Cuts at Maryville College Touch a Nerve

The elimination of one position—held by teacher Dave Powell—inspired a 550-signature petition, but to little effect.

While news and scrutiny of the University of Tennessee's budget is fairly relentless, smaller institutions nearby facing the same economic hardships suffer somewhat unnoticed. Maryville College has lost nearly 30 percent of its endowment during the recession/depression, and the school began implementing cost-cutting measures in January, including salary reductions and spending and hiring freezes. And an April 14 memo from MC president Gerald W. Gibson announced to staff and faculty that additional steps to save money would include the elimination of six full-time and four part-time staff positions at the end of May. (In the meantime, Gibson has also announced his own retirement.)

One of those staff positions to be eliminated still belongs to English teacher Dave Powell. Powell is himself a 1966 graduate of Maryville College, and has taught off-and-on there since that time. He's been on staff since 1994. (Mr. Powell declined to comment for this article.) On April 23, a group identifying themselves only as "Maryville College Alumni" initiated an online petition to show support for Powell, and the petition had 550 signatures at press time. Some of the entries are poignant and impassioned pleas for Powell's position, and tell how Powell changed the petitioner's life. Some are rants against Maryville College administration, accusing it of mismanagement. Some are anonymous and claim no connection to Maryville College at all, and the people signing on appear to be all over the country. Many of the entries incorrectly refer to Powell as a professor.

In the film Dead Poets Society, 20-some students stood on their desks to protest when Robin Williams' character was fired. Here you may have the 21st-century equivalent. And much of the petition's power no doubt comes from the language skills that Powell helped to enhance

"It was not a matter of his performance," says Dr. Jeff Fager, vice president and dean of the college, of Powell's dismissal. "It was the staff position he occupies. The other nine people whose positions were eliminated also did good and important work. But their work was not as public."

Powell typically teaches general education courses, such as composition, but also teaches electives like creative writing and poetry. This semester he's teaching a 200-level survey of British literature. He developed the environmental writing course that became the current freshman seminar Perspectives on the Environment. According to Dr. Susan Schneibel, chair of the Languages and Literature Division, all of the courses that Powell taught will continue to be offered.

"I know there are many people who think we made a very poor decision educationally," says Fager. "[Powell] obviously had a great impact on many people."

Soon after his appointment in 1993, president Gibson formed a Planning and Budget Advisory Committee (PBAC), comprised of members of staff, faculty, students and the president's cabinet. In January PBAC began developing a list of criteria that administrators could hold up to expenses—such as personnel—when determining who or what is expendable. Those criteria are along the lines of what most households and businesses have been weighing lately, if you can imagine them in admin-speak. Is it mission-critical? Will it affect enrollment?

"We—the vice presidents—believe that we made the best decision possible under these circumstances," says Fager. "There is no good news. The ‘least-worst' news is that the cuts were not deeper. We don't believe we'll have to do any more of this in the near future. I think we will live frugally for the next few years."