Ambar Must Address AAPR Faculty Concerns

For the third time this academic year, the Review is publishing in full a letter originally sent to faculty and staff with grave concerns about Oberlin’s financial situation and how to respond to it — something that, as far as the Editorial Board is aware, has never occured in the history of this publication. It is a significant decision, one that we do not take lightly.

In September, we printed a message from Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, that outlined Oberlin’s long-term and short-term budget deficits to faculty and staff. These were never acknowledged in any official communication to students. In December, we published a letter to Canavan from two faculty members, James Monroe Professor of Politics Chris Howell and Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics Kirk Ormand, expressing concerns over freezes to faculty salaries that could cause them to lag behind those of our peer group.

Together, these two issues are enough to cause significant concern among faculty and staff, and should inspire the same for students. Faculty salaries directly impact our ability to experience the Oberlin we know so well — where students interact directly with some of the best and brightest professors in their respective fields without the intermediate presence of graduate students. Oberlin’s long-term and short-term deficits are even more devastating. Our budget model is extremely tuition-dependent, which means that a difference in enrollment of a handful of students can have massive fiscal implications, which in turn affect faculty and staff hiring as well as salaries, student life, and financial aid.

With that outlook at the forefront of our minds, we were pleased at the announcement of the Academic and Administrative Program Review, which will conduct a large-scale financial examination of all aspects of the College and Conservatory in the hopes of evaluating effectiveness and shoring up Oberlin’s financial projections. We are also excited about the students nominated by Student Senate to participate, having called time and again for student representation in the governance process. We hope to see all of them confirmed to the AAPR Steering Committee — they are thoroughly qualified, and if Oberlin is to remain the institution that students want and need it to be, the more students that are involved, the better. They inspire hope in us during what will undoubtedly be a tumultuous period in Oberlin’s future.

What does not inspire our confidence, however, is the letter sent by Professors Marc Blecher and Matthew Senior to their colleagues and President Carmen Ambar on the eve of Monday’s meeting of the General Faculty Council. Published in full in this issue’s Opinions section, the letter raises grave concerns about Stevens Strategy, a consulting firm that President Carmen Ambar has hired to assist the AAPR.

Chief among these concerns is the fact that faculty members of Cedar Crest College, where Ambar was president prior to Oberlin, spoke in despondent terms about their school’s experience with Stevens Strategy.

First, Cedar Crest faculty charge that their review steering committee was sworn to secrecy, with no minutes taken of their meetings whatsoever. This is an astounding premise, which, if implemented with the AAPR, threatens the integrity of the entire process. Students, faculty, and staff must be able to access detailed records of steering committee proceedings to ensure that, among other things, Stevens Strategy does not commit fraud by passing off their own recommendations as coming from the steering committee — something Cedar Crest faculty also allege.

On the WOBC news show The Weekly, Ambar stated, “If you’re using consultants in the right way, … they don’t make the process or drive the process; what they do is to give you guidance. … The reason why this process has a steering committee is because the steering committee drives the process, and the consultants help aid you in your thinking.” The above accusations about Stevens Strategy don’t illustrate a firm with any desire to aid anyone’s thinking; they instead seem to find it appropriate to conceal information and usurp the very steering committee they are meant to aid. Along with the other allegations, which include gross mathematical errors in calculations, the ludicrous idea to charge academic departments for their classroom space, and arbitrarily ranking departments by their fiscal value to the institution, it seems clear that Stevens Strategy should not be trusted unless placed under attentive scrutiny.

We are not against a review of campus programs, offices, and departments by any stretch. Such scrutiny is critical in light of Oberlin’s financial troubles, and we have no doubt that, as with any bureaucratic system, there are areas of financial waste, misuse, and inefficiency. For example, the College’s widespread physical footprint comes at a huge cost, and integrating more offices into existing building spaces can, in general, help reduce costs in a positive way.

However, we are against the involvement of consulting groups that seem tremendously negligent, operate outside of existing governance structures, use secretive and deceptive tactics, and are largely ill-suited to a liberal arts institution such as Oberlin. Evidence from peer institutions and widespread accounts detailed to the Review by faculty and student sources seem to bear out all of these characterizations. It also seems unlikely that Ambar would not have known about these practices. If she didn’t, she should have, and if she did, she condoned or encouraged them. Neither of those possibilities indicate that things will be any different this time around.

What’s more, Stevens’ tactics and approach as carried out at Cedar Crest shed disturbing new light on comments made by President Ambar. “The first order of business is to get your own operations in order so you can get … operational surpluses,” she said. To do so in a short time frame will require significant budgetary changes, which we doubt will pass muster without the seemingly treacherous approach that Stevens takes to consulting.

With these thoughts on our minds, we fully support faculty members in their resistance to engagement with Stevens Strategy. A firm with no bona fide testimonials from named professors that does not use the holistic approach quintessential to liberal arts institutions has no place telling faculty and staff members with decades of experience at this institution how to run the show. A firm with a client base that mostly consists of colleges focused on pre-professional fields has no place assessing the value of majors like English, History, Music, and Dance — the latter two of which, notably, Cedar Crest faculty had to fight to keep. A firm that has a reputation for lowering morale and utilizes an opaque “ranking” system has no place at Oberlin.

We call upon President Ambar to immediately address the concerns raised by faculty and provide, in writing for the public record, assurance that the guarantees they have asked for will be met. In addition, Oberlin students must be vigilant. We have a duty to current and future Obies to prevent undue cuts and austerity. For our part, the Review will continue to stand for disclosure and transparency throughout the coming turbulence. Over the past academic year, Ambar has verbally prepared us for inevitable sacrifices. Now, the responsibility falls on the College to maintain that momentum — a healthy vision of Oberlin’s future demands nothing less.