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UT Students and Campus Workers Protest Recent Layoffs

Claire Heddles

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd gave his annual State of the University address Friday, describing his vision for the university using the tag line "Be One UT." According to Boyd, the acronym represents university values like being bold and impactful and embracing diversity. 

Moments after Boyd's address concluded, students and union organizers gathered on UT Knoxville's campus, contrasting the tag line against the recent layoff of 70 facilities workers at UT Health Sciences Center (UTHSC) in Memphis.

“When Randy Boyd says we stand together as one UT, we really need to address what that means," Anne Langendorfer, who represents campus workers, said. "What does it mean to be bold and impactful and embrace diversity? It doesn’t mean laying off 70 workers.” 

According to the university, the need for facilities and custodial services decreased significantly since the pandemic began due to employees working remotely and students learning virtually. But while all UT campuses saw decreased in-person traffic due to COVID, the Health Sciences Center is the only UT campus to lay off regular employees. The University of Tennessee Knoxville's student body president Karmen Jones urged the university not to neglect the majority-Black workers. 

"UT Health Science Center is located in a majority Black city, and the 70 essential workers who are laid off are predominantly Black. So let me be clear, this would never happen at UT Knoxville, why is the one campus with majority Black workers being left behind?" Jones said. "This is an act of institutional and elitist racism that leaves people of color struggling to supply for their families in the middle of a global pandemic."

Boyd said in a statement he stands by the Health Science Center's decision, and that the 70 laid-off workers have been extended severance pay through June. 

“I trust in our Chancellors to make decisions that are in the best interest of their campus – sometimes those decisions can be especially challenging, and at times quite heart-wrenching,” Boyd said. “I have great confidence in the UTHSC leadership team that they have tried their level best to minimize the impact of this reduction in force.” 

The University of Tennessee received more than $29 million in federal COVID relief funding, including almost a million to the Health Sciences Center. Despite the aid, the university said custodial staffing needs changed at UTHSC. As the university plans for fully in-person learning this fall, United Campus Workers said it fears the layoffs are one step toward outsourcing and privatizing facilities maintenance on campus. 

The university laid off the 70 Memphis-area workers March 12 and encouraged the laid-off workers to re-apply to 17 new, similar positions. The Health Sciences Center also instituted a hiring freeze through the end of 2021. 

Tony Patton, an electrician and 20-year UT employee, said he felt betrayed by the university when he was fired after working through the COVID pandemic. "We are sacrificing our lives to make sure things get done and these buildings are taken care of," Patton said. "What do they show us in return? They let us go.”

Boyd didn’t mention custodial or facilities workers during his state of the university address. The address focused on UT’s planned acquisition of Martin Methodist College, the university’s new cultural competency in policing program for law enforcement, medical research during the pandemic, and UT's efforts to increase internet access across the state.