Bradley faculty, students stage walkout in protest of proposed academic cuts
With Bradley University looking at sweeping academic cuts to close a $13 million operational deficit, students and faculty members gathered on campus Tuesday to voice their disapproval.
Bradley University president Stephen Standifird last week proposed the discontinuation of 17 programs, and scaling back another five as part of a larger cost-cutting initiative aimed at closing the financial gap.
Standifird says the cutbacks would impact 47 current faculty positions, and an additional 21 would be eliminated through attrition.
But the proposal has proven extremely controversial among the campus community, with many questioning both the urgency and the magnitude of what’s being proposed.
Roughly 200 students and faculty attended Tuesday’s unprecedented walkout, with many students directly leaving a class to attend. Multiple students said that their professors had either canceled classes or openly encouraged them to walk out of class themselves.
The four-hour gathering in Founders’ Circle near the statue of Lydia Moss Bradley started at 10 a.m., with attendees carrying signs with messages including: “Don’t Cut My Future,” “Save Our Education,” and “Lydia’s Vision Is Lost.”
Among the chalk writings on the circle pavement was a plea to “Protect the Teachers + Staff.” At one point, the group chanted, “My tuition, my choice!”
While several faculty members at the rally declined to speak to reporters, others said the impact of the proposed cuts would be severe. Valerie San Juan, a faculty member in the department of psychology, disputed Standifird’s claim the cuts would only impact 3.5% of students.
“Clearly, this rally is demonstrating that that’s not the case,” San Juan said. “It’s also showing the solidarity of the Bradley community, so when things like this impact a small proportion of us, it ultimately impacts all of us.”
San Juan says she’s “optimistic” the protest can sway the administration to take another look at the proposed cuts.
“What I would really love to see out of this is maybe a change towards wanting a little bit more compromise, actually a willingness to listen to the input of the faculty, the staff, and the students,” she said. “Up to this point, it seems a lot of the decisions being made have largely ignored those voices.”
Oscar Gillespie is a printmaking and drawing professor at Bradley. Printmaking is among the programs listed for discontinuation.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years, so through a lot of ups and downs, and with a lot of students, a lot of classes and I'm not ready to go yet. I'm still healthy and I liked doing what I do,” Gillespie said.
Students at the rally expressed a wide range of concerns. Kullan LeBlanc, a sophomore advertising and public relations major, also has three minors: legal studies, philosophy and ethics – all programs outlined as being targets for the cuts.
“I found out over the summer that the pre-law center was getting lumped in with political science, and then political science got the most cuts out of every single department,” LeBlanc said. “Then the philosophy department lost every single professor except for the department chair. In return, I received an iPad for my trouble.”
Exactly which professors and other positions are being cut has not been disclosed, and LeBlanc’s mention of an iPad is in reference to the digitally connected campus program and obtained through a grant partnership with T-Mobile.
Students are supposed to receive the tablets in the fall of 2024. They're funded by a grant, but many students say this isn't the biggest priority for them. During the rally, a student shouted, “We want teachers, not iPads,” drawing a large cheer from the crowd.
LeBlanc’s comments about the philosophy department were echoed by 2022 graduate McGwire Hidden, who is now in the philosophy masters' program at Western Michigan University.
Hidden says while at Western Michigan, he's helped launch a prison education program and been nominated for an Excellence in Teaching award.
“I wouldn't be accomplishing some of the things that I'm able to accomplish at Western Michigan without the six people in the philosophy and religious studies department having the effect that they had on me,” Hidden said.
“I'm really unhappy with President Standifird’s comments about preparing students to succeed today, because I feel like I'm a student succeeding in today's environment, and doing so because of the programs that he wants to cut.”
Hidden says when he heard of the proposed academic cuts, he was disappointed but not surprised.
“I wanted to think better of where I came from, of the school that I was really proud to be a part of,” he said. “Institutions are nothing more than the people that make them up, and so to say that ‘we're doing this in the name of Bradley,’ while also providing a disservice to the very people that make Bradley up, was really disappointing.”
Some students suggested projects like the iPads, pushing online classes, or these cuts are coming at the expense of Bradley’s identity as a nonprofit liberal arts college.
“I think it’s in direct contradiction to not only what our founder had for us, but also just what students want,” said senior statistics and chemistry major Rachel Watson. “We are a nonprofit, liberal arts and sciences university. So if we cut away almost all of those programs, what does that say about us?”
Alex O’Shaughnessy, an economics major with a minor in ethics, attended the protest to show support for his fellow students who are getting their programs cut.
“I feel like some of these things are just kind of like looked at and it's like, ‘why are you taking away academics first?’ I thought it's a ‘university’ – it’s in the name,” said O’Shaughnessy, expressing a common belief that Bradley should pursue cuts to administration and athletics before academics.
Another chant during the rally pointed out: “There is no STEM without M,” in reference to proposed cuts in mathematics. Sarah Hirsch, a sophomore elementary education major from St. Louis, said the math program cuts will force her to alter her study plans.
“I wanted to get my math education endorsement, but unfortunately that’s not going to be able to happen anymore,” said Hirsch. “I wanted to go into education to change lives and overall make education better again.
“With Bradley, I thought I could do that and get a very good education. Unfortunately with the cuts, I don’t believe that’s going to happen. It’s impacting our future and our future students.”
Another common sentiment was a lack of communication. Students feel they, as well as faculty, are receiving too little too late when it comes to the budget cuts.
Some of them, like LeBlanc, attributed that lack of communication to Standifird “dropping the ball,” while others directed their requests directly to the president.
“He has the chance to make things right, he has the chance to consider what our faculty has put together and consider, especially what us students are saying, considering we’re the ones paying tuition money,” said Watson.
Many students called for a reevaluation, or a lengthier process to determine what the most effective way to make the budget cuts is.
“They are not giving us enough information to have proper knowledge on what we need to do,” said Erin Henkel, who suggested using an outside third-party approach to making the decisions. “They cut things without telling us why (and) they won’t tell us the amount of money they cut.”
Standifird says that the cuts will be finalized next month. Department heads were given 30 days to respond to his recommendations.
Organizers of today's protest encouraged attendees to contact Standifird and the Board of Trustees to voice their opinions on the proposed cuts.
WCBU News Director Tim Shelley contributed to this report.