Friday, June 14, 2024

Lesley University students rally Sunday at its Lunder Arts Center near Cambridge’s Porter Square after protests of an open house. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As Lesley University welcomed prospective students to an open house Sunday, current students and faculty were outside to greet them with a very different message about program shutdowns and teacher layoffs, the result of a restructuring announced Oct. 4.

Some high schoolers, parents and others at University Hall, near Porter Square in Cambridge, listened with interest before going inside, and the nearly 50 protesters drew plenty of honks from cars passing by on Massachusetts Avenue and Roseland Street, at front and rear entrances to the building.

In the restructuring called Better Lesley, low-enrolled majors will “sunset” over time, allowing current students to graduate with their expected degrees while the school refocuses on what it calls “core strengths in education, mental health, the arts and the fields related to those strengths.” Some 30 educators are expected to be laid off.

That leaves dozens of members of the Lesley community mired in uncertainty, with affected programs still not identified nearly two weeks later. (Students and faculty believe them to be political science; sociology and social change; global studies; and communications or gender studies. A Lesley spokesperson couldn’t confirm that, but said there would be an official announcement shortly.)

Fears of a “sunset” spiral

Protest organizer and Lesley University student Mia Dillon talks with supporters Sunday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was also uncertainty about how the “sunsetting” would work – for one thing, whether the knowledge that programs are ending will cause them to spiral. 

“It will, and it is,” said Mia Dillon, a political science major at Lesley who helped organize the protest. “People are transferring out, I’ve talked to at least 15 students in the social sciences who are saying, ‘I’m transferring out, I need to go to a different school.’”

That follows moves over the past few years that have “starved” the liberal arts programs to be cut, including by cutting and merging classes, students say in materials handed out Sunday.

Navigating the next three academic years can be a complication even for programs that aren’t ending, but could find gaps in staff that students expect expect to find filled with low-paid adjunct professors. “I know of only one person in math and science that” is staying while six science educators have been let go, biology major Daphne Freeman said, “and he does so much already. I can’t imagine they would put more classes on him and just condense and squeeze the program until we don’t have anything left. People who want to come here and get a [Natural Sciences and Mathematics] education are now not able to get a quality one. They won’t have that community that inspired me to go into this field.”

To see those professors “replaced with adjunct faculty, which cost a fraction of the price for administration, is disrespectful and heartbreaking,” Freeman said.

Educator unhappiness

There was confusion on the education side of things too, after being called into Zoom calls that sometimes lasted as few as five minutes and were short on answers. “All they told us os that we will be paid for a year, but that contracts no longer valid. What are we doing for spring? Are we teaching our courses? I don’t have ton of information and it’s really disconcerting,” said Donna Halper a communications teacher who’s been advising the student newspaper on her own time, she said, and contributing money from her own pocket to keep it running.

“It’s been a long-standing source of frustration that we get so little information,” Halper said,

The educators being let go also seem to be “skewing older” and toward people who have been active in the union or outspoken about Lesley, faculty members said. A petition started by an educator says 80 percent of the faculty members terminated are 50 or older and 43 percent are or were “union stewards and openly critical of the Lesley administration” – an administration one faculty member on Sunday referred to as “bloated.”

“Everything happened while the salary of President Janet Steinmayer increased from $257,642 in 2020 to $535,271 in 2022 despite enrollment drops and massive budget cuts for academic programs and student services,” said Nafisa Tanjeem, a former Lesley instructor. In that period, Steinmayer received two votes of no confidence from faculty.

Lesley administration is similar in scale to comparable universities, such as Lasell in Auburndale, a spokesperson said.

Questioning the process

High schooler Kelly Assis, left, visits Lesley’s University Hall on Sunday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Educators at the Sunday protest said such the current approach to cuts wouldn’t have taken place under previous administration, drawing a comparison with negotiations undertaken as recently as 2018.

Sociology professor emerita Arlene Dallalfar, who retired in May 2018 after teaching at Lesley for 23 years, said previous processes were more collaborative, while in this case faculty was cut out. “They were not involved in the process of decision-making. The president basically made a decision unilaterally,” said Dallalfar, who described herself as upset that a program she’d help build was now being dismantled.

The Better Lesley process was described as including four management faculty teams that would set priorities and four administrative teams looking at implementation. On Oct. 4, a statement from Steinmayer and interim provost Deanna Yameen said Lesley began “engaging the university community in January with this Better Lesley process, talking with our academic leaders, management faculty, administrative leaders and others [but] were specifically asked to make these difficult decisions ourselves, and while we sought input from many in the university, we honored that request.”

That’s not how it’s seen by Flavia Stanley, a Lesley assistant professor of social work and human services, who said she took part in the Better Lesley process but felt in retrospect that it had no connection with the program cuts and layoffs underway.

“The process was undefined,” Stanley said. “We always assumed [what resulted] would be a proposal we would have some control over. The cultural vibe was that faculty had a voice and we had shared goals … I feel dumb that I didn’t know this was coming.”

“This is a real F-U to liberal arts and sciences,” Stanley said.

Lesley statement

A statement from Lesley University on Sunday, as protesters and the school’s open house coincided, said the school “supports the right of the campus community to express itself.”

“After almost a year of study, strategic planning and outreach to faculty, staff and others, the university made these difficult decisions based on only what was best for our campus community as we refocus Lesley on our core missions of education, mental health and the arts,” the statement said.

Inside University Hall, high schooler Kelly Assis was visiting Lesley’s open house as part of her college search.

The cuts wouldn’t affect her nursing major, but were still unsetting. “I don’t think people should be afraid to follow their passions,” Assis said.

This post was updated Oct. 15, 2023, to say that six science educators have been let go at Lesley University, according to a student. A smaller figure was given earlier.