Point Park University assistant professor Kendra Ross. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In the midst of teaching during the pandemic, a Point Park University professor was not too surprised when she received an email informing her she would no longer be employed after the spring semester.

Kendra Ross, a 45-year-old Black woman from Pittsburgh, used to work in the music industry and she knew what it was like to be in a cutthroat environment. So much so that she joked with former coworkers at Universal that she packed a box by the door just in case.

Still, Ross felt optimistic about teaching at Point Park when she first started.

She was approached by other faculty to teach in the business program in 2018 and received her doctoral degree at the university two years later. After teaching as an adjunct faculty member, Ross was placed on tenure track in 2019.

Then, in February, 17 faculty members, many of whom were from marginalized backgrounds, were among those told that their contracts wouldn’t be renewed for the fall. The union that represents the faculty argued that the layoff notices “appeared to target members of minority groups, including women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Point Park University, like many colleges across the country, announced that the institution had to make difficult financial decisions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the university quickly faced backlash from faculty, students and alumni, who criticized Point Park for saying it promoted diversity, while undermining those efforts with layoffs.

“Point Park is an egregiously white space,” Ross said. “People are willing to create a multicultural office. They’re willing to put Brown faces in certain positions. But the fundamental change of the culture? Of how the university operates?

“There’s been little movement on that.”

Four professors who spoke to PublicSource talked about being in predominantly white and heteronormative spaces. The lack of diversity was so notable that the professors felt like they served as sources of comfort for students from marginalized backgrounds. The union representing Point Park’s faculty said 10% of the university’s full-time faculty and staff identify as people of color.

Within months of the decision, an arbitrator said the university was violating the union’s collective bargaining agreement because the layoffs happened after a deadline for contract renewals had passed. Ross and eight other professors had their contracts renewed before the arbitration decision mandated it, a move the university attributed to saving money elsewhere.

“If I talk to prospective students nowadays, I’m going to be honest with them and, say, you know, faculty is one of the best parts of the university…”

With the layoffs overturned, professors experienced a feeling of whiplash — in one moment teaching with the knowledge that they’d need to find a new job and then the next moment learning that the university had to renew their contracts, for now.

But the reversal doesn’t change Point Park’s financial situation.

Point Park spokesman Louis Corsaro wrote in an emailed statement that the decision to not renew those contracts was because the pandemic had caused “significant disruptions in higher education.”

“This has led many universities to readjust its operations to ensure the fulfillment of the biggest priority — providing a high quality education to students,” Corsaro said in the statement.

The university declined to comment about the impact the layoffs would have had on faculty diversity. In an online statement about the importance of diversity to education, Point Park says it is committed to accountability in pursuing its diversity goals.

Over the past year, colleges faced financial disruption due to the pandemic while also facing increased spending on remote learning and safety precautions. While vaccinations mean the next school year could look more normal, some observers question what the future of schools like Point Park will look like. To remain financially stable, colleges also tried different approaches before the pandemic.

“The typical response from small private colleges has traditionally been to try to grow, to try to start new programs to attract more students and spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising. But the pandemic might have changed that,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who has researched and taught higher education financing.

Though the pandemic propelled financial struggles for colleges, Kelchen said they already faced challenges like declining numbers of high school graduates and increased competition from other universities.

“What the pandemic did is it took away a lot of financial runway because they had to go into their reserves to get through the pandemic,” he said.

Point Park predicted a loss of millions of dollars because of the decline in general demand for higher education. Then-Provost John Pearson explained in a Sept. 18 email that the board mandated Point Park close a budget gap of about $10 million, according to documents provided in a May 6 arbitration ruling. In the months following, deans and university leadership discussed eliminating positions or finding other ways to cut costs.

By January, the university decided to not renew contracts with some professors. Though professors were going to be let go, the university said it would not have to cut majors or courses and instead have adjunct faculty, staff and administration teach the courses at a lower cost.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the faculty, said the layoffs violated the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement because the university relied on a section of the agreement that required announcements about contract terminations to be made by Sept. 15.

Point Park University assistant professor Marion Dixon. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Students were also confused by the decision. What would it mean for their graduation requirements? Who would teach the classes they looked forward to in the fall?

For her last year at the university, Sara Buchdahl had wanted to take some of the classes taught by the impacted faculty members. She and other students turned their shock into action with a petition.

“If I talk to prospective students nowadays, I’m going to be honest with them and, say, you know, faculty is one of the best parts of the university and right now I can’t guarantee that you’re going to have the best faculty,” she said in April.

Some faculty were also concerned about the future of their departments.

Marion Dixon, an assistant professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, had a feeling tough financial decisions were going to happen last summer after hearing about possible salary freezes or layoffs. She and another colleague would have been laid off from the small department.

“We’ve had so much support from students and support from alumni, so it’s been really heartening,” said Dixon, who was among a group of nine laid-off faculty who had their contracts renewed before the arbitration ruling mandated it. “Students are going to be so greatly affected, so I feel really badly for them, especially the students in these particular departments that are basically being gutted.”

The May arbitration decision means at least temporary respite for faculty. And some see the hiring of a new provost and president as a positive sign. The new president, Donald Green, has experience with leading changes in enrollment, retention, college’s financial conditions and improved graduation rates for students of color, according to a press release.

“The system is not set up for us to flourish and thrive without us being at the mercy of those in power who are pulling the strings.”

Still, professors are left reeling from the spring semester.

Ben Schonberger, a photography lecturer who was part of the impacted group of faculty, said he spent years diversifying the visual arts program and creating a lecture series with artists who identified as women, queer and Black in an effort to help his students feel represented in the industry.

Even though the arbitrator’s ruling was a victory for faculty, Schonberger said he would have to spend this summer trying to recover from what happened.

“The amount of pain and stress from my family, in my life, it’s not pretty. It’s been pretty damaging to my ability to not only perform in my job but to live a healthy lifestyle,” he said.

He used to joke that summers were a time to heal, but this summer would really be the time for him to practice self-care and establish himself as valuable, regardless of the university’s stance.

Ross, who saw the teaching opportunity as a chance to make an impact for students of color, said she is unsure how she feels about going back to the university.

“I love my students and love what I do, but I have to be my №1 advocate because no one’s gonna do it for me,” she said, adding that she no longer wants to conform to what is traditionally expected of a tenure-track professor. Instead, she said she’ll champion young women and students of color by just being herself.

“The system is not set up for us to flourish and thrive without us being at the mercy of those in power who are pulling the strings,” she said.

She has more opportunities in her path and is not sure she’ll go back to the university. Though she wants to be in academia in the future, she acknowledged the challenges ahead for colleges like Point Park.

Faculty like Dixon want to see the university’s culture change under new leadership.

“Yes, it’s been really hard,” Dixon said. “I want to feel hopeful.”

Correction (6/23/2021): This story previously misstated the year Kendra Ross began teaching and completed her doctoral degree at Point Park.

This story was fact-checked by Chris Hippensteel.

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.