University of Vermont faculty and students condemned its administration’s austerity measures and president Suresh Garimella’s lack of transparency in a press conference on Monday, the second event of its kind since December.
Four months after the University of Vermont announced faculty layoffs and sweeping cuts to its humanities and geology programs, nearly 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition declaring no confidence in Garimella. The petition, started by a coalition of faculty and students called UVM United Against the Cuts, charges that his administration has effectively manufactured a budget crisis by siphoning money away from the College of Arts and Sciences.
According to faculty, the administration’s chief tactic thus far has been to ignore the dissent, with one exception. In early March, Nancy Welch, a tenured English professor who has been involved in protesting the cuts, shared a link to the petition with members of the faculty union and the English department. A week later, College of Arts and Sciences dean Bill Falls summoned Welch to a meeting to discuss what he deemed her “unprofessional” use of her university email account.
According to a transcript of the meeting, provided by Welch to Seven Days, Falls said he found it “unconscionable” that Welch would encourage her colleagues to share the petition with students and alumni.
“This is nothing less than a blatant attempt to disrupt the efforts and hard work of our colleagues and staff and faculty to recruit prospective students and to retain our current students,” he told her. “Moreover, requesting that it go to alumni damages the relationship between the university and alumni.”
He further advised her that she should not use her UVM email, the department listserv or other UVM resources solely to express her opinions or solicit support for the petition. “If you continue misusing university resources,” Falls warned her, “your privileges may be revoked and it may result in formal discipline being initiated.”
Falls did not respond Monday to a request for comment. Enrique Corredera, a spokesperson for UVM, said in a written statement that “it is not appropriate for a member of the faculty to use a departmental listserv to implore their colleagues to solicit students and alumni to sign a Change.org petition generated by an unrecognized and unaffiliated group.”
Welch’s email to the English department read: “If you have not already, I hope you will read and consider signing and sharing the ‘No Confidence in the Leadership of UVM President Suresh Garimella’ petition.”
Welch said she came away from the conversation with Falls with the distinct impression that the dean had delivered a prefabricated message. “I think he was performing something that he had been tasked to do by the central administration, and for that, I fault him,” she said.
Helen Scott, a faculty union representative who was present during the meeting, read Falls an excerpt from a 2014 statement from the American Association of University Professors, which affirmed the right of faculty members “to speak freely about internal college or university affairs as a fundamental principle of academic freedom that applies as much to electronic communications as it does to written and oral ones.”
According to Mary Brodsky, director of labor relations at UVM , no other faculty member has been reprimanded in connection with the Change.org petition.
Welch noted that she found it particularly ironic that she was called into the meeting with Falls in the same 24-hour period in which Falls issued a memo to all College of Arts and Sciences faculty, emphasizing the importance of free expression.
“That was in response to the case of the counseling graduate program faculty member, posting on YouTube and Twitter his assertions that critical race pedagogies are a form of white genocide and that UVM’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives constitute a secular religion,” said Welch, referring to counseling professor Aaron Kindsvatter’s viral YouTube video, in which he claimed that he felt ostracized at UVM for being white.
Welch, who teaches the rhetoric of social movements, said she feels that the administration is making an example of her in an attempt to chill dissent.
“I’m sure that this has shaken people, particularly people with less job security than I have,” she said. But, she added, she doesn’t feel alone. When she told a faculty member about her meeting with Falls, her colleague pointed out that if she was forbidden from using her faculty email “solely” to express her personal opinions, she should start adding recipe links to all her electronic communications.
In her next email to the union listserv, along with an announcement that the petition was still collecting signatures, Welch included a New York Times recipe for chocolate lava cake. “I personally feel that this recipe is excellent,” noted Welch, “but so do nearly 2,500 New York Times Cooking readers.”
Originally published in Seven Days by Chelsea Edgar, March 29, 2021.