‘It does not have to be this way’: More than 85 Pomona faculty call for reversal of staff furloughs

One table with chairs in an outdoor area of Frary Dining Hall
Tables surrounding the entrance of Frary Dining Hall. (Anoushka Sameer • The Student Life)

In response to Pomona College’s decision Tuesday to furlough hundreds of staff members, 85 faculty members demanded the furloughs be called off in a letter presented to college administrators Wednesday.

The letter, addressed to Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr and several vice presidents of the college, said faculty were “kept largely in the dark” about the details of what they called a “drastic step” to furlough workers and demanded more transparency around the college’s decision making. 

The letter stressed that furloughs affect the “most vulnerable” staff at the college, particularly women and people of color, those whom the letter calls “foundational” to the college community and to first-generation, low income students.

As a college that prides itself on being a community, unfortunately, the actions taken against staff members and without real community consultation do not reflect these values,” the letter said. 

The letter — signed by nearly half of the school’s 186 faculty members, with more signing on after Wednesday, according to several professors — called on Pomona to “make use of the endowment in responsible but creative ways,” and for all affected groups to be included moving forward.

In its announcement of staff furloughs Tuesday, Pomona cited a “deepening impact on college finances” in the form of a $37 million budget deficit for the fiscal year, which exceeded previous projections due to lack of revenue from room and board payments and the number of students who have taken gap years and leaves of absences.

However, faculty who signed the letter said that furloughing was a decision made too soon.

While acknowledging the financial crisis the college faces, history professor and signatory Victor Silverman said the furloughs are “financially unnecessary” and could be avoided.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. The college does not face the kind of crisis financially where it needs to start furloughing,” Silverman said. “There are very serious financial issues. But there are many ways for the college to approach that that would not fall on the people with the least resources employed by the college.” 

Silverman said the primary demand of the faculty is to reverse the decision and then allow faculty to have input on decision making going forward. 

“The way the whole process has gone has been very disturbing to a lot of faculty, because while the administration was very good at letting people know that this was happening … we did not as faculty have an influence on this decision,” he said. “What we would like is to have the decision reversed and then have influence on how the college proceeds insteads. That’s what we are asking for at bottom.”

The furloughs, full and partial, were “crafted to minimize loss of income as much as possible” and maximize eligibility for federal and state unemployment benefits, Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall told TSL via email Friday.

However, Silverman emphasized that faculty are concerned about California’s backlog of unemployment claims, which has left the Employment Development Department struggling to respond to pending claims. 

“Even though the administration is talking about unemployment benefits and the extra $300 from the federal government that might come with unemployment, there’s no certainty about when that money will arrive, or how easy it will be to get,” Silverman said. “There’s a lot of problems with people getting the unemployment payments that they deserve.”

Kendall said the college acknowledges the staffs’ divergent views and is continuing to have conversations about how to respond to the pandemic and what he called “the biggest financial crisis our college has seen in our lifetimes.”

“We held community town halls each month starting in spring to openly discuss the financial impact of the pandemic and will continue this critical discussion as the crisis goes on,” he said.

Pomona has said it’s fully utilizing the endowment within its internal guidelines and legal boundaries. 

“The purpose of the endowment is to support the college today, tomorrow and in perpetuity; spending more from the endowment now will impact our budgets down the road,” Pomona’s website says.

The college sought to maintain the connection between work and pay rather than reducing the pay of all faculty and staff, which means having to temporarily furlough employees who currently have no work to do or who can only work partial hours while the colleges are operating online, the website says. 

Staff are expected to return if campus life resumes in spring 2021. 

“As the pandemic and resulting economic factors lead to temporary furloughs, our aim is to bring affected employees back to work as soon as possible,” the college’s website says.

This article was last updated Monday, Sept. 7 at 1:43 p.m.

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