Smriti Gurung was planning to double-major in geography and sustainability at Keene State College.
The rising sophomore, who lives in Hooksett, loved her introductory geography course last year, and intended to declare it as one of her majors this fall, after taking a few more classes in the department.
But now, she’s not sure what she’s going to study. Geography is one of six academic programs Keene State is suspending — meaning the college will not enroll any new students in them — following the most recent round of faculty reductions earlier this month, part of the college’s multiyear effort to adjust to a smaller student body and eliminate a $14 million budget deficit.
“I think it’s just very sad,” Gurung said. “It’s disheartening because ... I thought I had time, so I didn’t hand in my paper at the registrar’s office.”
The sustainability department remains intact, but Gurung said she’s now undecided about her course of study because her plan to double-major in geography and sustainability stemmed from her desire to explore the connection between the two topics.
“I wanted to do geography because it encompasses everything that I love,” said Gurung, who was born in Nepal and moved to the U.S. just before turning 8. “... But now I don’t even have that option.”
So, Gurung said, she’s exploring other choices, like possibly double-majoring in sustainability and communications, or pursuing anthropology and sociology.
Along with geography, the other programs ending include American studies, physics and women’s and gender studies, in addition to minors in information studies and art history, according to Keene State spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte. Minors in physics and in women’s and gender studies will remain available, she said. A limited number of teacher-certification programs will also close, she said.
Overall, the students majoring in the programs affected by the cuts represent about 3 percent of the student body, Ricaurte said. Students already enrolled in these programs will be able to complete their degrees.
“I just recently declared women’s and gender studies this past spring, so I got really lucky,” said Chantel Salas, who is going into her junior year. “I know other students who are less fortunate than I am and didn’t declare it yet, and now can’t.”
Even though she’ll be able to continue in women’s and gender studies, Salas — a Fort Worth, Texas, native who is also majoring in film studies with a minor in addiction — said she’s not sure yet how the latest faculty reductions will affect her. The cuts, announced July 8, include seven faculty members who took voluntary buyouts, and 18 professors in low-enrollment academic programs who were laid off.
“I won’t really know [the effects of the cuts] until I start taking classes in the fall and spring of this year, because I don’t know who was let go and who is staying,” Salas said.
Sarah Bollinger — a Keene native going into her final semester majoring in geography, outdoor recreation and planning with minors in art history and Keene State’s honors program — said the cuts significantly affect her capstone research project.
She was working closely with two professors to research the influence of the indigenous pagan Scottish population on early Christian manuscripts in the British Isles. But both of Bollinger’s advisers lost their jobs, she said.
“I’m certain that the end result of this will be much less than what I originally set out to do,” Bollinger said. “Because a large part of this process is having conversations with people who know about this. … But without that dialogue, it doesn’t feel like academically guided research anymore. It feels like a hobby project.”
Bollinger added that she already registered to take courses this fall with professors who were laid off, leaving her uncertain whether those classes will actually be offered.
“And some of these classes are very specialized, so I would be amazed if they found adjuncts to teach these classes,” she said. “... And being so close to the end, it is very unnerving.”
Ricaurte said the college has begun contacting students registered for classes offered by professors who lost their jobs. That outreach will continue into August, she said, and students can work with their deans and advisers to determine their best options.
The reductions earlier this month end the college’s “realignment” effort, which formally began in 2018 and has included several rounds of faculty buyouts. With the most recent faculty cuts, Keene State expects its budget deficit to drop below $5 million for the upcoming academic year, President Melinda Treadwell told The Sentinel when the reductions were announced. That gap had swelled to $14 million over the past year, as enrollment at the college fell further due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keene State finished the most recent school year with about 2,900 students, a decrease from roughly 3,350 students in the 2019-20 academic year. The college had nearly 5,000 students in the fall of 2013, and hopes to return to about 3,200 students.
As part of the latest round of buyouts, which Treadwell announced in early June, faculty members had about two weeks to decide whether to accept voluntary separation packages that include 1½ years of salary and 5½ years of health insurance, she told The Sentinel at the time.
Those offers, which followed a separate series of buyouts over the past year that resulted in a net loss of 14 professors, were available to faculty in all departments. Two other faculty members requested but were not granted buyouts because they teach in popular programs, Ricaurte said. The college is also hiring seven new faculty members in popular academic programs this fall as it looks to put “more investment into programs that students are seeking,” she said.
Loren Launen, a biology professor and president of the Keene State College Education Association, said union members met with Treadwell regularly over the past several months to discuss the faculty reductions, including negotiating the details of the voluntary buyouts.
“She worked very hard to inform the union about what was happening throughout the spring and into the summer weeks,” Launen said of Treadwell. “And she worked very diligently to use the language in the contract as she made her decisions. So I think there was good communication.”
Still, Launen said, the cuts are an unfortunate outcome for the union, which will be down to about 125 full-time, tenure-track members when the cuts take effect Aug. 6, close to a one-third reduction in membership compared to a year ago.
“I don’t want to paint a rosy light on 25 people losing their jobs,” Launen said. “And so we are concerned for the people who have lost their jobs. It’s a very limited job market, and we are concerned for them, and have tried to support our members going through this as best we can.”
This support included providing union representation at meetings where faculty members were informed the college would be eliminating their positions. At those meetings, Launen said, faculty members were offered the enhanced separation package, or retrenchment, which means professors would work another semester or two, depending on their years of experience, before their role is cut.
“And there were pros and cons to both,” Launen said. “The enhanced separation package … came with 1½ years of salary and 5½ years of medical coverage. But it also has a clause saying you cannot work in a full-time, benefitted position for the University System of New Hampshire ever again. So that’s a con.”
The majority of laid-off faculty members chose the buyout package, Launen said. Those who opted for retrenchment will be able to apply for another job with the university system, should such a position exist, she added.
And despite the latest faculty cuts — which Treadwell previously said marked an “emotional moment” for many at the college, and “a very hard decision” for Keene State administrators — Launen said college leaders remain dedicated to their educational mission.
“Faculty are very committed to working hard to continue to ensure high-quality education opportunities for our students,” she said. “ And I think the administration is working hard to minimize any sort of confusion or negative impact that this might have on students.”
Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons contributed to this report.