Home News Columbia College Chicago lays off 70 faculty and staff

Columbia College Chicago lays off 70 faculty and staff

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When Lillian Gecker received a surprise invitation for a mandatory Microsoft Teams meeting, the Columbia College Chicago therapist got a bad feeling. 

She learned Thursday that she was one of 70 faculty and staff members laid off. The school also eliminated 32 vacant positions, citing declining student enrollment and ongoing financial woes. The news left her “surprised and disheartened,” especially after a prior email said the college wasn’t “planning reductions in student counseling.”

“I’m a really thoughtful person, especially when it comes to big decisions like my career, and to have a big life change thrust on me without any warning or any agency in the decision has been incredibly stressful,” she said. “I’m already kind of just scraping by, so I’m really not in a position where I can afford to lose a paycheck.”

Declining enrollment has contributed to the college’s deficit, a school spokesperson said in a statement. The deficit is expected to increase to $38 million by the end of the current fiscal year. The school announced last month that first-year deposits were down 46% and transfer deposits down 36% compared to the year before, as first reported in Columbia’s student newspaper. 

“Administrative adjustments are needed to reflect the fact that the college serves fewer students,” the spokesperson said, adding that “this decision was not made lightly and was determined after long and careful review.”

“We remain committed to providing our students with an industry-facing creative education that remains accessible and empowers our students to be successful leaders in their chosen field,” the statement said. 

The cuts impacted 20% of unionized staff, according to Craig Sigele, president of the United Staff of Columbia College, the union representing Columbia employees. 

“These hardworking individuals have been integral to the vibrant, creative community we cherish. While we deeply regret this course of action, we hold onto the hope that the (Board of Trustees’) plans will indeed revitalize our brilliant college,” Sigele said. “Our goal remains to provide an education that empowers our creative students, helping them to become successful professionals in their chosen fields.”

The layoffs come less than two months after union members delivered a petition to Columbia President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, who is stepping down in July, asking him to seek alternative budget strategies to avoid layoffs. Hundreds of adjunct faculty went on strike last year for almost 50 days, believed to be the longest in higher education history, after the school eliminated classes to cut costs. 

The Board of Trustees instructed the college to cut its budget deficit in half by September, spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis told the Tribune in April. Layoffs were an “unavoidable part of budget reductions,” Lukidis said at the time, because half of the school’s operating budget is personnel-related. The Board of Trustees also voted to increase tuition by 5% in the fall. 

It felt like the college created a “culture of anxiety” to prompt staff to leave on their own said Gecker, co-membership chair for the union. Students and staff shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of “financial missteps,” she said. 

The advising office, library, admissions and enrollment, career center and the counseling services office were among the departments affected by layoffs, she said. 

Gecker said she’s grateful the school is providing severance through the end of August but is concerned about finding a job with good health insurance. Faculty impacted by the layoffs will receive severance packages, Columbia’s spokesperson confirmed. 

Gecker is also questioning how the school will properly meet students’ mental health needs after eliminating four out of five staff therapist positions. Gecker, who has been in the role for slightly more than a year, said her job largely involved providing individual therapy sessions to students, who have 12 sessions per year included in their tuition and fees. 

“We already have had students who fall through the cracks, have to wait to get services, aren’t able to get regular therapy appointments,” she said. “In our worst-case scenarios, mental health can be life and death. We do have a role, at times, in helping students stay safe when they’re experiencing self-harm or suicidal ideation, even to the point of facilitating hospitalization.” 

“I’m not sure who’s going to be able to really help students who are desperately in need, as well as those who just really need a safe person to talk to,” Gecker said. 

In response, Lukidis told the Tribune Columbia isn’t reducing its counseling services. The college will offer a combination of four on-campus licensed therapists and a third-party telehealth online provider with “24/7 access to therapists with a broad array of specializations and backgrounds,” Lukidis said.

Gecker doesn’t believe telehealth services are an effective alternative, she said. Many students, particularly those living in dorms, don’t have a private space for appointments, and this can remind young people of negative experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. 

“When I took this job last year I was impressed with the college’s investment in student mental health, and especially given the high need of our student body, it’s shocking that the administration turned their back on their commitment to student wellbeing,” she said. 

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