a path that contradicts our stated visions represents rhetorical deflection and obscure tactics of those in power as they exploit the vulnerable on campus: non-tenure track faculty, staff, and graduate employees.


Increased Class Sizes in the Age of Physical Distancing

NAU Administration has long advocated for an increase in class sizes as a cost-cutting measure. They are taking advantage of this crisis to increase class sizes across campus in order to then decrease the amount of teachers they need to employ. This is in direct conflict with the claim that NAU leadership is trying to retain as many faculty as possible. There have also been no assurances that increased class sizes are only a temporary measure. This action also stands in contrast to the ONE NAU core value of being student centered, when studies clearly show that smaller class sizes result in a better learning environment. Increased class sizes do not “place student success at the center of our academic and service planning, policies, and programs.”


This effort to increase class caps not only compromises student experiences in the classroom but also puts them at great physical risk in a time when physical distancing requirements will be needed for the foreseeable future. When asked to address the paradox this decision creates, Provost Stern, Vice Provost Bounds, and President Cheng have repeatedly deflected, only admitting that it is a difficult situation. Forced Hyflex and online-hybrid solutions proposed by Administration are inadequate, inequitable, and threaten academic freedoms related to pedagogy.


Safe Working Conditions

We know that University Administration intends on following CDC and state health agency guidelines. To date, we have not seen all the guidelines fully implemented on campus for faculty, staff, or students who still interact while the University is open for business. This deficiency must be addressed and corrected.


Sharing the Burden

At best, NAU’s Administration has failed in communicating how they plan to share the financial burden we face. At worst, they expect most or all of the burden to be carried by the most vulnerable among us. Very little has been explained concerning how administrative positions, salaries, or workloads will be impacted by the crisis. While University Administration states that “the process of non-renewals are heartbreaking,” faculty, staff, and grad employees have seen no evidence of equity and reciprocity at the administrative level.


A Path Forward

UUNA believes that we need to envision more creative ways where these impacts can be more equitably shared by the campus community. Early retirements using a system distinct from the one used during the 2008 depression would be one way to minimize the budgetary impacts. Early, one-year sabbaticals for faculty who might be eligible would offset 40% of faculty salaries/course loads for those faculty considering this possibility. Voluntary leave-of-absences for secured tenured faculty who can sustain one year of no pay would save jobs for NTT faculty. University-wide, proportionally adjusted furloughs have been repeatedly dismissed by the Provost, Vice Provost, and President as “temporary measures,” but we maintain that these should be part of a more equitable solution to these crises.


Northern Arizona University has the opportunity to be a moral and cultural leader in this difficult time but its current path suggests it is interested only in short-sighted “solutions.” It is not too late to change course.


Sincerely,

The University Union of Northern Arizona

American Federation of Teachers

UUNA-AFT

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UUNA

University Union of Northern Arizona

American Federation of Teachers

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University Union of Northern Arizona (UUNA) supporting the Faculty, Staff, and Graduate Student Workers of Northern Arizona University