Reporting, writing, photos and graphics by Abbey Marshall
Editor’s note: Philathia Bolton, Vice President of The Devil Strip’s Board of Directors, is a professor at the University of Akron. Bolton was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story and did not see it before publication.
After three generations before her at the University of Akron, senior English major Kaylie Yaceczko is getting ready to walk away.
Following graduation, the third-generation legacy planned to pursue her Master of Fine Arts from the NEOMFA program, a collaboration between UA, Cleveland State University, Kent State University and Youngstown State University.
But now, she says she doesn’t see much of a point in pursuing graduate school at the university that laid off English faculty members — including her literary magazine’s founder and faculty advisor — in a round of deep cuts to nearly 100 union faculty positions over the summer.
“It was a big shock and difficult to deal with,” Yaceczko, the editor-in-chief of the student-run literary journal, AshBelt, says. “You build a repertoire with a professor and you get to know them. They help you with your education as a student and growth as a person, and that was taken away without any warning.”
Now Yaceczko doesn’t know what to do.
“That threw a huge wrench in my plans,” she says, saying she is likely going to take a year off to consider her options and look at other schools. “I’m really sad, because I’m leaving the university with a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t have before this.”
After a series of missteps that led to a financial crisis at the university, many students have lost faith in the university. Despite the university’s plans a decade ago to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on facilities to accommodate growing to 40,000 students, enrollment has dwindled to about 17,800.
Declining enrollment coupled with what some faculty members call poor financial planning and a decrease in state funding brought about deep cuts this July, when the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate 178 positions — 96 of which were filled by faculty members, many of whom were tenure-track.
Among that sea of numbers was Thomas’s mother, who was laid off in July. Thomas, a student who asked his full name be omitted out of fear of retaliation from the university toward his family, was struck with an unexpected burden just months before fall semester resumed: he lost his tuition waiver and health insurance with two years of school remaining.
“It definitely adds a burden,” he says. “I have three siblings, and it’s just hard when it’s just coming out of nowhere. You plan out your university career and to see it disappear very suddenly is like, ‘Oh gosh. Time to think of some creative way to come up with more money.’”
While he feels fortunate that he is a scholarship recipient and his dad still works, Thomas says this was another hurdle on top of an already difficult year.
“I just feel like the quality of education is going to go down,” he says. “The administration keeps saying it’s not going to affect the quality, but they’re not fooling anyone — if you’re reducing your staff, we’re going to have larger class sizes. The quality will go down. It’s going to be an unfortunate experience, having to do more independent learning versus getting more time with the teachers.”
Prior to the July layoffs, the faculty to student ratio was 18:1. Currently, it is 21:1. The average class size for 2020-2021 is 13, the university says.
23-year-old chemical engineering graduate student Greg Brown, who completed his undergraduate degree at the university, is leaving graduate school as a result of the layoffs. His Ph.D. advisor was laid off, and he says the school did little in the way of helping him figure out what to do next.
“When [my advisor] told me she had been fired, I actually collapsed and fell to my knees,” he recalls of the days following the July 15 announcement to lay off faculty. “It was one of those things where it was like, ‘this cannot be coming from a position of logic.’ It was just so mind-boggling.”
Brown, who is resigning from the program in December and pivoting to opening his own business focused on health and wellness, said he didn’t believe it made sense to pursue a field of study without an expert at the university.
“That opportunity will not be there for future students,” he says. “Unfortunately, when the going got tough, people didn’t matter, numbers mattered.”
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Similarly, Yaceczko says she was given little information about what would happen to the classes she was enrolled in that were supposed to be taught by laid-off professors. She decided to drop a course altogether — even though it would have counted as a graduation requirement.
“I was already concerned about the quality of education with the pandemic, and now that there are fewer professors,” she says. “That’s the whole point of education, at the end of the day: to learn from experts. If there are no experts, what do you really have?”
She also is concerned about faculty members being spread thin as the university scrambles to fill each class with an instructor, even if that instructor had never taught the course before. Not only will the faculty suffer, she says, but the students.
“It’s so overwhelming because they had to take on all this extra work they didn’t sign up for or aren’t being paid to do in such a short period of time,” she says. “It’s hard to feel cared for as a student when faculty and staff are being treated the way they are.”
Nathaniel Haufe, a senior majoring in cybersecurity, echoed concerns about larger class sizes and less time with faculty. This year he faced more limited options when it came to scheduling courses. Some courses, like his senior project, were replaced with what he called “inadequate substitutes.”
“This year, they’re not offering a senior project within my major,” Haufe says. “I have to take a substitute course. I know that’s not what I’m paying for and that’s not what employers are looking for. I should be taking the proper courses with the proper professors. It makes me feel that the quality of education is at times not up to par.”
“There’s no point in going somewhere where I’m not going to get anything out of it,” says Brown, the student dropping out of grad school. “There is no point in continuing my academic pursuit when the person I wanted to study under is no longer present. The value of Akron is ultimately in the faculty and the people that make it what it is.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at email@example.com.