Georgia’s university workers rip state budget cuts at Gwinnett College building groundbreaking

education icon with silhouette of teach in front of class, holding a baton to a board.

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

April 12, 2023

The financial year for Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities starts in July with significant cuts for all institutions in the budget awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.

The governor has 40 days from the end of the Legislative session to sign or veto legislation, or to let them become law without his signature.

The budget passed by the state Legislature calls for a $66 million decrease in state funding, which a group of professors at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville said will harm their ability to retain talent and instruct students.

Jill Penn, co-president of the United Campus Workers of Georgia and an associate professor of biology, said underfunding has been a problem for years, and many are worried the new cuts will make life even harder.

“We have a lot of vacancies and they’re not filling them,” she said. “Some departments have lost 25% of their faculty in the last three years because people are so frustrated. I’m still here because I want to try to make a change, but other people are so frustrated they’re going somewhere else. They’re going to go somewhere  where working conditions are better, they can get paid more, they’re respected. So I guess we’re here today to try to stop things from getting even worse and to turn things around.”

Penn and other members of the university union gathered on the campus Tuesday to raise awareness about the cuts. The gathering came after campus leaders broke ground on a new convocation center, which Penn said suggests out-of-place priorities.

“We can’t take care of the stuff we have right now,” she said. “We’re not getting enough money for maintenance. We’re in a crisis. This money should be spent on people rather than a new building.”

Georgia Gwinnett  taught about 11,000 of the state’s 334,000 college students in 2022. According to a release from the University System of Georgia, it would be set to lose more than $1.6 million if the governor approves the budget. The school’s current budget was just over $166.1 million, according to university system documents.

In a statement, Chancellor Sonny Perdue said 20 of the state’s public institutions are already set to receive less money next year because the state’s funding formula is based in part on enrollment numbers. Only Augusta University, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, the University of Georgia, Kennesaw State University and Georgia Southwestern State University saw enrollment increases between fall 2016 and fall 2022. The rest saw enrollment decline.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome, given the work done over the years by our state leaders to elevate higher education and send Georgia on a path to ascension,” Perdue said. “It will have a significant impact on institutions and the services that students and families depend on to advance their prosperity and help Georgia succeed.”

Perdue directed state lawmakers to slash the university system’s budget while he was governor during the Great Recession.

Union members from across the university system said low pay keeps talented teachers and researchers out of Georgia’s higher ed system.

Assistant professor Eric Castater said he has worked at Kennesaw State University for nearly four years, and the only cost of living adjustment he has received was the $5,000 approved by the state Legislature last year.

“While that increase has certainly been helpful, it has been insufficient to keep up with inflation in recent years,” he said in a statement. “A declining annual salary for existing employees is not good for employee morale, retention or recruitment.”

Nellie Cox, a graduate teaching assistant at Georgia State University, said she teaches three courses per year in exchange for a tuition waiver and a $13,000 stipend, which is not enough to live on in metro Atlanta.

“The situation is so dire that many in my cohort have taken on additional jobs just to make ends meet,” she said. “Very few of us can earn enough to live above the poverty line.”

Professors at Georgia Gwinnett said they have also seen important maintenance projects delayed, sometimes for years.

“There were a good three years where the automatic door that uses handicap access to open didn’t open, a good three years,” said Rebecca Ward, an associate professor of biology. “So when I would take people on tours around here, I would make sure we never went through that door so they didn’t see how bad it was. It’s embarrassing.”

As Ward spoke with the Recorder, she paused to greet a passing student and congratulate her for a recent award she had won.

“What’s special about GGC is our small class sizes and our dedicated faculty who came here specifically to teach as our primary obligation,” she said. “We know and love our students. We know their parents’ names, their brothers’ and sisters’ names. That’s the culture that we need to maintain and strengthen at GGC.”

Ward said she is hoping university leadership will prioritize paying faculty a fair wage and that state leadership will figure out a way to fund higher education.

Lawrenceville Democratic Sen. Nabilah Islam, whose district includes the university, spoke with some of the professors Tuesday after she and Dacula Democratic Rep. Farooq Mughal attended the groundbreaking ceremony. Rep. Farooq Mughal and Sen. Nabilah Islam speak with campus workers and supporters at Georgia Gwinnett College. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Islam said she and her colleagues whose districts include universities are feeling the frustration.

“No one is happy with these budget cuts,” she said. “They were very expensive and very hurtful and disproportionately impact smaller universities and institutions like Georgia Gwinnett College.”

“I’m working with my Senate colleagues currently to figure out what we can do in the interim,” she added, “because I think that would be important if there is something that we can do to fight back against these cuts. We’ll definitely keep advocating for more funding.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.