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UMass Labor Center roiled by layoffs, budget battle

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Professor Eve Weinbaum, former director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center. —UMass Amherst

  • John Hird, interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. —UMass Amherst



@cmlindahl
Friday, September 09, 2016

AMHERST — Budget changes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Labor Center have prompted faculty, students and allies to sound off against what they say is a siege by an administration eager to cut seemingly underperforming departments. 

School leaders counter that they are supporting the program and crafting plans to help increase its enrollment.

The controversy began after an email written by former Labor Center Director Eve Weinbaum was posted on several blogs. In the email to her colleagues, Weinbaum said the center has been faced with years of budget cuts and that the administration has intended several times to shutter the program. This year, she wrote, the budget cuts had eliminated graduate students jobs and forced several part-time faculty members to be let go.

“Administrators explained that they would only allow the Labor Studies Master’s degree program to continue to exist if it served as a ‘revenue generator’ — to fund other parts of the University outside the Labor Center,” Weinbaum wrote.

Administrators disagree with Weinbaum’s account.

“That’s not true,” John Hird, interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said in a telephone interview. 

Weinbaum in the email asked supporters to contact administrators, including Hird, and urge them to reverse the cuts.

“I’m hearing from hundreds of people who are upset at what they’re hearing,” Hird said. “Frankly, if I believed what was in that email, I would be upset, too … it’s full of errors and misrepresentations.”

The Labor Center offers undergraduate courses and has two graduate degree programs in labor studies: a traditional, two-year program and a nontraditional one for students who also work full-time. Students are trained to understand workers’ rights issues, collective bargaining and labor law.

Weinbaum said the two master’s programs have about 50 students in total. Hird said the traditional program currently has 16 students, including just two who enrolled this semester. Both programs have been faced with declining enrollments over time, he said.

According to data provided by Hird, enrollment in the traditional master's program in the last decade has fallen from a high of 30 in fall 2006. The semester with the lowest number of enrolled students was spring 2015, with 13.

Weinbaum said enrollment could drop even further after funding for teaching and research assistantships for students has been slashed.

Students currently working will be funded until they graduate, but “going forward, there will be zero,” she said in a phone interview. “That’s huge, that’s probably the most serious cut to our program. I think it’s one that over time we can’t sustain.”

The Labor Center is part of the Sociology Department. The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences allocates TA positions to departments. Departments are in charge of allocating those positions, including to any sub-units, according to Hird.

This year, the college reduced the number of Sociology Deparment TA positions by four. Other departments within the college also saw reductions in the number of TAs, while other departments with greater enrollment saw increases. The total number of TAs in the college did not change from last year, Hird said.

Sociology Department Chairwoman Michelle Budig could not be reached for comment.

“The college manages public resources very carefully,” he said. “We try to move resources where the enrollment pressures are the greatest. At this point, the labor center programs are not highly enrolled and therefore we moved the TA positions elsewhere.”

Several current and former faculty members said that regardless of the current assistantship funding, there has been a historic unwillingness by the university to fund those positions.

While doctoral students are routinely offered assistantships, such opportunities are not as widely available to labor studies master’s students, said Harris Freeman, a part-time professor at the Labor Center. That’s the reason why enrollment has declined, he said.

“The ability of Labor Center students to do work and be remunerated or reduce the cost of attendance has been taken away,” he said. “This, to me, seems to be at the core of the problem.”

Weinbaum said the center aims to recruit a diverse group of students, many of whom cannot afford the $60,000 in tuition and fees for a two-year master’s program.

“Those sort of things set up the program to fail,” said David Cohen, a part-time professor who was let go as part of the budget changes. “If you’re not providing the work so people can go to grad school, they’re not going to sign up to come.”

Planning is underway to help increase enrollment at the Labor Center, Hird said, including a new program that offers students the chance to complete the undergraduate and master’s degrees in five years. “We think that could be a significant source of funding for the Labor Center, and more importantly, generate additional student demand.” he said.

Other plans include developing more effective marketing to UMass students and others in the Five College Area, he said. And a part-time staffer devoted to recruiting for the center was hired in May.

In her email, Weinbaum wrote that she filed grievances with the university “when two of the proposed cuts violated our faculty union contract.” She wrote that she was told by administrators that they would only settle the grievancesif she stepped down immediately.

Weinbaum is no longer the center’s director. Professor Tom Juravich is currently serving as interim director.

Hird said he disagrees with Weinbaum’s account, stating that her three-year contract ended on Aug. 31 and that she was not ousted.

‘Significant reserves’

The Labor Center has four full-time professors, one of whom also teaches sociology and another who focuses on research projects.

The center historically relied extensively on part-time faculty to teach several of its key, required courses, Weinbaum said, including ones on collective bargaining and labor law. This academic year, funding for its four part-time faculty members has been eliminated by the university, she said.

“We were told if we wanted part-time faculty, we needed to raise the money ourselves,” she said.

Three of those four part-timers were let go, Weinbaum said, while the fourth, Freeman, is being paid this year with that internal funding.

Hird said the center has money in reserves, thanks in part to the fact that the nontraditional master’s program generates surplus revenue. He would not specify the exact amount in the center’s coffers.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” he said. “I think they’ll be using that wisely over the next several years to build a good program.”

A document titled “UMass Labor Center Facts” sent to the Gazette by Weinbaum states that the reserves “would be gone with one year of providing TA/RA positions for three students, or hiring a staff person for a full-time job.”

The center’s part-time faculty budget came in at $30,000 annually, according to the document. Hird said that total spending actually went up between the fiscal 2015 and 2016 years, from $670,000 to $714,000, figures that include both budget appropriations and Labor Center-raised money. He said he was unable to provide expenditures for the current fiscal year because next semester’s enrollment figures have not been finalized.

Weinbaum said if the university does not directly fund the part-time positions, the programs’ curriculum may need to be modified. She directed questions about curriculum changes to Juravich, whom she said is making decisions about curriculum on a student-by-student basis. Juravich could not be reached for comment.

Future program-level changes must be approved based on Faculty Senate regulations, she said, and Labor Center leaders will spend the next year making those changes.

Hird said he is unaware of any discussions of any curricular changes.

“The curriculum is the matter of the faculty” at the center, he said. Decisions about courses and faculty hires are made within the Sociology Department and the Labor Center, Hird said, given the way that the budget is structured. He said he funds the Sociology Department and the center as one.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.