“Chop from the top!” That’s the message that University of Minnesota students, faculty, and staff have been chanting at recent protests against the university’s 2023-24 budget cuts and current administrative changes.
In late April, students rallied outside McNamara Alumni Center after word spread about the university’s plan to significantly cut the budgets of the ethnic and gender studies programs.
According to a statement released by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the university planned to cut 50 percent of American Indian studies, 30 percent of Chicano and Latino studies, 27.5 percent of African American studies, and 10 percent of Gender, Women, and Sexuality studies programs.
The student-led group, along with other unions tied to the university, demanded that these programs be fully funded and that any necessary financial changes should first be taken out of the “bloated” administration.
Siobhan Moore is a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a national student-led organization with a history dating back to the 1960s, where students fought for racial equality and protested the Vietnam War. As a prospective transfer student to the U of M, Moore doesn’t want to see these programs cut before she gets a chance to enroll.
“We think it’s fundamentally wrong that such a bloated, overpaid university administration is able to off-load these budget cuts onto the backs of students, staff and faculty at the university and say that we have to, well, tighten their belts while they’re raking in six, seven-figure salaries annually. President Gabel is getting a $200,000 sendoff bonus,” Moore said.
Former University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel resigned from her role following criticism of her joining the board of directors at Securian Financial. Several critics called for an investigation into Gabel’s relationship with Securian, since the financial service company had several ties to the university that accounted for more than a billion dollars.
The controversy only underlined concerns by UMN students and staff as Gabel’s base pay started at $706,000, with performance pay and retirement contributions. The proposed budget cuts coming soon after the news of the university president’s conflict of interest was enough to draw more scrutiny.
In the past year there’s been an uptick of union activity at the university. In the spring, graduate student workers at the UMN voted to form a union, after a 2,487-70 vote. They voted to unionize to secure workers’ rights and higher pay.
As it stands, the minimum pay for a graduate student worker at the UMN is $16,000, with a maximum stipend of $25,000. That’s compared to a cost of living for Hennepin County of $37,025.
Sumanth Gopinath, an associate professor of music theory, was also present at the April protest along with other UMN faculty. Gopinath was elected president of the U of M’s campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization founded in 1915 with the aim of advancing academic freedom and helping shape the standards for higher education.
Gopinath has seen his organization take on more issues since the onset of the pandemic, as they advocated for more safety and protections for faculty and staff at the university when there was an effort to return to the classroom. As enrollment dropped in recent years, the university has looked to make cuts to control expenses, forcing the AAUP and other campus groups to rally together.
“What we wanted to do in our AAUP chapter was to ensure that what would result from that would be equitable. The university administration, via a committee, had proposed an equitable pay cut to manage these expenses, starting at all employees earning $40,000 or more. We felt that $40,000 is a low salary to start making cuts given the poverty rate, and living wage in the Twin Cities,” Gopinath said.
Soon after the university shared their proposed budget for the 2023-2024 academic school year, John Coleman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, penned a letter to the editor of the “Minnesota Daily,” the school paper, to clear things up. According to Coleman, there was a budget coding error that reduced the teaching assistant and unassigned instructor budget by nearly a million dollars.
Despite this discrepancy, Coleman stated that cuts were necessary due to the decreased university enrollment. He pointed to low enrollment numbers at community colleges that have led to this reality.
The reduction of teaching assistant and unassigned instructor (TA/UI) spending by U of MN comes to $2 million dollars, which Coleman stated, is less than 6 percent of the budget reduction. He also shared that about $1 million in TA/UI spending goes unspent each year.
In a request for comment, the university responded by reiterating Dean Coleman’s points in an email: “CLA (College of Liberal Arts) undergraduate enrollment is down 1,300 students since the 2019-20 academic year, almost entirely the result of a decline in transfer students. To reflect this situation in the proposed FY24 budget, CLA planned a college-wide $2 million reduction in the Teaching Assistants/Unassigned Instruction (TA/UI) line item. That reduction equals roughly 1.4 percent of CLA’s total budget for academic departments,” they stated.
The university also noted that ethnic and gender studies will be funded at their current TA/UI levels for the upcoming fiscal year. They emphasized that nothing has been finalized and anticipate an approved budget by late June.
Moore finds the timing of these cuts to be interesting as they came well after students petitioned for a change. “If it was a clerical error, all right. But these cuts still need to not happen, period. I think it is also very telling that it took students calling in and signing a petition, which I think we’re at 1200 or more signatures on our petition at this point,” she said. “Even if it’s not 50 percent out of the American Indian Studies Department, like any percentage of cuts is just wrong.”
Gopinath responded to the university’s logic that these cuts have come due to low enrollment in the CLA program by saying that he believes that students can still gain a lot from a liberal arts education.
“They’re saying that fewer students are going into degree programs in the liberal arts and humanities because they don’t see them as degrees where they can have a future career,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I think is incumbent upon us, within the liberal arts and humanities, to advocate for how these degree programs are actually meaningful—both in terms of like, how there could be a more robust jobs pipeline that extends from our college into various professions.”
Gopinath stated that he believes this issue goes beyond modern-day politics given the fact that these programs have chronically been underfunded. He pointed to how student activists in the past had to fight for these programs to exist and believes that the same struggle must continue today.
The proposed cuts have led some to compare the university’s sense of direction and priorities to the political actions of conservative governors and legislatures working to ban culturally relevant curriculums across the country. Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, has recently pushed for these changes including a move to ban African American AP courses in school.
Jasper Nordin, a leader of the local SDS chapter, made this connection at the April rally.
“They are attacking diversity and ethnic studies programs all over the country. Universities are enacting budget cuts just like these,” he said. “In 1962, a group of 70 Black students took over Royal Hall and occupied the building for a moral cause.
“Out of that action came one of the first African American studies program in the entire country, which was established right here at the University of Minnesota. Now, 60 years later, the university is trying to undo the victory won by that struggle.”