UNION, NJ — The coronavirus outbreak has caused all kinds of problems for many schools and universities, with issues including school closures, financial issues and unemployment. Utilizing social-distancing measures, the students, alumni and faculty came together to hold a “Caravan for Kean” car protest and rally to oppose the university’s sudden announcement that it will cut, suspend or reorganize several academic programs and lay off or furlough dozens of faculty and staff. This news came in May following a similar whittling down of faculty in December, prior to the coronavirus pandemic. The car protest and rally took place on June 18 in downtown Union.
Kean University art history professor Lewis Kachur, who has been teaching for 29 years, revealed that he and others have been laid off.
“This rally and car caravan is about saving the arts at Kean, also known as ‘Keep Kean Whole,’” Kachur said on June 20. “Tenured faculty in art history, music, theater education and other programs have been peremptorily fired without due process, in violation of their contracts.”
The Kean Federation of Teachers, the Kean University chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union, is challenging the university’s recent cuts.
According to a press release from KFT, the union said the cuts are primarily in the arts, indicating that the university believes its students don’t deserve, want or need these courses.
According to Kachur, art history is among the first wave of disciplines seeing cuts. In line with these cuts, Kachur and others were laid off in December 2019. These cuts came before COVID and this most recent round of program cuts. According to Kachur, he and his colleagues contested the December cuts and a compromise was reached whereby they remained on staff working halftime for the spring semester.
“The rights of tenure and academic freedom, which is a public good, is being attacked,” Kachur told LocalSource. “The university has announced layoffs of a dozen faculty members and 18 experienced professional staff members. For students, the academic program cuts mean they will not be able to pursue … degrees in art history, music or theater education.”
Visibly upset about the academic program cuts, students are also protesting the changes.
“Yes, the students are in an uproar about this collectively and many students attended the rally. Regarding how many people attended the rally and protest, Matt Halper estimated 100 cars as well as 200 people there,” Kachur said. Halper is a music professor at Kean. “On their own, the students launched two online petitions.”
The first petition, called “Fair Treatment for Fine Arts and Art History faculty and students,” had garnered more than 4,370 signatures out of the goal of 5,000 signatures on Change.org as of June 23. The second petition, which is more recent, is called “Save Kean Performing Arts Programs!” This petition had garnered nearly 8,600 signatures out of the goal of 10,000 signatures on Change.org as of June 23.
Kean Federation of Teachers President David Castiglione questioned the university’s decision and is adamant that Kean students deserve better.
“These programs — music, art history, sustainability science, theater education, economics — are standard programs available at all world-class universities, and they need to be available here at Kean,” Castiglione said during his speech at the rally on June 18. “A big question would be, Why is it that our students do not deserve those classes and these programs if we think that they do.”
Kachur is eager to take further action.
“We are looking forward to presenting our case to the new president of Kean, Lamont Repollet, and having him review the wisdom of these cuts,” Kachur said. “The state AFT is in negotiations with the Department of Education to craft a compromise, with some financial concessions in exchange for no layoffs. We hope that a reasoned accord can be reached.”
Kean University responded to inquiries with a May 15 media release. According to the release, the university is attempting to close an estimated $20 million budget deficit from COVID-19 by eliminating four chronically low-enrolled academic programs and their faculty, as well as six managers. The elimination of the university’s bachelor’s degree programs in music, sustainability sciences, theater education and economics will not impact current students, who will be supported through their graduations. The program changes are expected to save the university more than $2 million annually.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the budgets of higher education institutions around the country, and Kean is no exception,” Kean President Dawood Farahi said in the release. “These are tremendously difficult decisions, but we must ensure the university is able to support the programs that it does best and that continue to draw demand from students. We must live up to our fiduciary responsibility to the institution and to our students.”
According to the release, the university’s board of trustees approved the program suspensions and other cost-saving measures at a public meeting. The university notified a dozen faculty members associated with the eliminated programs of their retrenchment the same week as the vote, marking the first step in a series of personnel and program changes. Another half-dozen office managers were notified that their positions were eliminated due to the university experiencing a 50-percent reduction in state aid since the pandemic began and reimbursing students for more than $5 million worth of dining and housing costs. Revenue from campus events, summer rentals, and conference and theater programs has also been lost.
“We are committed to fully supporting students who are currently majoring in these programs to ensure they remain on a successful path to graduation,” academic affairs Vice President Suzanne Bousquet said in the release. “We’re also going to continue to offer these programs as minors for students interested in these subject areas.”
Photos Courtesy of Lewis Kachur