Massey University has been told it could face severe consequences if it goes ahead with proposed cuts to humanities staff.
A politics professor says plans to slash jobs will affect the university's reputation, the quality of its education and its place in society.
But Massey says it would be irresponsible to keep living outside its means.
The cash-strapped university, staring down an expected deficit of more than $50 million last year, is proposing to reduce staff numbers at its college of humanities and social sciences.
About 40 people could lose their jobs, and politics professor Richard Shaw said that could not come at a worse time.
"It's a matter of public concern, we think, that the cuts that are proposed will damage our college and our university's capacity to contribute the kinds of educated people that economically, socially, politically and culturally are required at a challenging time in history."
No courses are on the chopping block, but staff not affected by the proposal - such as Shaw - were worried about workloads.
"There will be questions around health and safety issues for staff, questions probably of greater public interest, I think, around the nature of the student experience and the quality of education which they will receive."
Staff cuts would lead to a death spiral for Massey, as fewer students wanted to study there and then more cuts followed, Shaw said.
And then if student numbers increased, finding more staff would be difficult after a long period of cuts, which in past years included the College of Sciences and non-academic staff.
"There will be reputation damage that occurs to the university, which will make it a less attractive place to come and work.
"There will be challenges in the supply of the kinds of people that you might want to hire."
"Many of the people who are in my college whose positions are under threat are internationally recognised, high-calibre, Marsden grant-winning people."
Shaw was one of several academics to put their names to an alternative proposal, developed with the Tertiary Education Union, that says the College of Humanities and Social Sciences can save money through measures such as reducing building and office costs and recognising external research income.
The alternative proposal would not cut staff ahead of an expected uptick in student numbers, a pause Shaw said Massey could consider in a move mirroring that of the University of Otago.
Geography professor Glenn Banks was another behind the alternative proposal.
"We just felt there were other ways that hadn't been explored in the [university] proposal for change other than staff redundancies, so we were keen to put those on the table and get management to acknowledge the potential for some of those to reduce costs and increase revenue."
Under the university's proposal, Banks originally had to compete with another academic for his job, but that has since changed after the initial consultation.
"In terms of workloads within the programme that I'm part of, we're slated to potentially lose a couple of senior lecturers as part of this process.
"For a programme that's only got six people that's really quite alarming in terms of how the workload's going to be distributed."
Banks and the others behind the alternative proposal would on Friday meet with the college's pro vice-chancellor, Professor Cynthia White, and he said he was optimistic the university would listen.
White said she was carefully considering all feedback.
"One of the points I have made is that careful consideration of feedback doesn't equate to acceptance of feedback in every case."
Massey was proposing cutting 25 full-time equivalent roles, which could affect 40 people as some worked part-time, she said.
The college had a deficit of more than $6m, and that could not continue, she said.
"What's happened over the past 10 years is we've had a significant decline in student numbers and staffing has not declined accordingly.
"In a sense we already have a gap between what our student income is, what our student demand is, and our staffing profile."
White denied suggestions the proposed cuts sounded the death knell for Massey, or negatively affected its reputation.
"I've met with a number of staff, students and members of the public. Certainly, the public view that I have been receiving is that it's critical that universities live within their means, and running a significant deficit is neither sustainable nor responsible."
Tertiary Education Union organiser Ben Schmidt said the university had a choice between keeping its staff or heading further down a destructive pathway. He echoed Shaw's concerns about the timing of cuts to humanities.
"If we want to build global, political and trade relationships we need people who are trained and skilled in social sciences, in languages. We cannot afford to see these cuts go ahead.
"[Massey] need to turn around from the negative publicity and start investing in their staff, because that is what is needed to take the university forwards."
Massey announced proposed cuts to humanities in October and reached a preliminary decision shortly before Christmas.
It is expected to reach a final decision on 12 February.