Credit: John Hernandez | MPR News

When Mira Altobell-Resendez heard about proposed budget cuts to the University of Minnesota’s ethnic studies departments, they started a petition.

“I was shocked right away,” said Altobell-Resendez, who graduated from the U in 2022. “[Ethnic studies classes] are so impactful on so many people’s lives, especially Black and brown students. If the U wants to tout itself as a place where these people belong and where they can feel accepted and like they’re welcome, then these programs need to exist.”

Altobell-Resendez worried the proposed cuts were part of a national trend. In Florida, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis has banned Advanced Placement African American Studies classes and any K–12 instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. In Northern states, they said, “The same attacks have been happening. They’re just in a less direct way, such as budget cuts.”

Four days after the petition was launched, it had more than 1,000 signatures. The petition explained that the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts was planning on cutting positions in many departments—including particularly severe cuts to American Indian Studies and Chicano and Latino Studies. The campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society announced a protest for Friday afternoon.

But those proposed budget cuts for the 2023–2024 school year were based on an “error,” John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, wrote in a Thursday email to faculty and staff.

In his email, Coleman explained that some cuts were necessary due to declining enrollment and the end of federal COVID relief funding. Altogether, the college plans a reduction of $2 million, or 5.6 percent, in the budget item for teaching assistants and instructors who are not tenure-track faculty. 

However, Coleman said, the budget requests from some ethnic studies departments, which he described as “crucial to the mission of the college,” were “inadvertently lower” than last year. A coding error also contributed to the math problem, resulting in larger proposed cuts than necessary. The College of Liberal Arts has invited the ethnic and gender studies departments to resubmit their budget requests, he said.

“It’s a little embarrassing to have to write to you about that error, but given a choice I suppose I’d rather be embarrassed and have relatively positive news to share as in this instance,” he wrote.

Ana Paula Ferreira, chair of the Chicano and Latino Studies department, said the cut to her department was based on an administrator’s error in the funding request. That error led to nearly a 30 percent reduction in next year’s instructional budget—that is, the teaching budget for lecturers and graduate students. 

A similar error happened in the American Indian Studies department, she said. The chair of the American Indian Studies department, Vicente Diaz, was unavailable for an interview, but confirmed that the cuts to his department’s budget were more nuanced than initially presented.

Ferreira said the Chicano and Latino Studies department will revise and resubmit its funding request. She expects that part-time lecturers who have been hired for the last few years will continue to teach courses with “healthy student enrollments” next year.

Her department has also just hired a new professor and chair, she said. “I’m actually in awe of the present dean, John Coleman, for all the faculty he authorized for the Department of [Chicano and Latino Studies] since 2015,” she added.

Some teaching assistants, classes may not be funded

Sumanth Gopinath, a music theory professor, is the president of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which released a statement condemning the budget cuts. 

Gopinath said that the College of Liberal Arts should have double-checked the low budget numbers in the ethnic studies departments. Though those departments will not face disproportionate cuts, he said, the cuts will be felt throughout the College of Liberal Arts.

“No matter what it is, we’re talking about a lot of money,” he said. “And that adds up to lots of courses and sections that have to be canceled.”

The timing of the budget cuts means that some graduate students who have been promised teaching assistant positions may not receive them, he said. Some classes that have been posted for registration in the fall may not happen.

“The broader trend has been that essentially, the university has balanced its budget, and the college has balanced its budget, on the backs of these instructors,” he said.

“The broader trend has been that essentially, the university has balanced its budget … on the backs of these instructors.”

Sumanth Gopinath, U Music theory professor

Gopinath has taught at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music since 2005. Since the recession of 2008, he said, he has noticed the School of Music shift from holding ambitious events to facing budget erosion. Cuts to the School of Music have sometimes resulted in fewer course offerings for non-Western music and fewer opportunities for voice lessons.

“When you make really, really deep cuts, and you keep making them over and over, and you start putting programs at peril and risk, all of a sudden the stakes get very, very high,” he said. “It starts making you look less attractive to undergrads who want to take things and want to have this wealth of options and opportunities.” 

Sasmit Rahman, a psychology major and member of Students for a Democratic Society, was glad to hear that the ethnic studies budget cuts were a mistake. Still, they said, if the university needs to make cuts, it should look to its administration.

“It’s really disheartening to see how willing they are to take funds and resources away from liberal arts and these programs that really impact students in a meaningful way instead of trimming their salaries just a little bit,” Rahman said.

“It’s really disheartening to see how willing [the U administration is] to take funds and resources away from liberal arts and these programs that really impact students in a meaningful way instead of trimming their salaries just a little bit.”

sasmit rahman, u psychology major

Altobell-Resendez criticized the university for not being more transparent about the budget cuts. “There still shouldn’t be big cuts to the College of Liberal Arts, because these are the departments that teach moral and ethical competencies the best,” they said.

A silver lining of the mixup: Seeing how passionate students are about ethnic studies, Rahman said. Even though students are busy with finals, more than a thousand students have signed the petition, hundreds have shared it—and lots of people are talking about the need for ethnic and gender studies, Rahman said.

“It’s great that the administration isn’t following the nationwide trend of cutting ethnic studies, but also it’s been really amazing to see how passionate students are about defending this,” Rahman said. “A lot of administrative proposals, students aren’t generally aware of it. But this is something a lot of people have connected with and are really concerned about.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...