The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers.
We are in the unique position of being both the proud parents of an incoming Wildcat at the University of Arizona and faculty members there as well. In those two roles, we have been watching with growing concern as the UA prepares to return to campus this coming fall.
President Robert C. Robbins has been appearing on television stations across the nation — from Fox News to Good Morning America — with a confident message that parents can safely pack up their kids and send them off to Tucson dorms. With a front-seat view of campus preparations, we have our doubts.
President Robbins’ optimism regarding the safety of returning students has been matched with a dire pessimism regarding budget projections for the coming year. To offset the reported shortfall, administration is cutting personnel, staff and faculty. For example, in the English Department, where we both teach, 29 faculty members in our award-winning Writing Program recently learned their contracts would not be renewed. This results from a cost-saving decision to raise course caps from 19 to 25 students in those classes.
What happens when an incoming freshman, like our son, enters a writing class of 25 students, rather than 19?
First, the classroom is more crowded. Chances of COVID-19 transmission go up. Second, the instructor is stretched thin. As anyone who has tried it knows, teaching writing is hard work, requiring careful attention to each student.
The more bodies in the room, the less time the instructor has for feedback to each individual.
Pima Community College certainly knows better. Their response to the pandemic next year will be to cut writing class sizes, not raise them.
Ranking agencies know this too. When the 19 student course cap was imposed in 2016, UArizona’s ranking shot up 81 points in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings, and retention rates increased, especially among minority students. All these benefits will now be lost, along with the health of students and instructors, to save a tiny fraction of the university budget.
We understand that falling enrollments because of COVID-19 necessitate belt-tightening. But is increasing class size during a pandemic the right way to do this? Since we arrived on campus eight years ago, we have seen the ranks of high-level administrators swell, and their salaries have skyrocketed (30% increases over the last three years).
The top 10 administrators earn on average more than 10 times what those writing instructors are paid. Not one of those administrators will be laid off to help pay for the budget shortfall. Priorities seem out of whack when the university eliminates those jobs that directly serve the core teaching mission of the university.
This is just one small university decision, but it gives us pause as we consider whether to send our son to campus this year. His health, along with the quality of education he receives, should be the top university priorities as they plan to return to campus.
Lacking reassurance of that commitment, we are now thinking a gap year may well be the best option.
Leerom Medovoi and Marcia Klotz are professors at the University of Arizona.
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