AAPR Process Must Value, Respect All College Employees

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The areas of recommendation first publicly presented by the Academic and Administrative Program Review steering committee on March 13 and 14 have exposed clear divisions between different parts of the Oberlin community. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators each face a challenging set of potential changes that, to this point, have only been offered to the campus community in blurry terms. 

The vague statements — veiled in large part by the language of development, progress, and nominal references to Oberlin’s ethical standards — have incited confusion, misunderstandings, and difficult conversations among the people who attend and work at Oberlin. Yet, student discourse largely seems to ignore the most precarious group likely to be affected by the AAPR process: the workers who clean our dorms, cook our food, maintain our buildings, organize our departments and their functions, and much, much more.

Without these workers, Oberlin would be nothing more than an idea. Therefore, it is vital that the administration, students, faculty, and staff continue to keep in mind what the AAPR represents not only for themselves — as real and threatening as their anxieties may be — but also to the people who work in our dining halls, dorms, and elsewhere behind the scenes. These workers stand to lose far more than students. While the thought of losing academic programs and student activities to widespread structural changes is distressing, we must also keep in mind the fact that hourly workers at Oberlin stand to lose pay, benefits, and job security. The AAPR and associated budget cuts endanger people, families, and livelihoods in the name of the College’s austerity. The AAPR presentation, vague as its statements were, has already indicated that workers are not its priority when making difficult changes. 

Consider one figure shared at the presentation: According to a slide about staffing and employee compensation, Oberlin’s hourly wage workers make, on average, 34 percent more than at our peer Ohio institutions, while our faculty make 11 percent less than those at comparable liberal arts schools, the so-called “Sweet 16.” 

This 34 percent figure obscures the fact that Oberlin’s workers perform incredibly valuable work, and it reduces their dignity and vital contributions to this school to nothing more than an item in a spreadsheet. It erases the fact that Oberlin’s workers may still struggle to pay their bills while working full-time, even while receiving these wages.

Furthermore, even though hourly workers stand to lose their livelihoods in the AAPR process, these statistics — intentionally or not — ask us to balance these numbers such that workers lose pay in favor of increasing compensation for faculty. They entirely ignore the fact that faculty and hourly workers are all employees, and both groups deserve fair compensation and a living wage for their work. 

The AAPR’s approach both threatens workers’ livelihoods and pits Oberlin’s faculty against its hourly workers — despite AAPR’s slogan of “One Oberlin.” How are we meant to become a unified community while pitting employees against one another? And, more importantly, what does it mean that Oberlin — with its alleged commitment to social justice — would cut wages for its workers, undermining its stated convictions? Why is it that the College has yet to demonstrate concrete plans for providing its workers with living wages, not just wages equivalent to its competitors, even as it makes more concrete recommendations about other factors at stake in the AAPR? Is Oberlin’s version of social justice one which does not include the most vulnerable within its community — those who stand to lose the most as a result of the AAPR? 

If Oberlin wishes to continue its commitment to a residential education that does not cease outside the classroom, or to prevent its social justice convictions from becoming mere hypocrisy, it must value and respect its employees and their families. The AAPR process and student responses to it must account for the fate of hourly workers alongside other community members, as well as the wider ethical implications of the way we pay and manage our employees. 

It is simply not acceptable to sacrifice workers on the altar of austerity, nor is it accceptable for students to focus entirely on their own anxieties. If social justice is truly an idea that this living and learning community is committed to, then our priorities can’t be abstract; we must materially enact them within Oberlin itself.

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