Every year, UMass Boston professor Leonard von Morzé motivates students in his early African-American literature course with an exercise he calls the “great American novel pitchfest,” when they scour a library database of old newspapers and other periodicals for literary gems by black authors that might make a good book.
But this year, von Morzé has scrapped the pitchfest. The database, which contains thousands of primary source materials, is one of 26 canceled as part of the university’s effort to cut expenses as Healey Library struggles with a 20 percent loss in funding, or $700,000.
The library is also freezing all purchases of print and electronic media until further notice. The university has reserved $4,000 to purchase a limited number of books requested by faculty for spring 2017 courses. The databases that were cut were used primarily by humanities departments.
The cuts, announced Dec. 14, have infuriated von Morzé and other professors and left them scrambling to change their lesson plans over the holiday break. They said the reductions came as a surprise, with no chance for them to offer input.
“It really is changing the way that I am going to be teaching my early African-American literature class,” he said Wednesday.
UMass Boston as a whole faces a $22.3 million budget shortage this year, driven by rising payroll and construction costs, that has prompted the administration to cut adjunct faculty and make other changes that have sparked protests on campus.
Provost Winston Langley announced the library cuts in an e-mail that contained a note from Daniel Ortiz, dean of library services.
In a subsequent e-mail to the Globe on Wednesday, Ortiz said the cuts were made in haste because the university gave the library short notice they would be required. The choice of which databases to cut for now was made simply based on which subscriptions were about to expire, he said.
Next semester, the library plans to meet with departments one by one to review the cuts and remaining subscriptions to identify what is needed, he said.
“As difficult as it is to see some databases cancelled late this academic year, the cutbacks become an opportunity to engage users and faculty in particular to assess what is used and needed for instruction and research,” he wrote.
Cutbacks are common at academic libraries — like UMass Boston’s — that are funded by enrollment, public funding, and other sources that vary annually, Ortiz said. UMass receives most of its revenue from tuition but a portion from the state.
“This year, after previous reductions in state support in past years had negligible repercussions on library funding, the reductions or cutbacks caught up and action was required quickly,” Ortiz said by e-mail to the Globe.
The largest cutback came in 2002, he said, after state revenue plummeted following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. After those cuts, he said, he worked with professors to identify what they needed and ultimately expand. the collection.
Langley, the provost said in a statement to the Globe, UMass is undergoing “multiple transitions,” including in the way it procures library materials.
“As we are growing as a research university, we have focused more and more on original source materials, with fewer books and certain journals,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, we have found it necessary to eliminate certain volumes, indexes, and journals as we seek to adjust costs; however, we are pursuing adequate alternatives to ensure that students, faculty, and other library patrons will continue to be well served.”
In an e-mail, UMass system spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said he was not aware of any other UMass campuses having made similar cuts in their subscriptions and licenses.
But some professors said the cuts are just the latest in a pattern of administrators taking unilateral action that hurts faculty without first soliciting their input.
“Faculty are seriously disturbed by what the cuts suggest about the university’s priorities,” said Sari Edelstein, an associate English professor.
The databases that were cut disproportionately affect the humanities.
Edelstein, who is moderator of the faculty senate for the College of Liberal Arts, said she heard from nine department heads, including those overseeing history, women’s studies, classics, Africana studies, psychology, English, and Latin American studies, within a day of the announcement about the library cuts.
Edelstein said she is writing a book about the emergence of age as a part of personal identity that will now be more difficult to finish. She predicted that some faculty will seek jobs elsewhere without access to the journals and the ability to buy new books.
“The aspiration of being a top-tier research university seems pretty false,” Edelstein said.
Among the databases whose subscriptions were canceled are African American Heritage, American Periodicals Online, Archives of Human Sexuality, British Periodicals I & II, Sage Knowledge, and Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Online.
The journals might seem arcane, but professors and students use them daily.
The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is something of a LexisNexis for classics, containing not only the largest Latin dictionary in the world but also information on a word’s etymology, what ancient grammarians said about it, alternate orthographies, and references to other literature about the word, according to classics professor Peter Barrios-Lech, who wrote to administrators to protest the cuts.
Barrios-Lech used the database to complete his new book, “Linguistic Interaction in Roman Comedy,” he said in his e-mail, and said it is not only a fundamental tool but a means to teach master’s students how to do research.
“There is no way I could continue to do my research without access to this tool,” he wrote.