Editor’s Note: Below is an email sent July 17, 2017 to Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan by College Professors Chris Howell and Kirk Ormand. The Review is publishing it in full, with minor changes to style.
Dear Mr. Canavan:
Thank you for your communication this spring, in which you explained Oberlin’s current financial crisis and the board’s decision to freeze salaries next year. While we recognize the seriousness of our current situation, we find it inadequate and depressing that neither the board nor the administration has the leadership or imagination to address this crisis in any way other than by eliminating raises for faculty and staff.
Allow us to review a bit of recent history. At its June 2013 meeting, the Board of Trustees of Oberlin College approved a resolution to create “a new strategic indicator of success to monitor our position on faculty compensation, including appendices tracking the College’s progress by rank, with a goal of reaching at least the median among the Sweet Sixteen institutions in each continuing rank.” [Emphasis added.] The resolution also asked the College’s administration to “present a plan to the Board in December 2013 for achieving that goal.”
The board resolution followed from a set of recommendations proposed by a Joint Advisory Group on Faculty Compensation and Support composed of trustees, faculty, and administrators. It was a remarkable, and remarkably rare, collaborative process in which the members of the advisory group met regularly for a year, and examined in detail issues of the appropriate peer group for comparison purposes, cost of living, salary relative to benefits, relative endowment size, faculty retention, and morale. It was only at the end of this exhaustive investigation that the recommendation to target the median of the “Sweet Sixteen” peer group was made.
It is worth remembering that the advisory group was created because of the steady and unmistakable decline in the comparative position of Oberlin faculty salaries. In 2000–01, Oberlin was ranked ninth out of 17 in its peer group and the average faculty salary (for all ranks) was 1.6 percent below the median. By 2011–12, we had dropped to 14th and the average faculty salary was 7.5 percent below the median for the same peer group. To put that in terms of dollars, the cumulative loss of salary for the average Oberlin faculty member compared to the mean, without benefit of compounding, during that twelve-year period was $48,400.
Following the board resolution, a strategy was devised by General Faculty Council and senior administrators, and approved by the board, to achieve the faculty compensation target over a five-year period through increases in salary in two forms. First, salary pools of 4 percent a year in order to match the average increase of our peers (so as not to fall further behind). Second, to add $400,000 to the pool each year for the five years in order to catch up to the median.
It is important to understand that the salary pools of our peer institutions have consistently increased by roughly 4 percent a year over a long period of time. That is the reason the strategy adopted for reaching the median chose 4 percent salary pools to stand still, and $400,000 increments to catch up. Indeed, the median salary pool increase of our peer group for the last two years has been 3.8 percent and 3.9 percent. There is not yet compelling evidence to suggest that salary increases among our peers are entering a period of secular decline. And, Oberlin’s strategy was working, albeit slowly. By 2015–16 we had clawed our way back to 12th in our peer group and more than halved the gap below the median to 3.5 percent.
The board resolution on faculty compensation was trumpeted to faculty in the fall of 2013, incorporated into the 2015 Strategic Plan (Strategic Recommendation 3.3), another broad-based, collaborative, and exhaustive process, and used in the materials advertising Oberlin to prospective presidential candidates.
That commitment lasted three short years. Faced with a structural deficit that some people on the board have been well aware of for many years, and with a short-term deficit in next year’s budget of $5 million, the board has taken the only step that they ever seem capable of taking when faced with financial strain: all non-union salaries will be frozen next year, a move that will not save even one half of next year’s deficit. The results are entirely predictable, and will be poor. Our salaries will drop to near the bottom of our peer group within two or three years, and we will remain there as a matter of financial strategy. Hiring and retention will suffer. Our best early-career faculty will leave, as several have over the past three years. Morale will plummet.
To reiterate: in choosing to both eliminate the catch-up increments and freeze faculty salaries, Oberlin has not only given up on its commitment to move towards the median of its peer group, but consciously decided to move in the opposite direction, towards the bottom of that group. The board has chosen to reverse a key recommendation of the Strategic Plan that it approved a scant year earlier.
That a board commitment proves to have a shelf life of only three years, that broad collaborative examples of shared governance are rendered almost instantly moot, and that the institution chooses to rely upon paying its faculty less than their peers, is depressingly familiar. The consequences for our ability to recruit, retain, and motivate an excellent faculty are equally predictable.
– Chris Howell
– Kirk Ormand