Published October 02. 2012 4:00AM Updated October 02. 2012 6:18PM
New London - Students and faculty at Mitchell College are reeling from the unexpected news that seven professors - 20 percent of the full-time faculty - will lose their jobs at the end of the semester.
"It's Mitchell College. They're taking away from the college part. They're cutting from education and that's what the school is for," Russell Sylvia, a junior at the school, said Monday.
Both the sport and fitness management and early childhood education departments will be cut in half since two of the four professors in each area were let go.
College President Mary Ellen Jukoski said the layoffs announced last week were due to the fact that 720 full-time students enrolled this fall when the college expected 760. The union contract states when the college does a "reduction in force," the newest faculty member is the first to be laid off, she added.
A spokesman for American Federation of Teachers Connecticut confirmed the contract does have this stipulation and professors must be given 15 weeks' notice. The seven professors have been at the college for between two and 10 years. All have doctoral degrees.
Students are joining a new Facebook group to get the professors reinstated, and petitions are circulating on campus. Sylvia, of Moosup, said he would much rather forgo new video game systems and televisions in the student center and dormitories than see professors leave.
Jukoski emphatically dismissed a rumor circulating on campus that the professors' race and ethnicity factored into the choices. She said the college does not discriminate; the decisions were based on the needs of the academic departments and enrollment. The college has 35 full-time professors and 59 adjuncts.
Several of the professors who were laid off are from other countries and one is black. In January, after they have left, there will be only one full-time minority faculty member.
Some students and professors said they don't believe the rumor, but they agreed it doesn't look good that many of the people affected are racial or ethnic minorities.
"Well, I'm black so that is something I'm a little surprised about," Nancy Tolson, one of the early childhood education professors who is losing her job, said when asked about the rumor. "I'm praying that that was not the reason we were picked out. I'm hoping it was just economics."
Tolson, who was hired at Mitchell in 2007, said the layoffs "caught us all off guard" but she continues to keep her spirits up and teach the same way she always has.
"It's about the students and that's really important," she said. "A lot of students emailed me to let me know they're hoping this can be changed and that's encouraging. It really lets me know I'm doing something on campus that they have appreciated."
Some departments have attracted fewer students for years, but the college did not lay off professors, Jukoski said. After having more than 800 full-time students from 2009 to 2011, enrollment dipped to 780 last school year.
The college laid off roughly half of the two dozen specialists in the academic support program for students with learning disabilities in April. Several specialists who work at the Bentsen Learning Resource Center said then they were told the "restructuring" was due to a decreased number of students at the center.
This fall, with the continued decline in overall enrollment and fewer majors in certain disciplines including early childhood education, Jukoski said the school had to adjust its staffing and review its curriculum. Colleges nationwide are "right sizing" their institutions to the student body, she added, including the University of Hartford.
Jukoski, who attributed the college's declining enrollment to the economy, said she knows of students who could not pay the tuition because they could not find a job this summer or a parent was laid off. Some switched to part-time while others didn't return.
Five of the seven professors were laid off according to the general reduction in force clause in the contract, while one was laid off because of the enrollment in the early childhood education department and another was laid off because other faculty members had higher credentials to teach the core curriculum, Jukoski said.
According to several sources at the college, the professors are Tolson and Patricia Phillips in education, Frank Hendrick and Daniel Kresge in sports management, Akram Erik-Soussi, the business administration department chairman, Massoud Barfchin in science, technology, environmental studies and mathematics and Quelia Quaresma-McHugh in communication arts and humanities.
Hendrick, the department chairman, said he was shocked because his department traditionally attracts many students and about 115 students are majoring in the field currently. With two professors instead of four, he said he wonders how the college will offer the same courses and advising "to give the students the degree we promised when we brought them in."
Hendrick, who has taught for more than 25 years, said he is in his fifth year at Mitchell and reorganized the curriculum to give the students more career options, while teaching at least four courses a semester. He was born in Canada and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon.
"I'm starting to field calls from parents who are concerned about what this means for their child," he said. "There is a lot of need for information and not a whole lot I can give."
Anthony Kuntz, a senior from West Hartford, studied sports management before switching to psychology. He said the layoffs didn't make sense because Hendrick and Kresge are "really good teachers," and Hendrick in particular "taught an awful lot of classes."
Kyle Murray, a senior from St. Louis, said many students are very upset because the school is a small college so the students get to know their professors really well. He said he has noticed the drop in enrollment, and it can sometimes "feel like a ghost town."
Murray said he and his friends joke that when they have children, they will have to tell them they graduated from a school that no longer exists.
Jukoski said she and other administrators have been meeting with students about their concerns and she's well aware of the Facebook group. The academic vice president met individually with the professors who were laid off.
"Our admissions office is doing everything it can so that next fall we will not experience this same situation," she said, explaining that they are recruiting in other markets, trying to attract transfer students and veterans and planning for new graduate and adult education programs.
She said she doesn't anticipate any more layoffs at this time.