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‘It’s inescapable:’ UNCG tenure-track professor worries whether her job will survive cuts

Alicia Aarnio is a physics professor at UNCG. Her department is one of 20 programs the university is eliminating as a result of its academic program review.
Brianna Atkinson
UNC Greensboro physics professor Alicia Aarnio's department is one of 20 programs the university is eliminating as a result of its academic program review.

Alicia Aarnio calls her job at UNC Greensboro a “unicorn.” She’s been an assistant professor at the university since 2018, after moving from Denver, Colorado with her husband Ron.

She sees her job as an academic version of home and in more ways than most, it is. Ron is also a physics professor at UNCG, and his office is right beside hers.

Aarnio said that it’s rare for couples in physics to work together, and compares it to a phenomenon known as the “two body problem.”

“The fact that we were able to not only solve it, but were welcomed here…,” Aarnio said. “It was a huge deal. And that’s a unicorn. I feel like I beat those odds once and I’m not going to again.”

Usually, Aarnio wouldn’t be worried about beating the odds of her and Ron being employed at the same place again. They’ve both been working at UNCG for five and a half years and, as assistant professors, they’re on the tenure-track.

But nothing in their department is usual these days at UNC Greensboro.

Earlier this month, Chancellor Franklin Gilliam announced that he is eliminating several programs, majors and minors from the university. His announcement is the end result of a two-year academic program review.

The review process was spurred by years of declining enrollment and a resulting $22 million loss in revenue.

Twenty undergraduate and graduate programs ended up on the list of programs to cut list, including physics.

“For the last few weeks, (the announcement) has impacted every single facet of my life,” Aarnio said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and I’ve got justifications and numbers running through my head. Like I’m gonna have to defend myself in a few minutes or say something to justify the existence of me and my career.”

Those numbers have also taken up Aarnio’s office. Before the announcement, the giant galaxy rug or the Earth and Sun stuffed planets in her bookshelf might’ve been the centerpieces of her office.

Now, it’s a big whiteboard filled with numbers. Aarnio calls it her “math ain’t mathing” board.

Aarnio's "math ain't mathing" board. Red and purple markers denote courses taught in the physics department. Black marker is for how many students are enrolled and how much money they bring in. Green is for salaries - hers, and the other 6 employees in her department.
Brianna Atkinson
UNC Greensboro physics professor Alicia Aarnio's "math ain't mathing" board. Red and purple markers denote courses taught in the physics department. Black marker is for how many students are enrolled and how much money they bring in. Green is for salaries, which include hers and those of the other six employees in her department.

When comparing salaries to how much students pay per credit hour, Aarnio said she’s found that the physics department pays for itself. And in the countless hours researching her department, she’s also found that it graduates a significant number of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

According to the American Institute of Physics, only eight Black men earned PhDs in physics in 2019 from all universities in the United States. Meanwhile, 651 white men that same year were awarded doctorates in the field.

The number of graduates for Black women is even lower, with only one obtaining a physics PhD in 2019. 123 white women received theirs during the same time.

Chart showing statistics from the American Institute of Physics showing the demographics for PhD physics graduates from 2014-2019.
American Institute of Physics
Chart showing statistics from the American Institute of Physics showing the demographics for PhD physics graduates from 2014-2019.

Aarnio said the physics program at UNCG recently graduated two Black men who went on to obtain their PhDs at other universities.

“Our graduates would increase that number by 25% — just the two of them,” Aarnio said. “(So when) we still got the email that we were cut, it was just stunning. It was like, what does this university actually value? Do they really value upward mobility? Do they value it in places where it has traditionally been inaccessible?”

UNCG’s reputation for social mobility and diversity was the main reason Aarnio decided to move to North Carolina to teach.

When Aarnio was an undergraduate, she attended a women’s college. Every day, she’d see classrooms full of women learning about physics. That changed when she decided to attend a private coed grad school, where she was one of the only women in the room.

“Some of my classmates would pretend I wasn't even in the room,” Aarnio said. “I would speak and they would ignore me like I wasn't even there. So my early encounters of the exclusion that has happened historically, were a complete shock and surprise to me.”

From then on, she made it her mission to bring more representation to the field. Since starting at UNCG, she has been part of several accessibility as well as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Holly Buroughs, a physics senior, said Aarnio has always made them feel like they could have a career in science.

Holly Buroughs is a physics senior at UNCG.
Courtesy of Holly Buroughs
Holly Buroughs is a physics senior at UNCG.

“Coming here, like getting to see a professor who is like me — who has the fun hair, is not a man,” Buroughs said. “Seeing somebody that I didn't have to throw away my entire personality and throw away who I was.”

Like Aarnio, the news of the physics major being discontinued has taken up much of Buroughs’ life. They’ve been attending rallies, student and faculty forums, and even started a petition.

UNCG administration has told students that they will graduate with their major. However, Buroughs said they worry students aren’t going to receive the same quality education they were promised.

Aarnio said multiple people in her department have already received early retirement offers from UNCG administration.

“The university told students, we're going to have a teach-out period that's going to take years and you're going to be able to finish your major,” Aarnio said. “Meanwhile, they just told half of our department if you take this money and go, we'll be really happy.”

UNCG is one of five universities in the UNC System’s “faculty realignment program.”

It’s a fund that gives incentives for tenured employees to retire and is limited to universities that are expected to have declining enrollment. The General Assembly has allotted nearly $17 million dollars to the fund from the state budget.

According to Kimberly Osborne, a UNCG spokesperson, 23 faculty have “indicated an interest in the program.” She said in a statement that seven other faculty have until the end of this month to state whether they are interested.

Anyone who accepts will retire on Aug. 1, and the university projects that it will save $2 million in salaries.

In order to be eligible for the program, faculty must meet three requirements: be at least 55 years of age, be cumulatively employed for at least ten years and be eligible for early or full-service retirement.

Aarnio is in her forties, has only been at UNCG for five and a half years and is relatively early in her career, so she doesn’t qualify — that leaves her status up in the air.

“I was the first one in my family to get my PhD, to really ascend to this path. And now it's vaporizing,” Aarnio said. “I still haven't told my parents actually. I told my mother-in-law, but I haven't told my parents. It's kind of embarrassing. It shouldn't be, but it is.”

Aarnio said it feels like she's failing her family. They took out multiple mortgages just to help her get through school. And every time she’s moved across the country to get her next degree or fellowship opportunity, it’s drained her savings account.

After years of making financial sacrifices to pursue an academic career, Aarnio thought she had finally found some stability.

“I was like maybe I'm actually going to stay here,” Aarnio said. “I'm gonna walk home and I'm gonna see this house that I wanted so badly. I'm going to go inside and see the mess that I have not been able to clean up because I don't have the energy or the time to do it. It's inescapable; it has permeated just every aspect of my life.”

Aarnio said last week that UNCG administrators told the physics department that they would no longer be able to teach astronomy classes.

And according to Robert Anemone, a tenured professor, faculty and staff in the anthropology department, were told they would be let go after the students in their department graduated.

Osborne said in a statement that the UNCG administration will “follow university policy, which requires timely notice well in advance of termination.”

Aarnio said she’s already started doing calculations of how long she can last without a salary.

"I'm 40 years old, and I have a Ph.D. and I'm a professor, and I'm afraid that I'm going to be housing insecure, or have to start all over again," she said. "It's brutal. It's absolutely brutal."

If UNCG decides to fire her department, Aarnio’s not staying in North Carolina. She’s thinking about moving back to Colorado, where she and her husband Ron lived before moving to Greensboro.

But as long as she’s at UNCG, Aarnio says she will keep fighting for the physics department.

“And if I have to go down fighting, if it helps somebody else, then I'm going to do it,” Aarnio said. “If it helps the students. If there's some miracle, and they do reverse course or decide to reassess, redo the process … then it will have been worth it.”

Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. has given no indication that he will reverse course. In his message to the campus announcing his final decision, he said that in the future, “programmatic evaluations will become a more regular part of the landscape.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story - that was changed after it was originally edited - listed Alicia Aarnio with the incorrect academic title and school. She is an assistant professor at UNC Greensboro.

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.