Citing a budget shortfall and lowered enrollment, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) announced broad staff layoffs just weeks after workers there voted to unionize and two days after the union petitioned management to refrain from making unilateral changes to their working conditions without engaging in bargaining. The restructuring is expected to eliminate roughly 10 percent of the union’s bargaining unit ahead of initial contract negotiations.
Employees across multiple departments at the college on May 24 voted 86–17 to join SEIU Local 500, which represents staff at colleges, universities, public schools, and nonprofits in Maryland and Washington, DC, including employees of Goucher College, Howard University, Planned Parenthood, and the Democratic National Committee. On June 27, workers representing the MICA staff union delivered a petition to college president Samuel Hoi, asking that MICA’s administration “respect the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)” and abstain from altering employee working conditions ahead of the union’s inaugural contract negotiations. According to union member Siân Evans, an instructional librarian at the school’s Decker Library, the petition received no response, with Hoi’s office failing to acknowledge acceptance. On June 29, the administration announced cross-department layoffs affecting twenty-four positions in an email sent to all faculty and staff.
“The restructuring decision is based on the positions and not based on the individuals currently in the positions,” read the email, which was issued by Hoi’s office and which Artforum viewed. “Of the approximately 24 filled positions that will be affected, we expect that about half of them will be within the newly formed staff bargaining unit represented by SEIU Local 500. We have agreed to bargain with Local 500 about how the restructuring process will affect those positions and about the details of the severance package that will be offered to the represented staff members in those positions.”
“In the library we know there will be four positions eliminated but we don’t know who,” said Evans in an email. “It is making going to work every day to support the amazing students and faculty we do incredibly difficult.”
Evans noted that the union position was that it was “disingenuous for [the administration] to make any unilateral changes to our working conditions prior to entering contract negotiations.” She further contended that “the elimination of approximately twenty-four staff positions, at least ten of which are union members, will cause the loss of well over forty years combined of institutional knowledge, which will unfortunately have a detrimental impact on our students.”
Casting the layoffs as “not in the best interest of MICA’s long-term success,” Evans said, “While we believe there are other options to realize cost savings at the college, and we don’t believe that these options have been explored, we are in the process of attempting to negotiate a fair and balanced severance package for our members.”
According to Evans, SEIU representatives were able to set a date for negotiations with administration only after approaching them and demanding union involvement in the layoff process. An initial “impact meeting” took place July 7, with the second meeting taking place July 15.
Reached for comment, MICA administration responded with a statement, which is pasted in full below.
The current restructuring of MICA is a response to the short-term impact of the pandemic on enrollment as well as long-range strategic considerations.
During the pandemic, MICA experienced smaller incoming classes. This year, the undergraduate enrollment recovery we were expecting has not happened. Having absorbed three academic years of reduced campus-based student cohorts, MICA is effectively a smaller residential college and the current restructuring reflects this reality and is organizationally responsible. Overall, less than 10% of MICA’s total positions have been eliminated and the impact is fairly distributed among all ranks. The eliminations are split nearly evenly between union and non-union members.
In the longer term, regardless of enrollment size, MICA has committed to addressing affordability and adaptive change as a college of art and design in contemporary society. In doing so, the College must confront the traditional cost structure of academia, maximize the return our students receive on their investment in MICA, and continue to look for better ways to operate as an institution of higher education. Based on its mission, MICA is continually assessing the what, how, and why of its offering and services and the current restructuring reflects this assessment and adaptation.
A balanced approach is carefully implemented in taking the necessary restructuring steps. A fair severance package for departing non-union employees has already been developed and the College is actively engaged in conversations with union representatives to determine the final elements of the severance package for union employees who are impacted by the restructuring. All affected employees will be provided with outplacement resources and on-campus mental health support as needed. Additionally, the new fiscal year features pay raises for faculty and market salary adjustments for staff.
For MICA’s tight-knit campus community, it is painful to say goodbye to colleagues, coworkers, and friends. The landscape of higher education is more volatile than ever, and the pandemic has accelerated changes that necessitate difficult choice–creating both short-term disruption and long-term foundational shifts. The restructuring is to ensure that the MICA of today is poised to thrive in the post-pandemic landscape of tomorrow.