Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Lesley University senior Matthew Hicks, center, speaks Saturday with prospective students during a protest. (Photo: Marc Levy)

With a new round of layoffs in Lesley University’s restructuring came a new protest Saturday during a Porter Square open house, with current students at the Cambridge school sounding alarms to prospective students.

The restructuring is intended to align disparate colleges under a “one-university structure” organized in four areas: education; mental health and well-being; liberal arts and business; and art and design, which will stay a college and now include creative writing, according to the school. Programs being phased out in the Better Lesley restructuring are political science, sociology, global studies and a graduate program in photography, which the school said Oct. 4 were chosen because they have low enrollment. 

Students and faculty protesting changes and layoffs are targeting the open houses “because it gives us more leverage,” said co-organizer Matthew Hicks, a senior with a major in the sunsetting political science major. The previous protest was Oct. 15.

“The school considers us customers, we we’re trying to wield our power as customers,” Hicks said. “We’re trying to tell the truth” to the prospective students, “which could dissuade them from coming to Lesley.”

The protest has been planned for weeks, but coincidentally followed layoffs from the week. Protest organizers say Lesley University has now dismissed 30 faculty members and an additional 20-plus people ranging from support staff from deans to disability services personnel. A spokesperson for the schools said that many of the affected staff members have been offered other positions at Lesley, while an affected educator, Amy Mertl, described a different situation for faculty.

“Only three of the 30 faculty members who have been laid off have been told that they may be offered reassignment within the university, though even those three have not yet gotten information on what the potential new position might be,” said Mertl, who has been teaching biology, animal behavior and ecology and natural history.

Lesley University hs opened a sports shop in its Porter Square University Hall in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The second round of layoffs was announced Wednesday, which included an explanatory video by president Janet Steinmayer. There have been a series of refocusing processes under her leadership, with cuts signaled in June when she described a decision-making process being undertaken by four management faculty teams that would set priorities and four administrative teams looking at implementation; faculty members said they felt their involvement had little to do with the announced outcome.

This is the final round of layoffs, a Lesley spokesperson said.

Better Lesley follows the charge of the school’s board of trustees to operate “as one academic university. This is because it’s not tenable to operate as four separate schools with a student population of approximately 2,200 [full-time] students,” Steinmayer said. “Right now most of our schools are significantly smaller than a very small college.”

Last year, 2,242 courses were posted for 2,200 full-time student, the school said. This fall, more than a quarter of posted courses did not run; a trimmed-down schedule was posted for the spring. “the university has been getting really good feedback from students about how much less confusing the process is now,” a spokesperson said.

There were 51 students in the programs being ended, school officials said.

“We know these decisions are incredibly difficult for our community, but the status quo would jeopardize the university and its future,” Steinmayer said in the Wednesday video, calling the new layoffs “essential.”

Combining services such as registration and advising in one place instead of dispersed across schools means redundancy-driven layoffs “because we no longer need the number of employees that are currently in their areas. This is because we’re overstaffed, not because their work is not valued,” Steinmayer said. “Lesley has evolved over time to a structure that was only appropriate to a much larger university, not to the number of students we actually serve.”

Hicks – who said he came to Lesley specifically for small class sizes that allowed him to connect with professors – said the students understand the arguments about overstaffing and structure, but feel “we should be deciding these questions with a different set of values. We can find another way.”

Students question spending priorities such as administrative salaries, construction at the Brattle Street campus and on initiatives such as a sports shop, while ending experiences they feel are crucial in favor of pairings that feel awkward. “Liberal arts and business are not the same thing,” Hicks said. “My liberal arts degree has not taught me to love business.”

More protests are planned, organizers said.

This post was updated Nov. 19, 2023, to correct that it is staff who have mainly been reassigned within Lesley, not faculty, and add comment from a spokesperson about schedule changes.