As it charts a path through the COVID-19 crisis, the University of Vermont faces hard budget choices. These cuts are painful and disappointing, but necessary. However, in making necessary cuts, UVM’s leadership has a chance to model how we weather the economic fallout of COVID-19, while making sure the greatest sacrifices are not borne by the most vulnerable. UVM has a chance to model what is just.
I heard yesterday about a single parent of two children, who earns about $64,000 a year as a lecturer at UVM, and now faces a 25% cut in her yearly earnings. Because she is scheduled full time in the fall, she can’t make up the gap. As we respond to COVID19, some might think she is lucky to have a job, albeit at a lower wage. But her wages are no match for the value she provides to the students of the University of Vermont or the UVM community. And, that cut puts that family below the liveable wage for Vermont. As her earnings and those of other qualified UVM professors drop, they may not be able to pay for their housing or buy from their local stores, which harms those businesses as well. As hard as they work, they won’t be paid anything near what they need or deserve. And that story is being lived out again and again across Vermont.
This is a teaching moment for UVM, an opportunity for the university to lead. The senior administrators can start by engaging faculty, students, and staff in a democratic, deliberative process of looking at the university’s financial situation and figuring out what reductions might need to be made. Then, the UVM administration must ensure that the pain of cuts is progressive, and doesn’t fall most heavily on those with the least to spare. As proposed right now, the proposed UVM cuts are falling on its lowest earners. That isn’t fair or just.
The University of Wisconsin’s furlough plan, by contrast, calls for shared sacrifice and ensures that the largest contributions to cost containment come from leadership and the highest earners at the University.
We are in this together, as we take stock and, eventually, recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. Our choice is this, at the University of Vermont and across the state budget: will we protect those with the least to spare, or will we again allow an economic crisis to make income and wealth inequality even worse?
The University of Vermont is uniquely positioned to provide public and moral leadership on this important issue. UVM’s lowest wage employees help drive Vermont’s economy. Their earnings are most likely to be turned around and put to work paying for housing, food and other goods and services right here in Vermont. Protecting them is also an investment in the livelihoods and economic wellbeing of other Vermonters in the larger UVM community, and is an investment in our shared vision — for our recovery and our future.