General Faculty Calls for Recommitment to 2013 Compensation Goals


Khadijah Halliday

Eighty-two percent of faculty voted to approve a motion to ask the Board of Trustees to reconsider the change to a Consumer-Driven Healthcare Plan and Health Savings Account that will begin Jan. 1.

In a General Faculty meeting on Wednesday, the faculty voted 82 percent in favor of a motion that calls for better faculty compensation and options in health care plans. The motion will go to the Board of Trustees, which will likely respond after its next Board meeting, currently scheduled for March 3.

Wednesday’s motion calls for the College to recommit to a 2013 plan to bring faculty salaries up to the median of Oberlin’s institutional peer group. In recent years, some faculty members have criticized Oberlin’s compensation rates, pointing out that faculty salaries are falling behind those at our 16 peer institutions.

The motion also asks President Carmen Twillie Ambar and the Board to restore faculty’s ability to choose among available health care plans. This summer, the College announced that it would move all faculty and non-unionized staff to a Consumer-Driven Healthcare Plan, starting January 2022. Previously, faculty and non-unionized staff had the option to choose between a Traditional Preferred Provider Organization plan and a CDHP. Switching all faculty and non-unionized staff to CDHP is expected to save the College $1.2 million per year.

Despite the savings, some professors believe that the new health care plan may make it harder to recruit new professors or even retain faculty currently employed at the College. Professor of Mathematics Jeff Witmer believes that if the College neglects faculty compensation, it will be much harder to maintain the exceptional educational quality Oberlin is known for.

“It’s very important that the College attract and retain high-quality faculty if we’re going to have the education program that students and their families are willing to pay for,” Witmer said. “For me, the big message is the Board is willing to spend money on things it thinks are important, like the heating system; and it’s not that we absolutely can’t afford to spend certain dollars — we choose to spend certain dollars. So, where do you spend your money? My argument yesterday was that the most important expenditure is on the faculty, because students choose a college based on the educational program offered by the faculty.”

Professors have been working to get the motion on the agenda since May, but due to challenges with scheduling, it wasn’t raised until the December meeting.

Still, President Ambar hopes faculty will remember the findings of the One Oberlin plan. On May 15, 2019, the General Faculty voted in favor of approving the recommendations of the Academic and Administrative Program Report, which eventually became the One Oberlin plan. The implementation of the plan was aimed at dealing with an annual $9 million structural deficit.

“It’s not that we have to find $9 million for today, and then that’s it — you have to find $9 million every year,” President Ambar said. “This is not the only area where the institution has had to rethink its costs. It’s been in benefits, it’s been in the size of staff in multiple divisions, it’s been in how we deal with maintenance. The truth of the matter is that the College has taken a wide look at cost management across the institution — this is not the only place.”

The passing of Wednesday’s motion does not directly affect faculty compensation, which is set by the Board. Still, Chair of the French and Italian departments Matthew Senior, who brought the motion to the General Faculty, is hopeful that the overwhelming 82-percent vote is evidence of the pressing need many faculty members feel to reevaluate cost-saving plans proposed by the College.

“We hope that the Board of Trustees, who ultimately has the authority on this, will communicate with us and promise to revisit the health care issue,” Senior said. “That’s the most burning issue right now. It’s going to go into effect in January and I don’t know how soon we could rectify this, certainly by next year. … If we can’t literally change the policy for a year, [I] personally would hope that in this coming year that the administration would set up some kind of emergency fund for people who are gonna be pushed into tough financial circumstances by the new high deductible plan.”

Still, President Ambar says given the timeline for the change in health care plans, it is unlikely that there will be a change in policy any time soon, especially since discussions about the motion won’t happen until the Board meets several months from now.

“I would never speak for the Board — I think that they will have their own consideration,” President Ambar said. “But what is true is that the transition to the CDHP happens on Jan. 1. And so, that will go forward because that is the timing of that change. And as you could imagine with an organization and an institution that’s large and complex like Oberlin, you wouldn’t be able to totally reshape a new health care framework in less than two weeks. So that will happen on Jan. 1, as was planned.”

Although the Board will be unable to address the specifics of the faculty’s concerns until March, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan is aware of the motion and says he shares many of the faculty’s desires.

“I appreciate the concerns raised by the faculty, and I know that the Board shares the goals implicit in this motion, which is to make sure that Oberlin can provide faculty and staff with good health insurance and competitive salaries well into the future,” Canavan wrote in an email to the Review. “The One Oberlin report calls on us to find ways to address ballooning health care costs.”

Despite these commitments to faculty’s wellbeing, some professors point out that the change comes after a particularly difficult few years in the midst of a pandemic and financial uncertainty at Oberlin. Witmer specifically points out that over the last five semesters, faculty members have gone above and beyond to adapt to the difficulties of the three-semester plan, remote teaching, and other challenges generated by the pandemic.

“When the pandemic set in and we had to scramble in the spring of 2020, and then we had to adopt a new academic calendar and people teaching extra courses, people rolled up sleeves and did that because it had to be done,” Witmer said. “We had our retirement contributions suspended for a year, [which] took money out of the pockets of faculty and staff. … We pitched in and did a bunch of extraordinary things to get through a very difficult time. … I think [the Board] is in dangerous territory of going too far in that direction when faculty morale is as low as it is right now.”