Oberlin Faculty Underappreciated, Underpaid

No one comes to Oberlin for the frigid and dull Ohio winters. No one comes to dine in Stevenson Dining Hall or to live in luxury in Barrows Hall. Instead, most students come to Oberlin because they’re promised an engaging intellectual environment — a place with stellar peers and outstanding professors to challenge their preconceptions and expand their minds. Ultimately, the foundation of any academic institution is the classrooms. This is where Oberlin shines, and it’s primarily why students choose to attend this college: to work with the talented and esteemed faculty.

Yet recently, there has been a growing trend of faculty at Oberlin being overlooked and underpaid. This should concern everyone with a stake in Oberlin’s future. Great faculty, as much as they love the relationships they build with Obies, will not stay at Oberlin if they consistently feel underappreciated. 

The past several years have been troubling for faculty compensation. To be fair, during this time Oberlin has begun to address its structural financial deficit, and many crucial features of campus life have taken a hit for the cause of the greater institutional good. We understand — and we believe that most faculty understand as well — the importance of making sacrifices in the face of the changing landscape of higher education. Still, at what point do we draw the line in making sacrifices at the cost of the value of education at this institution?

Before COVID-19, compensation at Oberlin was already lagging behind our peer institutions; Oberlin was ranked 15th out of our 17 peer institutions with which Oberlin competes to recruit and retain faculty and students. In 2013, the Board of Trustees announced that they would strive to meet at least the median pay of this group and, to Oberlin’s credit, for the next three years the College did climb the ranks in compensation. However, three years later, the College abandoned this plan and instead instituted a temporary wage freeze for all faculty and administrative staff. 

In 2019, the College released the One Oberlin report, which included a host of proposals to bring the institution’s expenditures back on track — including reductions to faculty health care insurance options. As of Jan. 1, all faculty have been moved to a Consumer Driven Healthcare Plan and Healthcare Savings Account, a high-deductible health plan. This move will save the College approximately $1.2 million a year. For some faculty, the change will be inconsequential. For others, not having a choice in health care plans will place a financial burden on their shoulders.

Many faculty members have said the change speaks to a larger issue among teaching staff.  Not having a choice in health care plans is not just about health care — it feels indicative of an underappreciation from the administration. A lot has been asked of faculty over the course of the pandemic: learning how to teach over Zoom classes meant navigating entirely new ways of engaging students, and working during an unprecedented summer semester meant that faculty had little time to invest in their own professional development and research. On top of the inevitable burnout experienced as a result of these challenges, professors have faced barriers to their own academic pursuits.

Traditionally, faculty spend the summer catching up with their own research, but with many professors occupied with teaching last summer and planning for COVID-19 the summer prior, some feel they are behind schedule. For tenure-track faculty, the loss of research time and the difficulties associated with teaching in a pandemic add up to potential struggles in future career opportunities. Even though the College Faculty Council decided in fall 2020 to allow faculty to extend their tenure track by two semesters, this kind of solution doesn’t account for faculty that may inevitably want to transition to other institutions. 

This situation is dire. Faculty compensation has been non-competitive for years, with no sign of improvement in the near future; the single option for a health care plan not only disadvantages older, at-risk faculty, but also deteriorates existing retirement benefits; and faculty cannot do research to ensure their own professional development and safeguard their competitive edge. This last point further disadvantages faculty who may wish to avoid Oberlin’s problems by applying for a position at another institution. 

It’s no surprise then that on Dec. 15, the faculty proposed and passed a motion with 82 percent in favor of recommitting Oberlin to the 2013 compensation goals. This motion, of course, cannot change policy on its own. Ultimately, it’s up to Oberlin’s Board to make this decision, and at this point, we have no indication to suggest that they will act with faculty’s best interests in mind. In any case, the next Board meeting is on March 3 of this year, and even though they would be three months late in reversing the health care decisions, the Board still has the opportunity to right past wrongs and set a better precedent for the future. 

It’s understandable that in a changing academic landscape, and with the College attempting to pull itself out of financial deficit, things will have to be cut. At the same time, we’re at a college with no shortage of extracurricular programs, a massive endowment, and multiple big budget projects underway, all of which look incredible on admissions brochures. However, as students at this school, we can assure the administration that we wouldn’t pay our exorbitant fees if it weren’t for our professors, and no amount of amenities can change that. 

Given the overwhelming indications that faculty are being taken for granted, this Editorial Board stands in solidarity with the Dec. 15 motion, and hopes that the College will hold itself accountable to the people responsible for the respect we enjoy as an institution.