Although East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland assured the college’s custodians last week that their jobs are safe for now, they and other employees continue to be wary of possible looming budget cuts and are looking at options to protect essential staff members and services.
At an event Wednesday organized by a student organization and a state higher education union, university faculty, staff and students spoke against the recent trends at public colleges moving toward relying on low-paid positions without benefits that they said focuses more on the bottom line than providing a quality education.
“We wanted to give a space for all aspects of the campus community to come together to talk about their concerns and pose some solutions,” United Campus Workers — Communications Workers of America organizer Cassie Watters said.
During the forum, Watters outlined the economic and political principles of neoliberalism and austerity that she said have pushed the public education system toward cost-cutting over the last 30 years, sometimes at students’ expense.
While ETSU’s custodians may have earned a reprieve, she said outsourcing and colleges’ increasingly heavy reliance on adjunct educators have negatively affected other employees at institutions across the state.
Tammy Owen, a custodian who has worked at ETSU for 14 years, said Noland assured her and her co-workers last week that staff positions would not be outsourced unless student enrollment fell below 13,500, but she believed the pressure on the president to reduce costs was coming from the Tennessee Board of Regents.
“We’ve been told this is a temporary, off-the-table situation for now as far as outsourcing, but eventually, if enrollment continues to tank, what’s (Noland) going to do? It might mean nobody will have a job here anymore,” Owen said. “My message is that we should all stick together, give him good ideas and do our part the best we can.”
The school’s 100 custodians, and the campus community in general, were outraged last month when they learned of a contingency plan being considered by university administrators that would outsource custodial services to a private company in order to save money on benefits.
A university spokesman said the school is in discussions with two state contractors that could provide the needed services, but Noland said the contingency plan is only one of many drawn up in the event ETSU’s budget deficit increases.
Citing three years of missed enrollment targets, Noland said the college expects a $3.7 million shortfall heading into the next fiscal year.
“We hate the outsourcing idea,” Owen said. “The saying goes, ‘You can’t save bucks by cutting Bucs.’ We’ve been here forever, we’ve earned our right to be here, we’ve done our part to be here, and some of us know the students better than the administration does.”
She said if she loses her benefits, including health and longevity bonuses, to outsourcing, she would likely seek employment elsewhere.
But while the custodians are concerned about losing their benefits, adjunct literature and language professor Dennis Prater said a workforce of employees who already face low pay and reduced employment benefits are relied on more and more by school leaders.
“The way it is now, we get paid by credit hour,” Prater said of his adjunct teaching job. “They’ll give you 11 credit hours, but they will not give you 12, because then they’ll have to give you benefits.”
He said across-the-board pay increases don’t apply to him and his fellow part-time professors, and classes can be canceled at a moment’s notice if enrollment doesn’t meet a set limit.
“That can be quite problematic when you’re already scraping by from paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “That’s the kind of insecurity that’s not easy to live with.”
Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, director of ETSU’s Slocumb Galleries and a member of the UCW union, said the revelation of the university’s contingency plan for outsourcing custodians has put many of the college’s workers on edge.
“I don’t think the outsourcing will stop at the custodians,” she said. “There are so many adjunct faculty who are not given the increase, and they’re increasing the lecturer positions, they’re not hiring new tenure-track faculty and they’re encouraging online teaching. At some point, they will cut from the faculty or staff.
“Is it really efficiency we want to prioritize, or is it investing in the future of this community and the state?” she asked.
Watters said ETSU leaders have not revealed much about the upcoming budget process, which should soon be on the agenda of the school’s budget management committee.
ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said Monday that the budget process is just starting, and the committee expects to make a complete review of all administrative and academic programs in search of savings.
He said it’s too early to forecast when the committee might have a workable document to present to the public.
Watters said that the voices of the campus community should be used to help sway the opinions of the school’s leaders during the process.
“It’s essential to get students talking about this,” she said. “Their tuition dollars are at risk ... and they’re told that their needs are No. 1. If they want their tuition dollars to be spent wisely, then they should be a part of the budget process.
“If they have an opinion on outsourcing as a financial position, then they should be consulted about that, and they should be listened to,” she said.