ITHACA, N.Y. — A concerned group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community allies gathered at the Ithaca College entrance Friday to ask the administration for transparency as the college continues to reevaluate its future and prepare for major budget cuts.  

The action was organized by Ithaca College Students for Labor Action (SLA) and the Tompkins County Workers’ Center who have criticized college administrators for accelerating a restructuring plan too quickly, and without adequate feedback from faculty, staff and students.  

#OpenTheBooks is a grassroots initiative created by a coalition of Ithaca College students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community. In a letter published this week (which currently has 702 signatures), supporters asked the administration to “engage with us in meaningful dialogue about what our community stands to lose in this process,” and “#OpenTheBooks so that we can be full partners in the decision-making and goal-setting processes for our college.” 

The letter concludes, “we respectfully ask that the college value its people over its budgetary bottom line: we need to take a hard look at our values, especially ‘Respect and Accountability’ and ‘Equity,’ and then put our money where our values are.” 

Friday’s action also looked to draw attention specifically to the Academic Program Prioritization (APP) process, which looks to evaluate academic programming across the college through student interest (i.e. enrollments, majors, minors, credit hours taught, applicants’ academic interests, number of applications, etc.) IC administration first set the APP into motion in fall 2018, and initial advisory groups began meeting last year.

“The facts demonstrate that the current size of the college is not sustainable. So the difficult but necessary steps are being taken to align our academic offerings with student interest and institutional need. That means determining which programs should be consolidated, eliminated, or reorganized—but also which will be recommended for growth,” Ithaca College Director of Public Relations Dave Maley said in a statement.

“This work began a full two years ago, with the development of the college’s strategic plan. In accord with the principles of shared governance, the administration has taken a collaborative approach throughout this data-driven process, engaging the faculty and incorporating their feedback,” Maley continued. 

Now, the administration, which is formally known as the Senior Leadership Team (SLT), has started toward its commitment to long-term fiscal sustainability by rightsizingthe college’s enrollment, staffing and academic programming. 

The SLT sees its pursuit of these measures as the necessary steps in fulfilling the college’s strategic plan—Ithaca Forever. On Oct. 6, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs La Jerne Cornish announced that about 130 faculty members would be laid off through the APP just months after the SLT initially eliminated 167 staff positions before August commencement. 

On Friday afternoon, SLA organizers draped their flag over the monument at the Ithaca College entrance—setting it in place to create an improvised backdrop for the rally’s lineup of speakers—and implored gatherers to equip themselves with one of the many signs sprawled across the campus lawn. Minutes later, protestors formed a line of solidarity along the newly-paved sidewalk in front of Alumni Hall while others situated themselves on the grassy corner of Danby Rd and NY-96B. 

Throughout the duration of the rally, passing motorists honked their horns in support of protestors who called on the Ithaca College administration to “open the books.” Students and faculty who spoke publicly at the rally presented critical remarks to a crowd of almost 100 people about the APP process and recent administrative decisions. 

Ithaca College senior and SLA organizer Tali Abraham was the first of several speakers to share their thoughts on the APP process. Abraham addressed the crowd from the perspective of a current student and criticized the administration’s decision to cut approximately a third of its faculty. They also stressed the importance of student inclusion in the APP process. 

“The administration says that the decision to fire so many of our faculty and staff is for the students,” Abraham said. “If you really centered students, you wouldn’t be firing our teachers, our mentors, our friends—if you really were centering students, you’d be including us in these decisions.” 

Students of Color Coalition (SCC) Senator for the college’s Student Governance Council (SGC) Sebastian Chavez, a junior at the college, echoed the sentiments during his speech. In addition to his speech, Chavez told Ithaca Voice partner WRFI that he attended the rally to support both his professors and BIPOC faculty at the college. Ithaca College junior Lauren Miller accompanied Chavez and said that she came out to protest for similar reasons. 

“I’m here because my professors have made a bigger impact on me than anyone in my life,” Miller said. “Along with Sebastian, I’m certainly here to support our professors of color and our professors who hold marginalized identities.” 

Although student protestors convened to show solidarity for their professors, SLA organizers were sure to center Friday’s protest around the challenges facing the college’s faculty and staff members.

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence in the college’s Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, was among the rally’s speakers. She said that while she felt scared and hesitant to be the faculty voice going public with her and her colleagues’ concerns, Steingraber found the courage to do so in her love for the Ithaca College community. 

“I love Ithaca College,” Steingraber shouted through the megaphone before scrutinizing the APP. “These steps violate fair labor practices and pit educators and academic departments against each other; they fly in the face of our values as a community of scholars committed to diversity, justice, inclusion and making the world better—let’s find another way forward, Ithaca College. Open the books!”

The #OpenTheBooks coalition has demanded complete financial transparency from the SLT and a more communal form of shared governance. Steingraber’s remarks and the previously mentioned letter sheds light on the current administration’s version of a collaborative approach to long-term fiscal sustainability. 

“The faculty have now been asked, via a survey, to recommend each other’s departments for ‘Reorganization,’ ‘Consolidation,’ or ‘Discontinuance,’” the letter states. “Department chairs and program directors have been asked to justify their program’s value to the institution.”

Additionally, the SLT has been meeting with the Faculty Council Executive Committee to incorporate feedback from the college’s faculty and staff. The Ithaca College administration has been accepting this feedback via surveys to produce data for the Academic Program Prioritization Advisory Committee (APPAC) and Academic Program Prioritization Implementation Committee (APPIC). Both committees are expected to provide a draft outlining the college’s expected APP processes by the end of December 2020. 

The SLT has also barred students from attending its InFinity presentations which, according to The Ithacan, are led by Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Guerrero to illustrate the college’s financial information. 

To end, several faculty members asked that alternatives be made available to letting go of employees and that the community be given a chance to weigh in on those alternatives. 

“The narrative that we are being told by administration is via webinars in which we can submit questions ahead of time, and there’s no back and forth,” Professor Patricia Rodriguez said Friday. “And so what we’ve been asking with #OpenTheBooks, is not just statistics that they want to show us but statistics that that they don’t want to show us like…how much the endowment is and how much of that is liquid so that we can tap that for cash.”

Maley, the spokesperson for IC, said that the college will not use endowment funds to sustain any academic programming and that those funds are held for the benefit of student financial aid. 

“There’s no hidden money that the college has available to cover budget deficits. It can’t use the endowment to cover budget deficits,” Maley said. “The endowment is used for both current and future generations, it exists in perpetuity.”

Maley also said that the college will continue to take a “student centered” approach to the APP and its institutional restructuring. 

For any members of the community who would like to express their solidarity with employees of Ithaca College, the letter, including demands to #OpenTheBooks can be found and signed here via Google Forms

WRFI Intern Christian Maitre contributed to this reporting. 

James Baratta

James Baratta is a New York-based journalist and writer. He is a graduate of Ithaca College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His work has appeared in POLITICO, Truthout and Common Dreams....