Oberlin Should Look to Universities as Financial Models

Jordan Joseph, Contributing Writer

It’s no secret that the College is facing a dire financial situation caused in part by an over-reliance on tuition as revenue. This crunch was exacerbated due to the unusually high number of enrollment withdrawals over the summer. Unfortunately, administrators have decided to place the brunt of the cuts on academic departments, a decision which will ultimately do more damage than good to the school.

As the Review reported last week, many jobs were left unfilled following the College’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (“Administrators, Unions at Odds on Cuts,” Feb. 10, 2017). Usually in a buyout, veteran workers who have seen years of raises are offered severance packages and replaced with employees willing to do the same work at a lower cost. Instead, many employees were not replaced at all, leaving their work to be redistributed to other staff members.

One such department that recently suffered cuts — though not through the VSIP program — is Cinema Studies. As the Review reported in September, the department recently lost two staff members, including Facilities and Production Coordinator Sophie Harari. Her role was not insignificant. Her ability to manage the production aspects of the major gave professors the freedom to focus on enriching the major experience. Cuts like these, while seemingly inconsequential to those outside the major, diminish the quality of the department. This makes students unhappy and degrades the school’s reputation, which eventually leads to less funding as potential applicants — particularly those who could pay full tuition — choose different schools.

To help with the budget crisis, Oberlin should look toward universities as models. Public universities receive less of their revenue from tuition as they are more heavily state subsidized than liberal arts schools and also receive larger contributions from alumni on average. Research universities also have the luxury of profiting off of work completed in their master’s programs. By investing in research, these universities have a source of income that does not derive solely from tuition but instead is a product of various royalties and licensing agreements.

Yes, Oberlin is a liberal arts college, so it can’t pursue as many research opportunities as larger universities, but it could take a play from their book. The College could conceivably start a master’s program and offer master’s students positions teaching entry-level college courses. In many departments at Oberlin, especially small departments like Cinema Studies, tenured professors are spread thin by teaching entry-level courses as well as more difficult gateway classes and private readings. With the recent loss of 32 of 190 administrative assistant positions, professors have been forced to take on a greater workload, and students will inevitably suffer.

With the introduction of fellowship positions for master’s students, departments would be better staffed for less cost and tenured professors would have the ability to focus on classes predominantly taken by majors. Some might argue that the quality of classes would suffer, but ultimately the addition of more staff would make smaller departments more accessible to students. There are many smaller departments, such as Cinema Studies and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, that garner huge amounts of interest, but simply don’t have the capacity to accommodate so many students. Investing in a few of these departments could incentivize students who might have chosen other schools over Oberlin.

When facing a financial crisis, it makes sense that the College would change departments that serve fewer students. However, cuts like these will ultimately harm the educational experience of many students and thus the College itself. Instead, the administration should investigate more creative forms of generating profit, looking to larger universities as a model.