UC students, faculty protest layoffs freeing up money for STEM

Students and faculty at University of Chicago are protesting layoffs of nonacademic aides and secretarial staffers after multiple academic divisions were directed to cut budgets.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, several employees in the humanities division have already been let go, and another round of cuts could happen in this month, as part of an initiative to make cutbacks to free up funding for “aggressive spending” on new academic programs, facilities, and financial-aid packages.

The leaders of multiple academic divisions were directed to cut budgets by eight percent following a university mandate to reduce spending on non-academic aides and secretarial staffers, faculty members told The Chicago Tribune.

While tuition costs over $66,000 per year at UC, which boasts more than $8 billion in net assets, officials claimed that certain forms of financial aid, academic programs, and facilities would not be able to continue without cutbacks.

"Limiting spending in administrative areas will help ensure a financially sustainable basis for ongoing investments the university is making in support of faculty, academic initiatives, and comprehensive support for students," the statement said. "While the cost containment will be achieved primarily through attrition and controls on hiring, some reduction of current staff positions is necessary to meet budget targets."

Faculty members, though, insist that the real reasoning was that university leaders felt the number of non-academic staff members was growing out of proportion to the grant money received to fund them.

Grants are usually concentrated in the science departments, according to Willemien Otten, a professor of theology and the history of Christianity.

“The layoffs seem to affect especially the Humanities, so far, where, there are really no major grants to speak of,” Otten told the Tribune.

According to the US government's National Center for Education Statistics, only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 were in STEM fields like chemistry, math, or biology, and colleges are trying to encourage more students to pursue those fields by concentrating grants and improvement efforts in those disciplines.

Students have created an online petition in support of one secretary who has been in the South Asian Languages and Civilizations Department for 15 years, urging the university to reconsider their decision to lay her off.

Just over 600 people had signed it by press time, leaving the petition about 400 signatures short of its goal.

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