AAPR Must Address Living Wage

 At their core, the recommendations that the Academic and Administrative Program Review’s steering committee will submit to President Carmen Twillie Ambar in just a few weeks are a vision of Oberlin’s future that is informed by its past and present values. Sure, it’s a vision developed by a 31-person steering committee, but that committee is broadly representative of many different parts of the Oberlin community, and the draft of the final recommendations they shared publicly last week highlight many values shared by all Obies. 

It’s worth noting that nearly all of these value-driven proposals have received broad-based support from campus constituencies, including the offices and faculty governance committees that would be at the forefront of implementing the recommendations and guiding them to success. Historically, this kind of consensus has been difficult for similar initiatives to build at Oberlin, and the steering committee’s efforts to reach out deserve recognition. 

However, this type of unity has yet to be achieved when it comes to the AAPR recommendations regarding employee compensation — and for good reason. The steering committee has not adequately addressed the concerns many employees, predominantly hourly union workers, have expressed about the future of their employment at the College. 

Specifically, the lack of attention to the issue of a living wage is a gaping deficit in the AAPR’s work. It’s true that the terms of union employment are negotiated through the process of collective bargaining, and it would be improper for the steering committee to interfere in those conversations. However, it’s also important to note that endorsing a living wage would be a statement of values, not an infringement on collective bargaining — and would apply to more than just union staff. 

Many administrative and professional staff draw lower salaries than unionized workers and are also at-will employees, meaning they are not protected in the same way that unions and tenured faculty are. Incorporating a commitment to a living wage into the AAPR recommendations would provide long-term assurances for those employees as well. While wages for hourly workers and salaries for administrative and professional staff are configured differently, the same commitment can be extended to both kinds of positions. 

Indeed, the steering committee has already proven itself willing to compare current (and future) employee salaries to the salaries of similar employees in comparable markets. In particular, the AAPR lays out that Arts & Sciences faculty at Oberlin make 11 percent less than their peers in their relevant market, while the wages of Oberlin’s hourly staff are 34 percent higher. 

These numbers are used to recommend that Oberlin bring its employee costs in line with relevant markets — this recommendation is, on its face, reasonable, but ignores the reality that competitive markets (especially for hourly employees) do not make the kind of commitments to their workers that a progressive institution like Oberlin should make. 

Those figures also reveal that comparing the wages of Oberlin’s employees to some kind of baseline figure — whether that baseline be the average compensation offered by our peers or some calculated living wage metric — is well within the AAPR’s purview. If comparing current wages to a living wage would interfere with collective bargaining, then comparing current wages to the wages of our competitors should represent an interference, as well. 

However, we do understand that the steering committee is limited in the degree to which they can comment on union issues, and that’s why we’re not asking them to identify a specific living wage figure at this time — those sorts of evaluations should rightly be left to the bargaining process. We’re merely asking the steering committee to articulate Oberlin’s commitment to the wellbeing of its employees — a commitment that should also extend to non-union workers, however those figures need to be framed. 

What we call for, essentially, is a general statement of values, the likes of which are already used heavily throughout the AAPR’s draft recommendations. 

For example, the steering committee included a brief paragraph expressing its commitment to positive relations between the College and the City of Oberlin. That paragraph included no numbers, and it didn’t need to — that wasn’t the point. The point is that the steering committee identified town/gown tensions as an issue they care about, and said so. They can do the same when it comes to a living wage. 

Over the past year, the AAPR steering committee has achieved a lot. They’ve proposed a path out of our financial challenges that does not involve cutting any academic departments or programs, an outcome that seemed inevitable last spring. To the contrary, new programs and areas for growth have been proposed, which together provide exciting options for Oberlin’s future. 

This path has been built on an articulation of Oberlin’s collective values. As the steering committee prepares to submit its final recommendations, we call on its members to maintain Oberlin’s commitments to its workers through publicly endorsing a living wage for all workers — both unionized and administrative and professional staff. If we as an institution are unable to use this language that simply recognizes the humanity of all of our community members, what does that say about the path we’re on? Let’s take this moment to have courage and stand by all community members, even as we continue to move into financial uncertainity.