Utica University faculty, students protest administration's proposal to cut 15 majors

The sound of an airhorn and cries of “Hey, hey, ho, ho; all of these cuts have got to go” rang across the Utica University campus Friday morning as faculty and students marched to protest the university’s handling of a plan to revise its academic portfolio.  

Speaker Steven Specht, distinguished professor of psychology, accused the administration of turning the university into a vocational-technical training school, and worrying more about finances than preparing students to change the world.

“Our students are not butts-in-seats. They should not be considered simply as revenue streams,” Specht declared. “They are voices in our classrooms. They are tears in our offices. They are promises of a better future.

“But only if we, as an institution make the right ethical decisions and take part in making the world a better place, instead of simply chasing money.”

Douglas Edwards, associate professor of philosphy, front, and Dan Tagliarina, behind, take part in a protest on the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Faculty, students and other community members have questioned a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.
Douglas Edwards, associate professor of philosphy, front, and Dan Tagliarina, behind, take part in a protest on the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Faculty, students and other community members have questioned a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.

The specific decisions behind the protest involve a group of recommendations made by President Laura Casamento on Jan. 18 to eliminate 15 majors, significantly change the requirements for other majors and to expand or add majors that attract more demand from students and employers. The recommendations spring from a report by an administration-appointed task force.

The Faculty Senate voted to censure the board of trustees and its outgoing President Robert Brvenik over the process that led to the recommendations.

The rally fell on the second day of a Board of Trustees meeting. The board released a statement Friday saying that it had indeed discussed the recommendations at length and will provide a “detailed” report to students, administration, faculty and staff on or before Friday, Feb. 24.

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“The board continues to approach these decisions with the utmost thoughtfulness, care and, more of all, concern for the students and families we serve,” the statement said.

But faculty have contended that the task force and the process behind the recommendations violated the terms of their collective bargaining agreement, which calls for faculty involvement, and in the absence of clear communication, left faculty and students guessing as to what the university is trying to accomplish, charges the administration denies.

'We want that back'

Strolling across campus Friday morning with an iced coffee in hand, freshman Liam Laroe, of Schenectady, paused to watch the protestors pass, a bemused expression on his face. Everyone had been talking about the proposed changes and whether their majors might be cut before Casamento released her recommendations, he said. Then he stopped hearing about the issue —until the rally.

Are students interested now? “I think, with this, they will be,” he said.

The speakers during the stationary portions of the rally spoke emotionally about the growing divide between the university’s administration, and its faculty and students; the growing value ascribed to paychecks over all-around education, and the value of all kinds of diversity, including in fields of study, on campus.

Leonore Fleming, associate professor of philosophy and president of the Utica Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, leads a rally snaking its way across the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Faculty, students and others  are challenging a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.
Leonore Fleming, associate professor of philosophy and president of the Utica Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, leads a rally snaking its way across the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Faculty, students and others are challenging a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.

A student came to talk to Douglas Edwards, associate professor of philosophy, a few weeks ago, to say she had decided to major in philosophy, explained all her reasons why and outlined a career path. “I was just thinking if she had come to us a year later,” he said, “she wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

When he came to UU in 2018, Edwards said he felt wanted and welcome, something he believed was part of the university’s ethos. “In the last couple of years, it’s gone because of the way the administration has been with its faculty. We want that back.”

Campus community reacts to cuts proposal

The diversity on campus during her undergraduate years helped her learn outside the classroom, too, occupational therapy graduate student Jordyn Bucci-Mooney said. She remembers benefitting from late-night advanced physics discussions with a dormmate her freshman year; a friendship with a geocience and political science major who now works for a nonprofit helping the homeless in California; and membership in the outdoors club where she got creative OT ideas from therapeutic recreation majors.

Physics (as a B.A. degree, not a B.S.), geoscience and therapeutic recreation are all on the list of recommended cuts, and recommendations have been made to change the political science major to focus more heavily on pre-law.

A group of protestors, mostly made up of faculty and students, march across the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. They are challenging a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.
A group of protestors, mostly made up of faculty and students, march across the Utica University campus on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. They are challenging a set of recommendations to eliminate and change a group of majors, and the process by which those recommendations were created.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it is your major,” Bucci-Mooney said, “that determines your education.”

The university risks losing great faculty and elective courses in these fields, and all students risk losing some of the diversity that rounds out an undergraduate education, she said.

For librarian Katie Spires, the big concern is shared governance and transparency. “There’s been so much discussed and decided behind closed doors,” she said.

Dan Tagliarina, associate professor of political science and director of international studies, said he’s particularly worried by the administration “not following the process and not following through on promises made about the promise” and the way its decisions can undermine promises made to students about what it means to be a university.

On a university campus, everyone is connected, said Linnea Franits, associate professor of occupational therapy. “If our interdependent community is less than whole,” she said, “we’re all wounded.”

This article originally appeared on Observer-Dispatch: Utica University protest: Faculty, students ask to save 15 majors