Oberlin’s Impending Budget Crisis
DEVIN MCMAHON AND TORIN RECORD-SAND // APRIL 12, 2019
Four weeks ago, the school’s Academic and Administrative Program Review (AAPR) steering committee unveiled its recommended areas of fiscal change for the school’s operational budget. Comprised of students, faculty, and administrators, the steering committee spent the last year analyzing potential fiscal changes to address Oberlin’s structural deficit, which is predicted to reach $52 million in 2024 if no action is taken.
However, what the AAPR steering committee has presented so far are only areas of recommendation for fiscal change. As such, specific changes and how they will be implemented are still unknown at this point, which has caused a stir from Oberlin employees who are uncertain about their futures with the college.
Hourly Workers, Professional Staff, and Unionized Labor
The AAPR steering committee suggested substantial cuts to professional staff and hourly workers’ positions, wages, and benefits. A large portion of these proposed cuts have been justified through comparisons to similar schools in Ohio: throughout the presentation, the steering committee offered statistics that implied their desire to move closer to the market average. The AAPR committee claims that, when compared to four other colleges in Northeast Ohio, hourly staff are, on average, paid 34% more. The steering committee also claimed that, compared to national averages of other academic institutions, Oberlin has an “unsustainable” student to employee ratio; currently, there are approximately 1,100 employees to 2,850 students.
There has already been an institutional precedent regarding labor cuts, especially unionized labor. According to Diane Lee, a member of the library staff and President of Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees (OCOPE), over 30 OCOPE positions have been eliminated since the Union’s last contract negotiation with the college in 2016. Some of these positions have been consolidated, while others were outsourced or cut entirely. Furthermore, just last year the College was found to be in violation by the National Labor Review Board of placing temporary workers in OCOPE positions for longer than OCOPE’s contract with the College stipulated.
Lee and others also expressed concern about how the steering committee gathered and juxtaposed differing statistics regarding labor cuts. Comparisons to other Ohio schools do not appear to take into consideration the fact that Oberlin is completely unlike the other Ohio institutions the school used as a fiscal metric. It is also of note that the committee’s presentation compared faculty and staff salaries against different cohorts of “peer institutions”; oscillating between statistics derived from the “Sweet 16” (which includes East Coast schools) and the “Ohio Four” (which does not).
According to Julie Weir, a Reference & Academic Commons Assistant in Mudd Library, “The colleges they choose [in their statistics] represent schools with much smaller student bodies, situated in more rural areas, and have smaller endowments. [The steering committee] admitted that they used just raw numbers--there was no attempt to ensure they were comparing comparable jobs with comparable skills requirements, years of experience or levels of responsibility.”
Diane Lee expressed similar concerns. “[The AAPR steering committee] compared total payroll costs of hourly staff at Oberlin with four smaller, more rural, non-unionized institutions. They did not factor the actual work performed, the skill and qualifications required, length of service, full or part-time, how many hourly positions are considered professional staff at other institutions, or any differences in jobs in their comparison,” said Lee.
Weir also expressed concern about the way in which the presentation of the numbers seemed to overlook traditional relations between the school and union labor; “usually in negotiations, both sides work to come to agreement about what facts and figures they are going to base their negotiations on, [...] the AAPR report is not that – it is management’s numbers only--the unions had no input at all.” she said.
Professor of History Pablo Mitchell voiced a similar opinion. “As faculty, we are not in a position to be representing hourly workers-- we are not in their position, we’re aren’t making the calculations they have to --and yet hourly workers weren’t on the AAPR steering committee, but faculty were.”
During their presentation, the steering committee proposed a reduction of 25 full-time equivalent faculty positions through attrition or vacancy. However, the steering committee assured that tenure-track positions and currently tenured positions will not be cut. Still, cuts to non-tenure and tenure-track faculty alike could impact the school’s academic diversity, Mitchell speculated: “I am worried about the effect of these changes on [Oberlin’s] ability to recruit and maintain faculty of color. We’ve had several faculty of color depart in the last couple of years-- how is this going to effect Oberlin’s commitment to faculty diversity?”
The AAPR steering committee concluded that Oberlin subsidizesOSCA$1.9millionannually; a financial drain and apparent equity issue they are intent on eliminating. Given that OSCA represents a whiter and more affluent portion of Oberlin’s population than ResED and Campus Dining Services, the committee claims that the revenue generated by ResEd essentially subsidizes this more privileged sect of students. In the future, they hope to minimize or completely eliminate the subsidies provided to OSCA, rendering the association financially “independent” from the college. See Sam Schuman’s article on page 3 for more indepth coverage of OSCA and the AAPR.
The school is also looking to cut physical infrastructure, add concentrations in business and global health, restructure Winter Term, and increase enrollment of the College while decreasing it in the Conservatory. More information can be found online at https://www.oberlin.edu/about-oberlin/leadership-and-administration/aapr .
Student, faculty, and staff alike took issue with the steering committee’s harmonious vision of ‘One Oberlin’ touted alongside so many troublingly abstract austerity proposals. “The Board of Trustees uses language implying that we -- students, professors, administrators, staff -- are all united in the mission of making Oberlin sustainable, and yet these cuts specifically pit these groups against each other. It’s a false morality where we all have to ‘sacrifice’ something for the good of the community” said Emma Doyle, a 4th year student. Not everyone appears to be sacrificing equally under the “One Oberlin”model;“‘OneOberlin’isbeingusedasawaytogo after Oberlin’s most vulnerable workers”, said Mitchell, “now it feels like we’re in a position of faculty being pitted against staff, of conservatory being pitted against college, of faculty being pitted against students, of students in OSCA being pitted against students who aren’t. And all under the banner of ‘One Oberlin.’”
Fourth-year student Rashad Saleh reflected on how AAPR might have made their case more fairly; “I wish they had logically presented the facts in the presentation rather than try to drum up ‘we’re doing this great thing’”. Fourth-year student Becca Chant described the AAPR rollout process as “like a senior who’s been working on their thesis all year and is having a rough time explaining it to their friends [...] it’s impossible for them to turn it into a coherent sound bite that everyone can understand.”
Saleh imagined other avenues for change; “I think that students should organize a forum to generate a formal plan of action that is independently generated by the student body so we can move forward and not just rely on the AAPR steering committee to draft future plans” he said. Doyle agreed: “this is not the only way to make cuts. I wish the administration would see this as an opportunity to make a school structure that is more radical -- we could have open forums, referendums... there could be so many possibilities -- but the way they are doing things right now is just going down a narrow path of neoliberalism and conformism and it’s a real shame.”
Other concerns regarded the future of the relationship between the college and the town, as cuts to hourly wages will likely affect many workers who live in Oberlin or the immediate vicinity. According to fourth-year student Cora Browner, “I think the school doesn’t try to foster dialogue or spaces in which college people and non-college people can exist together, and I think that needs to be taken into consideration -- not just how it affects the students and the faculty,but how it affects people who don’t go to the school. And I don’t know if it will, but I think that needs to be considered.”
The AAPR process continues this month with private and public meetings between the committee and the broader college community. The results of these meetings will inform a revised version of the AAPR’s report to be released in the second half of this month. After this point, the General Faculty Committee will review the steering committee’s recommendations and vote on them. The steering committee will then deliver their final recommendations to President Ambar.