Marquette University has been rocked with controversy over budget cuts and staff layoffs. The impact of COVID-19 and a projected decline in future student enrollment due to a declining birthrate have been used to justify dramatic cuts, as a story published by Urban Milwaukee reported. The layoffs for next school year were projected to be as high as 225. Today the number has dropped to 39, but the changes may be more sweeping than the mere number of positions cut.
Marquette President Mike Lovell, in a letter to “Marquette colleagues,” was careful to note the 39 staff “do not involve any tenured or tenure-track faculty losing their positions,” but some of those colleagues believe the justifications for staff and budget cuts just don’t add up. Marquette will run a budget surplus next year, perhaps greater than the proposed cuts. Critics believe Marquette’s leadership is using the crisis as an opportunity to restructure the university while blaming the pandemic.
So worried was law professor and rector of the Jesuit community,
“There are rumors,” said one professor who wished not to be identified, “that the Jesuit community was told by the provost [Kimo Ah Yun] and the president  a couple of years ago that they want to turn Marquette into the first Jesuit technical university, to retreat from their liberal arts focus, to focus on things like healthcare and the STEM fields… They had a lot of resistance on the part of the Jesuit community to their plans to cut liberal arts programs.”
Again, these are only rumors, but they match actions by the Marquette administration. While cuts are being made in the humanities and liberal arts, the administration is planning for increases in nursing, business, and other technical fields. The long-term plan for Marquette may not be to shrink the university at all, just realign it. Administration may believe enrollment is a zero-sum situation: If the university increases technical fields, it must cut elsewhere.
Chris Gooding, professor of theology, says the administration is using semantical language to obscure the cutting of staff positions. “They are about to do a purge of visiting assistant professors and adjuncts.” But these cuts will not be called layoffs, just a nonrenewal of contracts. 240 class sections will be eliminated, mostly in the humanities and liberal arts. Tenured and tenured-track professors will pick up more classes.
Part of the draw for Marquette, believes Gooding, is a well-rounded academic experience. “If they cut the humanities significantly,” he asks, “why would you spend some $40,000 a year to come to Marquette [for nursing] if you are going to get the same education at UWM for a fraction of the price?”
Faculty have called for an open and honest dialogue concerning the future of Marquette. A resolution passed by Marquette’s University Academic Senate in February 2021 noted that the President and Provost did not follow the shared governance with the Marquette community as required by the statues of the Academic Senate. The lack of transparency has led to increased mistrust.
Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney in their 2021 book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, advocate for reimagining higher education. Kim directs criticism at Marquette in a December 14, 2020 article, “The Misuse of Demographics as Justification for Faculty and Staff Cuts” in Inside Higher Ed. Kim quotes Marquette Provost Kimo Ah Yun, “We do not want to build a university in the hopes that students will come.” But Kim believes that such cuts may box in a university like Marquette. “Cutting faculty and staff jobs will make it more difficult, not less, to make these adjustments,” Kim argues.
Sergio M. González, a professor of history and Latinx Studies at MU, notes the MU provost admitted the pandemic was not driving the changes at the university: “At an Academic Senate meeting, the provost gave a presentation, and he explicitly stated, in a real turnabout in what we had been told the last few months, that demographic shifts and COVID were not the justification for these proposed cuts. That, in fact, the cuts and the restructuring of the university are a part of much larger structural issues that the university faced.”
Marquette may be narrowing its vision to high demand, technical and professional fields because it believes it must follow market forces and give students what they want. But Marquette may in the process lose some luster for students looking for a broader academic and personal experience. The future as foreseen by the provost and president may not guarantee that students receive a unique Jesuit education.
(Marquette’s Media Center was contacted to request any comments from the MU administration. No response was given.)
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