Administrators, Unions at Odds on Cuts
In the aftermath of the College’s campus-wide staff buyout program, custodians, administrative assistants and Campus Dining Service workers face insecurity and have voiced concern over the continual elimination of staff positions and potential work overload.
Last spring, the administration created the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program, which was intended to save the College money by replacing veteran staff members with younger, lower-salary employees. VSIP grants each outgoing employee a year’s salary for early retirement. Through the program, 21 of the 59 members of the United Auto Workers, which represents custodial and CDS employees, and 32 of about 190 administrative assistants of Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees accepted the buyout, creating a significant number of job vacancies on campus.
“We’re working on trying to make sure that we have a balanced budget that protects the key priorities, and that may mean we have to make some changes,” Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov said. “The VSIP program was in part designed to help provide some flexibility in the budget.”
Still, UAW and OCOPE employees are worried about the reorganization and increased workload, both of which have been an issue for the two groups since employees recently retired. OCOPE President Tracy Tucker, an administrative assistant for the Politics department, said that 11 of the 32 OCOPE vacancies have been eliminated.
She said she still does not know what will happen with the remaining vacancies and has mostly been met with silence from administrators, adding that administration will probably try to save by “eliminating some positions … and filling a few with [temporary workers] making only $14 per hour with no benefits.”
Vice President of Finance and Administration Mike Frandsen confirmed that the administration ultimately decided that a number of vacancies created by VSIP would not be refilled to save money.
“A number of VSIP-related vacancies will not be replaced as well as some other vacancies,” Frandsen wrote in an email to the Review. “We are looking at all areas for opportunities for saving and also for increased revenue.”
Beyond VSIP, the College is undergoing further downsizing. As of Jan. 17, four additional administrative assistants faced position eliminations. Two of the four were part-time employees who worked at the College for over 20 years, but were unable to apply for VSIP because the program requires staff to work full-time. As a result, they were released without the opportunity to receive the same benefits as those who opted for VSIP. In direct response, the College made a list of alternative jobs on campus available to them last week.
“As of now, they have not taken into consideration that the faculty number has not decreased,” Tucker said. “The number of [administrative assistants] has decreased by their elimination. The service to the students is going to suffer. The ability to assist faculty in their daily needs to teach and do their research — that’s going to be a stumbling block for them as well.”
If position numbers continue to drop, members of UAW and OCOPE will be doing the same amount of work with fewer employees.
“One of the main concerns with the custodians is the workload,” said Milton Wyman, chairman of Oberlin’s UAW and a member of the Oberlin College Facilities department. “Anyone who works a weekend day is supposed to carry a radio and answer any calls on campus. … If you’re going from where you’re supposed to be to clean up something on the other side of campus in an unfamiliar place, you can lose an hour or so.”
Although the cuts are part of a larger and ongoing effort to save the College money, OCOPE Vice President Diane Lee said that the most effective way for the College to reduce its debt is not by eliminating administrative assistant positions. “When you eliminate a lot of positions that don’t make a lot of salary, it takes a lot of position eliminations to reach your goal,” Lee said. “One of the positions that was eliminated, the combination of that person’s salary and benefits totals less than some departments’ breakfast budgets. You know, doughnut money, party money.”
Wyman also questioned where these cuts are happening.
“We’re squeezing nickels and dimes out of these positions, but if an administrator loses a secretary, they’re replaced the next day,” he said. “So when you think about it, that’s a necessity, but giving students services isn’t?”
CDS workers are also facing overwork and employment complications. According to Wyman, Bon Appétit, the company that manages CDS, can hire up to 15 part-time workers to cut labor costs. But the company has been unable to retain those workers, in part due to poor treatment by management, forcing full-time workers to work overtime. This, in turn, actually raises labor costs because overtime salaries are less cost efficient.
“Bon Appétit is the one sinking the CDS ship,” Wyman said.
This is not the first time that CDS has faced problems with employment. In October 2015, Director of Dining Services Michele Gross spoke on issues of increasing retirements and hiring that echo the present staffing dilemma.
“There’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances with people retiring,” Gross said to the Review in 2015. “It’s very unusual for us to have this many people that we have to hire at once.”
Part of the College’s current debt stems from renovating the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center, which houses the Hotel at Oberlin. Krislov said that after studying the Oberlin Inn, he and other administrators concluded that it did not make sense to simply refurbish it.
“The Hotel is both an educational place and a convening place, but it’s also doing much better at attracting business,” Krislov said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get everything in place; I’m told that sometimes it takes three years for a new hotel to really hit its stride, but the Inn had become a huge liability. People were not coming to Oberlin, people were not staying there. It was a real problem, and we couldn’t get people to come for conferences, people just flatly said no.”
Frandsen said that the College borrowed $18 million for the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center project, the minimum amount of money required to complete the renovation. Krislov also said that the College did go into some capital debt in building the Hotel, though Frandsen declined to share precise numbers.
“Given our goals for activity there, we expect that in the long run it will have a net positive impact, financial and otherwise,” Frandsen wrote in an email to the Review. “It is already gathering positive publicity.”
Though the Hotel has put the College into further debt, administrators insist it is part of an effort to generate revenue through avenues other than tuition. These attempts to creatively generate profit are concurrent with broader budgetary decisions like VSIP and other administrative cuts.
Tucker explained that once the College decided to cut personnel, various administrators arranged a task force to review which positions to eliminate. Lee and Tucker were members of the task force to uphold OCOPE contract protections for their members. However, Tucker said that the ultimate decision to lay o the four assistant administrators was made by administrators without an OCOPE vote.
“Mike Frandsen and [Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences] Tim Elgren made these decisions,” Tucker said. “There was no vote from anyone on the task force. OCOPE didn’t give our approval to eliminate our own positions — that would be against everything we stand for.”
Elgren agreed in part, saying that although the final decision was an administrative one, it stemmed from discussion with the task force.
“The final model emerged from this broad consultation with the task force and discussions with me,” Elgren wrote in an email to the Review. “The final decision on the restructuring model was mine.”
Tucker and Lee said that administrators so far have not answered questions regarding a plan to address these cuts or potential future problems.
“In the task force, we had continually asked the question … what is the goal you’re getting at by eliminating or combining these positions?” Tucker said. “They never did, in all the meetings that we sat in. They never provided that information. We still don’t know the dollar figure they’re saving by eliminating those jobs.”
Tucker continued to say that the differences in procedure and attitude pertaining to staff eliminations are due to a new administration, which Lee criticized for being out to touch.
“The people that are running Oberlin are not Oberlin people,” Lee said. “We have a lot of Oberlin grads in our union. The administration I don’t think does.”
These budget cuts ultimately reflect the College’s strained financial situation. With the school’s main source of revenue coming from tuition, more cuts down the line are seemingly inevitable. Oberlin’s Strategic Plan even concedes that something is eventually going to give.
“We do not have the financial resources to continue to increase our discount rate — that is, the portion of tuition provided as financial aid from institutional resources,” the Strategic Plan, which was published last spring in line with the announcement of the VSIP, reads.
“The 2005 Strategic Plan called for the College to reduce this rate in order to achieve greater financial stability. We have gradually done so . . . while simultaneously maintaining our strong commitment to meeting 100 percent of the demonstrated need of all admitted students. … These two important goals are pulling in opposite directions.”
The Plan also acknowledges that by reducing payout from the endowment, it “reduces the flow of funds available to support current operations.” Krislov said that part of the Strategic Plan’s implementation process is figuring out the most efficient ways to make cuts while continuing to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial aid needs for admitted students.
“There are going to be things we do because they make sense in terms of the way we function, and there will be some things that make sense in terms of prioritizing our resources,” Krislov said. “And there’s some programs and some things we may do for both those reasons because it makes sense and because it may save us some money. We’re trying to really engage in very full discussions about the ways to do it. A lot of that is happening through the Strategic Planning process.”
In the meantime, people who hold positions related to the College’s daily operations are growing increasingly frustrated by the administration’s downsizing decisions.
“We keep being told, ‘We have a business to run,’” Tucker said about the administration’s approach to College management. “The human element of the College has kind of been removed. It’s not the place that it used to be. There’s new administration. Loyalty doesn’t mean anything here.”