Departmental Consolidation Offers Opportunities for Increased Efficiency

In a series of campus-wide presentations earlier this week, the Academic and Administrative Program Review steering committee unveiled numerous areas of recommendation for program and financial changes that might secure Oberlin’s long-term financial sustainability.

For the last year, senior administrators have made clear that Oberlin is facing a financial reality that simply does not permit stagnation. However, this week’s presentation put that urgency in starker terms than ever before for the larger Oberlin community. According to the AAPR data released this week, if no changes are made to Oberlin’s budget, over the next five years Oberlin would see our deficit balloon to an unprecedented $52 million — a blow from which we would likely not recover unscathed.

Overall, the recommendation areas were met with mixed reviews from campus constituents. Some cost-saving measures, such as proposed changes to the College’s relationship with OSCA as well as to staff compensation, will likely continue to generate significant pushback as the semester progresses. The proposed changes will likely have negative impacts on hourly workers and members of Oberlin’s bargaining units in particular.

However, some of the recommendation areas are more than simple cost-saving measures and will require investment and growth in order to keep Oberlin relevant and help it transition to be a 21st-century institution. Among these are the proposed changes to the structure of academic departments within the College of Arts and Sciences.

In essence, the proposal (covered in-depth in “AAPR Announces Areas of Recommendation to Oberlin Community”), would consolidate academic departments into five or six academic divisions. The departments would maintain their distinct identities but be governed in what the AAPR committee hopes will be a more streamlined, efficient way.

At this point in the process, this is an exciting proposal for a number of reasons — primarily because it’s innovative. During the question-and-answer segment of an AAPR listening session, steering committee members revealed that while some other colleges and universities structure their departments similarly, the committee’s proposal is a largely unique, inventive structure, with the potential to optimize communication and efficiency among Oberlin’s academic departments. This is even more exciting in that 80 percent of Oberlin’s Arts and Sciences faculty indicated on an AAPR survey that they would be interested in creating more synergies and connections with other departments.

This innovation also saves Oberlin from the bleak process of department-cutting that many peer institutions have undergone. Around this time last year, many community members were rightly concerned that the AAPR process — and the involvement of outside consulting firm Stevens Strategy — could result in Oberlin’s smaller and lower-revenue departments and programs being eliminated.

However, the AAPR steering committee appears to have avoided this outcome in their recommendations. Outstanding questions remain about what academic departments would look like under the proposed model, but the core of this recommendation appears to hold true to the AAPR’s commitment to safeguarding Oberlin’s missions and academic excellence.

Despite potential opportunities, this proposal — as with any that steps into uncharted territory — also raises many questions and potential concerns. Most of these have yet to be addressed, which makes sense given that the AAPR process is currently at the stage of identifying areas of recommendation, rather than making specific recommendations themselves. However, if these concerns are left unanswered after this feedback period, they could easily become red flags.

Chief among these potential red flags is how the administrative work of maintaining these divisions would be distributed. Chairing one of these divisions will be significantly more work than chairing a single department; assessing and allocating fair compensation for this extra labor will be vital. Similarly, questions over the distribution of tenure-track lines need answers — would this model and its enhanced collaborative approach make it easier for some departments to quietly continue being staffed by a disproportionate number of visiting faculty?

Additionally, this proposal has the concerning potential to overburden administrative staff on campus. Other potential priorities identified within AAPR include reducing the number of staff across campus and lowering the wages of hourly workers to be more in line with regional averages. Combined, these priorities could burden administrative assistants with the administrative work of multiple departments, all under the name of a single academic division — an unacceptable outcome.

While the steering committee indicated that these issues are priorities for them as well, it will be important moving forward for the broader Oberlin community to maintain the critical energy they showed this week. Change can be exciting, but if mishandled, can be detrimental to a community — and the recommendation to reorganize academic programs in the College is a perfect example. If done correctly, this change offers the opportunity to make the College of Arts and Sciences more efficient and effective as an institution. But in the meantime, we must continue to advocate for those whose interests are most vulnerable and remain open-minded, engaged, and curious during this critical crossroads in Oberlin’s history.