Stevens Strategy Poses Potential Threat to Job Security, Program Funding

Editor’s Note: The following is a version of a letter posted to the faculty listserv and sent to President Ambar and faculty by Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher in collaboration with Professor of French Matthew Senior. This revised version was provided to the Review by Blecher at the Review’s request. Because of the content’s potential impact on Oberlin students and faculty, we felt it appropriate to publish the text in full.

Dear Colleagues:

When Stevens Strategy was named to consult in our Academic and Administrative Program Review, many of us had immediate concerns and reservations. One look at the Stevens website raises suspicions that they hew to a corporate model of career-oriented education heavily invested in “technology-based instructional” learning and are thus ill-suited to evaluate the liberal arts mission of Oberlin College. Stevens’ client list consists principally of small colleges with curricula focusing on pre-professional training in business, allied health, technology, and secondary education. Few of our peers have used Stevens. Of the 51 schools on their Client Testimonials web page, only two of those commenting are professors, and both are anonymous from Johnson C. Smith University. The founder and CEO of Stevens, John A. Stevens, has trademarked a company called Chronos University, which, according to the Stevens Strategy website, “will be the first residential institution to provide an individualized and completely technology-based instructional program to traditional undergraduate students.” This university of the future will “reinvent the role of faculty,” replacing us with “learning coaches,” resulting in a savings of “65 percent of the average private college full-time book price.”

Deeply skeptical that such a firm was the right fit for Oberlin, we thought it prudent to contact colleagues at institutions recently reviewed by Stevens. What we have found by exchanging email and talking with colleagues at Cedar Crest College and Mount Union College is very disturbing. Programs were eliminated; at least one tenured and other untenured professors were fired, we were told; programs and professors were pitted against each other in divisive zero-sum games; faculty were misled; decisions were made that circumvented faculty governance; and morale plummeted. Although our sample is very small, what we have heard so far is that the effect of a Stevens audit on faculty morale is uniformly negative.

A colleague at Mount Union wrote: “Yes, my institution went through a similar process with this firm. It hit us like a ton of bricks, and since that time, morale is low. The idea is to rank majors and programs in four groups according to parameters that, I realized, can be manipulated because some majors and programs came unscathed when I knew they were not doing well. Depending on your group, you will have to justify your existence and act to be kept alive. This said, no faculty members were let go, but some majors, minors, and programs were cut.”

Our gravest concerns arose from conversations with three colleagues at Cedar Crest College. We were told the following: The steering committee was sworn to secrecy. No notes were taken of their proceedings. Mathematics faculty found significant errors in Stevens’s calculations, as well as other irrationalities such as charging departments for the square footage of classroom space they use, or counting majors more than minors in enrollments, so that departments with full courses were being counted as under-enrolled (which explains the bafflement of our colleague at Mount Union). Cedar Crest administration, in consultation with Stevens Strategy, replaced some of the steering committee recommendations with its own, but presented them to the faculty as proceeding from the steering committee itself. The administration recommended that a total of five programs be eliminated: Dance, Theater, Computer Information Systems, General Sciences, and Music. By pushing back, Cedar Crest faculty were able to save Dance and Theater. Colleagues from the three closed programs were told they would not be fired, on the basis of which they acquiesced in the closures; in fact, one tenured professor, and three on long-term continuing lines, were dismissed. The tenured professor sued the College and won a sizable settlement. One of our Cedar Crest colleagues described this double-cross as “asking people to dig their own graves and look into the hole before being pushed in.” Finally, none of our colleagues reported that Stevens looked into their administrative units. As a result of our inquiry, and prior to the scheduled April 9, 2018 presentation by Stevens Strategy, we are asking President Ambar to provide written guarantees on the following points concerning tenure, transparency, methodology, scope, and faculty governance at Oberlin as we embark on the AAPR:

1. No tenured or tenure track faculty member will be dismissed as a result of the AAPR.

2. All proceedings of the Steering Committee will be open and disseminated in detailed minutes released within 48 hours.

3. Stevens Strategy will explain the details of their statistical models to a committee of Oberlin College faculty in advance, who will in turn present their findings to the faculty at large.

4. Since this is an Administrative and Academic Program Review, all of our administrative departments will be subject to the same degree of scrutiny and information-sharing as our instructional departments.

With our thanks,

Matthew Senior

Chair of French and Italian department

Marc Blecher

Chair of Politics department