by Jordyn Haime

Four months after her contract non-renewal as a senior lecturer in Arabic at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) took effect, Ruwa Pokorny searches for work. After the unexpected non-renewal of her teaching contract, she has sold her house in Durham and moved to Connecticut to seek job opportunities, and be closer to family. She has become dependent on her weekly unemployment check.

Pokorny, 58, had been working at UNH for 11 years when she was non-renewed.

“On daily basis, I spend many hours reaching out to schools, agencies, and companies, trying to make connections, and exploring possibilities of work related to Arabic. I have found nothing yet,” she says.

Cindy Pulkkinen, 59, is in a similar situation. She’d started as a teaching assistant at UNH in 1996, making her way up the ranks to lecturer positions in Spanish before moving to the English as a Second Language (ESL) Institute. She had been a principal lecturer, the highest rank, when she received notice of her non-renewal.

This summer, she was able to teach classes at UNH as an adjunct, but still has yet to find permanent work.

“I was going to have a 5-year contract and then retire. And I had discussed it with the Dean and HR, and they knew I was going to retire…I could have retired in five years, and now I can’t because I have no salary,” Pulkkinen said.

Pokorny and Pulkkinen are two of 17 lecturers in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) who received contract non-renewal letters last January. Lecturers across departments including Languages, Literatures and Cultures (LLC), ESL, English and Political Science were affected. Some said they received their letters after the established deadline for non-renewal in the collective bargaining agreement for lecturer faculty.

This summer, as LLC began to fill open faculty positions with new lecturers, Pokorny and five other non-renewed lecturers noticed that all but one of the new hires were very young, while many non-renewed lecturers were in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

In ESL, Pulkkinen said 12 lecturer contracts were up for renewal last year, and six of them were non-renewed. According to Pulkkinen, four of the six non-renewals in ESL were over the age of 50.

The six lecturers filed discrimination complaints on the basis of age with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights late this summer.

Former COLA Dean Heidi Bostic had cited “a variety of reasons including declining enrollments, the need to keep a UNH education affordable, a desire to strengthen programs and a need to retain faculty whose expertise most closely aligns with the current and future needs of programs,” as well as strengthening certain academic programs by seeking faculty members with terminal degrees as reasons for the non-renewals.

Bostic stepped down as COLA dean in August to pursue an opportunity at Furman University.

ESL, in particular, had been experiencing significant drops in enrollment last year.

“We knew we were going to have cuts, absolutely without a doubt,” Pulkkinen said, “During this whole period, we were scrambling to save jobs. But at no point in that process did I think it would be mine. It was just stunning, after 20 years, that I would get a letter in the mail. I was really, really shocked and so were my colleagues,” Pulkkinen said.

“They kept the people who were younger and they didn’t keep anybody who was over 50. And that’s the thing. It’s who they kept,” Pulkkinen said of the non-renewals in ESL.

“Age was not and would never be a factor in non-reappointment,” UNH spokesperson Erika Mantz said in a statement to The New Hampshire, “to be clear, no faculty were terminated. All non-reappointed faculty were provided the contractually-required notice of non-reappointment, more than four months, and all non-reappointed faculty were employed by UNH for the full term of their employment contract.”

But Pokorny, Pulkkinen and Catherine Moran, president of UNH Lecturers United (UNHLU-AAUP), the lecturers’ union, said the university’s reasons for non-renewals kept changing, and they never received a concrete reason for their individual non-renewal.

“The dismissal letter said it was about substantial deficit. But almost immediately after that, we learned that the COLA Dean’s office had no intention to eliminate or reduce the programs in LLC. In fact, the Dean had approved five new hires to replace the six lecturers from LLC,” Pokorny said, “So, when we saw that four out of the five new hires were all young, having earned their Ph.D.s only very recently, we had to get suspicious of the claims given to us by the Administration as their reasons for our dismissal,” she continued.

Of the six non-renewed lecturers in LLC, four of them had been teaching at UNH for at least 10 years, some had been there for more than 20. The other two were relatively young, had taught at UNH for under 10 years and were able to find jobs after their non-renewal.

A look at LLC

LLC hired seven new lecturer faculty altogether this year, to replace the six non-renewed and an additional two lecturers who left after the end of the spring semester. Among those hired, three are in Spanish, two are in French, one is in Portuguese and one is in Arabic.

Including one retirement in December, making a total of nine lecturers lost in LLC last year, the department had a net loss of two faculty who would not be replaced by new hires due to declining enrollments in certain programs, according to LLC department chair Holly Cashman.

One adjunct faculty has also been hired to teach overflow classes in Spanish.

“There have been drops in enrollments, drops in the number of majors. We’re hoping to turn that around and start moving in the other direction and it looks like we’re doing that,” Cashman said.

All of the newly appointed lecturers, according to the LLC website, have earned Ph.Ds. All but one appears to have recently finished their higher education; based on when they finished their undergraduate degrees, it is estimated that six out of the seven new lecturers are in their early 30s and 40s. The New Hampshire was unable to obtain information about the new lecturers’ exact ages by the time of this writing.

At least one new lecturer, Lucia Montas in Spanish, finished her terminal degree in August of this year, according to her bio on the LLC website. Montas finished her undergraduate degree in 2007 at the University of Florida.

“The assumption is that, yes, you’ll have a Ph.D. before you start your job. And that’s how it’s always worked in academia,” Cashman said.

But Jorge Abril Sanchez, a 40-year-old lecturer who was non-renewed, said the university knew he had been working on finishing his terminal degrees. He said he finished his two dissertations in August and is scheduling his defense for this academic year.

Abril Sanchez now works as a Spanish teacher at Lebanon High School, where “I get paid way better and I get better benefits, and I work with better people which is the most important thing,” Abril Sanchez said.

“I don’t have any information about when he may or may not have finished. It’s a very different thing to be ABD (all but dissertation) and to finish your dissertation,” Cashman said.

Derek Hubbard, a younger Spanish lecturer who was non-renewed, said he was planning on enrolling in a Ph.D. program at UNH.

“I took the GRE’s in November, and I was going to apply to the Ph.D. in Education Curriculum Development here at UNH. That was all on my own accord, without knowing that I was going to be let go,” Hubbard told the Facebook page Humans of UNH. He was not able to be reached for comment for this article.

Budget challenges

The reason initially given in lecturers’ non-renewal letters was a “substantial deficit” in COLA.

According to budget reports of the last three years obtained by The New Hampshire from the office of the Provost, COLA experienced a $5.4 million deficit during FY18 (last year), which is 7.3 percent of their operating revenues. For the coming year, COLA projects that the deficit will decrease to $4.7 million, or 6.5 percent of their operating budget.

“We have financial challenges that we’re continuing to face, just like so many other institutions as well. It’s a difficult time for the liberal arts in particular,” said Brett Gibson, associate dean for faculty in COLA, “We’ve made progress. And last year, part of those hard efforts was that progress, trying to rightsize. But we still have a long way to go.”

Challenges among university liberal arts programs is part of a national growing trend. In 2015, the number of new degrees in the humanities dropped below 12 percent for the first time since 1987, according to a May 2017 study by Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences which tracks data on the state of humanities fields.

“This is a national issue. All higher education institutions are seeing a decline in students majoring in liberal arts,” writes the Provost’s Office in a statement about the COLA budget sent to The New Hampshire.

To recover from the deficit, the Provost’s Office writes that COLA is continuing to build on outreach efforts for prospective students at high schools and community colleges as well as to graduated students. COLA also hopes to further advance faculty scholarship and creative activity, develop new areas to respond to societal changes (such as the new English major option: “Text, Business Writing & Digital Studies”), and increase scholarships and funds for internships, study abroad opportunities and faculty travel.

“COLA is committed to sound financial practices and to using resources efficiently. We are looking at ways to maintain our high standards of teaching and scholarship while simultaneously avoiding the duplication of activities/functions across the college,” says Interim Dean of COLA Michele Dillon.

According to the COLA budget report, the college estimates that it will save more than $2.5 million in employee compensation this year.

Unanswered questions

Gibson could not speak on individual cases of lecturers, but says each non-renewal was made for a variety of reasons.

“For every case it was different, and I think that was part of the confusion,” Gibson said, “I think the rollout of that was hard to understand in terms of the different messages, but it’s a combination of factors for each of the individuals. It’s a case-by-case basis. So there’s no one factor. Economics is of course one of the biggest ones. We take a look at that, we want to make sure we’re being efficient and offering a cost-effective program for our students.”

Two lecturers interviewed for this article, Pokorny and Pulkkinen, say the discrimination complaint is about getting answers as to why, after their many years of working at UNH, their contracts were not renewed. They say that COLA never gave them specific reasons for their own individual cases.

“I went everywhere just trying to find answers and couldn’t get one,” Pulkkinen said, “I cannot wait to get the response back. I really don’t know why they did this. I really don’t. They need to come up with a reason, and if they can’t get one, it’s because of age.”

Pokorny believes her non-renewal is a result of UNH cycling out older lecturers with seniority and higher salaries for younger lecturers that UNH can pay less.

“They erroneously think that it is good for their image to have a large number of their faculty with young and fresh faces, and Ph.D. in front of their names,” Pokorny says.

Abril Sanchez, the younger Spanish lecturer who now teaches at a high school, agrees with Pokorny that age was a factor. Abril Sanchez says he was due for a promotion in fall 2018 had his contract been renewed.

“This was just a plan in order to weaken our labor rights and make the positions cheaper…it’s going to be a rotation of people so they always keep them at the lowest rung of salary,” Abril Sanchez said.

Karyl Martin, Associate General Counsel for the University System of New Hampshire, said that the university must provide a written response to the charges of discrimination filed by Sept. 24; following the response, an investigator will be assigned to the case and begin an impartial investigation of each charge.