Staffing Shortage Creates Inequality


Photo by Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Hall Auditorium undergoing construction for a renovation and expansion. Oberlin’s Theater department could have difficulty staffing the theater due to budgetary constraints.

Sydney Allen, Editor-in-Chief

After Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan’s June email announcing this year’s budgetary deficit — including a drop in admissions, a five percent budgetary reduction, and a faculty salary freeze — many academic departments are preparing to weather another bout of budget restraints and staff shortages.

In 2016, academic departments dealt with round after round of financial struggles, including a faculty salary freeze and the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program that encouraged early retirement for faculty, staff, and employees, resulting in the loss of 98 people, including 15 professors and 32 administrative assistants across campus.

Even with last year’s sweeping changes, some departments have been unquestionably more affected by the College’s financial situation than others, with some feeling dehabilitated and fearful for the future and others remaining relatively unscathed.

This is particularly resonant in the staff makeup of each department, as the College hesitates to permanently fill vacated positions left by professors who retired under VSIP.

Some of Oberlin’s smaller and newer programs, such as Rhetoric and Composition, Hispanic Studies, and Cinema Studies, are among those hurting most under the increased pressure. And the Theater department, a relatively mid-sized department with around 40 majors — not including the number of undeclared students or non-majors who use the department’s services — is already feeling the effects of the budget crisis.

The Theater department may appear robust from the outside, having just begun construction on a $14 million Hall Annex renovation and expansion, but the renovation is almost entirely funded by outside fundraising and donations. The program faces a multi-pronged staffing problem after two losses this semester, prompted by Emeritus Professor of Theater Roger Copeland’s retirement and Assistant Professor of Theater Heather Anderson Bolle’s departure. Both had tenure, and neither have been permanently replaced. The department is now reduced to four tenured faculty positions, with only two full-time professors.

Both of these positions are currently being filled by temporary professors, but there is no long-term plan to fill them after this year — a policy that Chair of the Theater Department Caroline Jackson Smith says could be a recurring theme in the coming months.

“We just had a meeting with the dean’s office, and the policy is for now that many of these positions are not being approved — they’re not being denied, but they’re not being approved for financial reasons at this time,” Jackson Smith said. “It’s not to us specifically; it’s a decision not to fill faculty positions college-wide, which is particularly disadvantaging us right now, because these are important positions that we will probably not get back as tenure-track positions now. That’s not to say never — but not now.”

Jackson Smith added that the uncertainty could threaten the academic viability of the program.

“Going forward, if we don’t replace additional acting classes, and if we don’t have theater history, it kind of jeopardizes our ability to be a liberal arts theater major,” she said. “The big difference between conservatories of acting and liberal arts is really the critical studies component.”

The Rhetoric and Composition department also grapples with the budget cuts, particularly in staffing, as it is down to two full-time tenure positions with two one-year professors stepping in, and a postdoctoral professor who teaches part-time.

“Our challenge is that we are waiting to hear about replacement positions,” said Chair of the Rhetoric and Composition department Laurie McMillin. “We are waiting for final approval to replace a tenure-track slot. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Right now we have four and a half people teaching — will we have two next year? We do a lot of outreach to faculty and support the teaching of writing across the curriculum, and we’re not sure how we can carry this out without steady staffing.”

Similarly, the Cinema Studies department is facing a staff shortage and has resorted to hiring advanced-level students to do the work that former graduates and professors have done.

These disparities stem from a long history of institutional wealth and its historical distribution, several faculty members said. This means older, more esteemed departments have endowments and alumni bases that regularly donate for specific department-related events, scholarships, and other programs.

The Chemistry department — one of Oberlin’s most widely-used programs, as it attracts students from most STEM and pre-med fields — has an endowment that allows it to fund student research and send students to conferences and networking events.

“We are fortunate to have a number of endowed funds,” Chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry departments Rebecca Whelan said. “Several of which have been established for many, many years. And we also have a set of — pretty much every month — alums or friends of the department that will make donations. And some of that money is used for bringing seminar speakers to campus.”

Smaller departments like Cinema Studies, which was developed in 2002, struggle to offer the same opportunities without a larger donation base that subsidizes College funds.

“None of our graduates have gone off and gotten rich and given us a huge endowment like some departments,” Associate Professor of Cinema Studies Jeffrey Pence said.

As small colleges nationally experience decreased enrollment and a renewed focus on the profitability of a liberal arts degree, Oberlin is not the exception in feeling the consequential financial impacts. Though the departmental disparities might be minimal on a larger scale, students, particularly in the niche programs that make Oberlin unique, could be feeling the effects for years to come.

Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo said that the College could not provide any budgetary data for this article, as it is its policy to withhold such information from the media.