University-wide layoffs leave staff dismayed

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University-wide layoffs leave staff dismayed

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On March 7, just a few days before spring break, President Fred Pestello sent out an email calling students’ attention to an issue that had been on staff members’ minds for months: the 120 layoffs made in order to combat SLU’s current $16 million deficit. As a result of this deficit, consulting company Bain & Co. was hired last year to help identify points of financial waste and to provide possible solutions to these problem areas. In short, their suggested budget cuts were too large to be met without layoffs.

Staff members had known for months that the layoffs were going to take place. According to one staff member who wished to remain anonymous, her department was notified in January. They were told that there was a “magic number” that had to be met and that this number was large enough to necessitate layoffs.

“The truth is, they were both communicative and not communicative,” the staff member said. “We knew there was a number, and we knew there would be layoffs, but we were not told what that number was or how the decisions were being made to reach that goal.” She said that this caused an unpleasant work environment as people worried, discussed layoffs and looked for new jobs.

“That kind of thing really colors the way you feel coming into work,” she said. “We sat in that kind of work environment for several months.”

Rubén Rosario, associate professor of theology, expressed a similar frustration with transparency in his department. “They act like we can’t question the funding,” Rosario told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’re only seeing what they allow us to see.”

Students were less prepared for the upcoming layoffs. “My boss [Dr. Alex Wulff] sent us an email letting us know that he was cut and that he will miss us,” said Celia Hall, a junior who works for University Writing Services. “The email was a shock to me and broke my heart,” she said. “It’s also upsetting because his wife is having a baby next month.” According to Hall, there is confusion about exactly how University Writing Services will function in the future, but she believes that they will now be absorbed by the tutoring department.

“The fallout of all this is a lot of uncertainty,” the anonymous staff member said. According to her, similar efforts are being made in her department to consolidate certain roles in order to increase efficiency. She also said that remaining staff members will likely be taking on extra responsibilities that previously belonged to employees who no longer work for the university. “It’s tough for staff because we know we’re always the dispensable ones,” she said. “You certainly can’t have a university without students, so they’re always the priority. You can’t have a university without professors, either, so faculty comes second. That puts staff on the bottom of the totem pole. Of course, the fact is, you can’t run a university without them, either.”

Pestello expressed a desire to go about the layoffs in a way that was respectful of the staff members who were let go. “I know this situation generates angst and anxiety,” Pestello wrote in one letter. “It is our hope that frequent communication and continued transparency, which includes sharing the timeline for separations as it is known, will aid in releasing some of the tension you rightfully hold.”

Students expressed dissatisfaction with the way the layoffs were handled. “I thought the email [about the prayer meeting] was a sad excuse for an explanation and apology to the SLU community,” said senior Tory Schleper. “You cannot pray away the pain that the families affected are going to feel when they have no money for food and shelter.”

“The way I see it, it’s their choice as to what they do financially,” said senior Andy Southern O’Brien. “What really got me was that email…As an institution, SLU has to own their decisions, not try to play both sides. If you’re going to fire 120 people because you overshot your budget, fine. But don’t stand there praying for them. [It] seems woefully dramatic.”

A lower enrollment rate combined with a higher cost of operation is what the university cites as the reason for the $16 million deficit. SLU profile reports show that enrollment has dropped from 13,287 in 2014 to 12,949 in 2017, a difference of 338 students. According to the anonymous staff member, this does not seem like a significant enough difference to cause the deficit. “We went from no deficit at all to a $16 million deficit,” she said. “That is a serious number! I feel like we’ve never been given a direct answer about where this really came from.”

“I don’t understand how one of the explanations can be that we have low enrollment, but then they can justify building two new residential halls. I can understand one, but not two,” Schleper said. “If we are in such a budget crunch, then why did we spend millions on new logos?”

“It seems like the administration is really out of touch with what students actually care about,” O’Brien said, “and enrollment is showing that.”

“Money is being put into those giant resident halls and other cosmetic campus changes,” said Hall. “Chill on the flowers, the fountains, etc. Instead, maybe pay my professors and faculty. Maybe give me a nice selection of classes. I’m offered three upper level French classes next semester. That’s so sad. SLU needs to prioritize people over the dollar.”

The layoffs are not enough to reach the budget cuts, and additional methods will continue to be considered. According to the Post-Dispatch, the university will have to contemplate methods like cutting or combining programs or requiring a higher number of credit hours to graduate. SLU Provost Nancy Brickhouse told the Post-Dispatch that if a program is picked to be cut, the university will make sure that current students are able to finish their studies.