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In August, the president of Dickinson State University delivered a gloomy message to faculty. 

Stephen Easton said the North Dakota college hadn’t tumbled into a financial crisis, but it was on track to one. He projected a $1 million budget hole if the college kept current spending levels, accounting for inflation.

Easton assigned professors a painful task — suggest cutbacks to degree programs, as well as faculty positions. And do it in a month, he told them.

When faculty completed Easton’s task, their document made a case for preserving academic offerings, not scaling them back. 

Faculty argued that if Easton slashed jobs, including some tenured positions, they would likely be hard-pressed to cover general education courses. And they pleaded with him to maintain teacher education programs, as the North Dakota governor recently signaled that attracting and retaining K-12 instructors are state priorities.

Easton hasn’t said how many faculty jobs he’s looking to drop, though that number will come soon. Administrators plan to tell faculty Wednesday whether they will be laid off.

Regardless of the outcome, the downsizing will likely further unravel the shaky relationship between faculty and Easton. Case in point, the arts and letters department’s portion of the faculty feedback argues “the recent retrenchment announcement by President Easton is primarily about enabling him to get rid of tenured faculty.”

Easton in an interview Thursday denied the austerity measures targeted faculty. He said he’s responding to student demand and ensuring the health of Dickinson State.

“We do not ignore student voices at Dickinson State,” he said. 

What do faculty have to say?

Faculty from across disciplines weighed in on academic cuts at the public college, which enrolled almost 1,400 students in spring 2023. 

The 75-page document they crafted details their objections to proposed consolidation, which would compress the university’s nine academic departments into four schools and would drop majors like English and theater. 

Eliminating majors and their instructors might affect others that aren’t at risk, faculty said.

The response stressed that professors typically teach a range of courses, including the general education classes students need to graduate. Professors in the mathematics and computer sciences department said they’re assigned at times to teach extra classes when enrollment in upper-level courses falls.

Moreover, all but one course in Dickinson State’s computer technology management major are used in programs not on the chopping block, such as business and agriculture, according to faculty. 

Similarly, the natural sciences department said it can’t cut faculty because classes under its purview, such as chemistry and physics, are required by other majors like biology.

This crossover is particularly evident in teacher education programs. For instance, all of the courses needed for a mathematics bachelor’s degree are also required for a mathematics education degree, faculty said. 

English and mathematics education degrees are on the chopping block, causing alarm in several departments.

They noted that K-12 teachers are in such short supply that Gov. Doug Burgum used his executive authority this month to create a task force to study and make recommendations on the matter. Burgum’s executive order states that about a third of North Dakota teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Easton acknowledged the importance of teacher training, particularly given the governor’s order, and that Dickinson State was founded as a normal school, institutions that help teachers learn their pedagogy.

“I don’t think anyone would dispute it is one of our missions to try to produce K-12 teachers,” Easton said. 

Are cuts needed?

Faculty did propose some austerity moves, like getting rid of geology and pre-pharmacy tracks in the chemistry major.

Nevertheless, they’re skeptical budget cuts are needed because faculty turnover is already high. They roughly estimated that a dozen recent faculty departures will save the university nearly $582,000 between the previous and current academic year — faculty said this is likely an undercount.

Easton pointed out that faculty themselves said the $582,000 figure may not be entirely accurate. He said it’s not always dollar-for-dollar savings if a faculty member leaves, especially if someone else takes that position. 

Already, in 2020, Dickinson State fired 14 employees out of budget concerns, which saved more than $864,000 over two years. A presentation Easton made last month showed the university reduced expenses by $5.3 million in 2020, including $2.6 million from not filling vacant positions and $1.2 million in non-personnel costs.

Two professors have also resigned since his announcement, Easton said in his interview. 

Easton said it’s possible a program would be cut but not an associated faculty position. 

But he doesn’t anticipate that. 

A committee that heard faculty appeals on the proposed cuts is due to make recommendations to Easton on Monday. Two days later, he will tell faculty whether they still have jobs. 

He stressed that even if a program does end up going away, the discipline won’t necessarily disappear from campus entirely. Dickinson State previously cut some of its visual arts offerings, but the subject is still taught, and the university maintains an art gallery, Easton said.

“We have less visual art now,” he said. “I won’t contest that there will be less of these programs.”

What are Dickinson State’s problems?

Dickinson State represents an unusual case study — a university publicly proclaiming not to be in a financial sinkhole and yet shedding tenured faculty.

The American Association of University Professors, the nation’s leading faculty group, recommends that colleges should not dismiss tenured faculty unless they declare financial exigency, essentially a budget meltdown.

The public college hasn’t done that. In fact, its headcount rose 3.4% year over year in spring 2023, though its enrollment of full-time equivalent students stayed essentially flat. This could pose a problem for the university if FTE nosedives, as North Dakota partially funds public colleges on how many credit hours students complete.

Eric Grabowsky, a Dickinson State communications professor and member of its faculty senate, said he believes the cuts are meant to target professors whom Easton, the president, doesn’t like.

Grabowsky, a vocal critic of Easton, pointed to the president’s backing of a bill, HB 1446, this legislative session that would have allowed leaders of Dickinson State and Bismarck State College, another public institution, to more easily dismiss tenured professors. 

Easton said during a bill hearing earlier this year that colleges have “elevated the faculty rights of nonproductive tenured faculty members over students, who pay their salaries through tuition.” 

The legislation didn’t advance. A few months later, Easton dropped his consolidation plan.

Easton has said he does not enjoy laying people off. 

“The process we are going through is not retaliatory toward any individual, or any major,” Easton said. “This is not about HB 1446.”

Grabowsky anticipates most, if not at all, of Easton’s proposal will be implemented. But he said that will only worsen the “low-trust, high-fear atmosphere environment” Easton has fostered. 

Steven Doherty, chair of the social sciences department, said he’s been at Dickinson State for about 20 years and that “there’s an atmosphere here that I didn’t anticipate encountering in higher education.”

“The mood is not great,” he said.

Doherty expects he will be a casualty in the coming layoffs, as he’s the university’s sole political science professor and the major is slated for elimination. He said he was instructed to fill out a “report card” to present to university officials that outlined how long he’s taught there, his professional achievements and his “breadth of confidence.”

He also participated in the faculty appeals. It was a formal affair, he said, with faculty sitting before the committee in a small room and making their case to preserve their programs. Doherty said he suspected the room size was to avoid the possibility of protesters coming in to disrupt procedures.

Some students already protested against the cutbacks this month. And a petition emerged to save Dickinson State’s arts programs. It has attracted more than 1,000 signatures thus far.

Easton, however, thinks “student morale is quite high.”

“Certainly there are students who are concerned, and understandably so,” he said. “It’s certainly not their fault that some programs are low enrollment.”