Faculty and Students Respond to Board Rejection of Compensation Motion


Khadijah Halliday

Students and faculty gathered under the Memorial Arch yesterday to protest stagnant faculty compensation.

Last Tuesday, the Board of Trustees rejected a faculty motion to recommit to its 2013 compensation resolution and offer options in health care plans. This motion, introduced on Dec. 15, 2021 and co-signed by 20 members of teaching staff, passed with 82 percent in favor during a General Faculty meeting. In response to the latest statements by the board, students and faculty gathered for a protest outside Cox Administrative Building yesterday.

“The Board does not support the motion,” read the March 1 letter signed by Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan and Vice-Chair Chesley Maddox-Dorsey. “Do- ing so would be to return to the practice of making consequential decisions without ensuring that they are consistent with financial sustainability. This practice has led to the deficits we have now. Instead, we want to make financial decisions that are sustainable.”

Students and Faculty Gather in Protest

Yesterday, over 200 students gathered in Tappan Square and marched to Cox in protest of the College’s refusal to increase faculty compensation. The protest was organized by Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies Yveline Alexis and Jane and Eric Nord Associate Professor of Africana Studies Pamela Brooks, with support from students. Following the protest, Alexis expressed appreciation for the solidarity shown by the community as well as for the students who brought to light other issues with the College during the protest.

“[The teach-in] was literally less than a 40-minute meeting yesterday, and yet here we are, with [Kopano Muhammad, dual-degree fifth-year] issuing that poster with the QR code, people designing their own posters, that UPS store in town putting these [posters] together for me,” Alexis said. “Then for all y’all to come out and then talk about … neurodivergent issues, mental health — the professor who shared that a fellow colleague is making $6,000, what the heck is that?”

The protest was centered around the organizing culture of Oberlin’s Africana Studies department. Though the purpose of the event was to protest current faculty compensation, Alexis called upon the hundreds of students gathered under the Memorial Arch to share their own experiences. A number of students talked about being overworked as students and employees, being students of color on a predominantly white campus, and a variety of other issues that they’ve faced over the pandemic at the College. Over the course of the two-hour protest, students performed songs, recited poetry, read speeches, chanted, and marched as an expression of their support of the faculty.

“There’s so many professors who have so many other jobs assigned to them,” said College second-year and event speaker Chudi Martin Jr. “They have to uplift communities, uplift students, be supportive for students outside of academics, be supportive when students need help [or] when emergencies happen due to just so many different things. That could honestly fit a job for five people, but they all do it by themselves. So just making sure that the work that they do is compensated for is especially important.”

Following the protest, President Carmen Twillie Ambar released a statement acknowledging the need for competitive compensation. She also reiterated some of the points made in the Board letter and called for care and patience as the College determines its next steps.

“First, I want to acknowledge many of the concerns raised by faculty, staff, and students at today’s protest,” President Ambar wrote. “You have raised important questions about how Oberlin will continue to recognize the work of faculty and staff through our compensation and benefits. We are in agreement that Oberlin must offer competitive compensation that is in line with the truly exceptional work that defines our institution.”

The Oberlin chapter of the American Association of University Professors also addressed rumors of a faculty strike that circulated earlier this week in a message to its membership.

“The Executive Committee of Oberlin’s AAUP Chapter would like to thank the members of General Faculty Council for their continued work in educating Oberlin’s Board of Trustees concerning the dire situation among students, staff, and faculty caused by the Board and Administration’s recent execrable policy decisions regarding benefits and salary,” the message reads. “We understand that among some campus groups, there is currently a rumor going around regarding a Faculty strike. While we understand the sentiment behind the desire for such a strike, given the state of Campus morale, we do not believe that this is a practicable solution at this point in time. The AAUP Executive Committee calls, instead, for immediate further dialogue with the Board of Trustees, the Administration, and the Faculty through both faculty elected committees and open dialogue. If such dialogue is not undertaken immediately from the Administration and the Board — and concrete proposals for addressing the issue are not forthcoming — then the AAUP Executive Committee, consulting our members, will reevaluate support for a campus-wide action and similar measures, as allowed by the Bylaws and Finney Compact.”

Faculty have been raising concerns about the College’s lack of competitive compensation since 2017, and as of last summer, they have also expressed outrage at being shifted to a high-deductible health insurance policy.

“Faculty salaries have been stagnant for some years,” wrote Chair of Rhetoric and Composition Laurie McMillin in an email to the Review. “If you compare Oberlin to similar institutions, we used to be in the middle and now we’re at the bottom. We’ve been getting cut from all angles, all at a time when many faculty have taught year-round, had to adapt their teaching due to the pandemic, and supported students struggling with their own issues.”

The continuing lack of compensation increases has resulted in concerns around faculty retention. Last year’s faculty motion mentioned that the long-term survivability of the College would remain uncertain if Oberlin is unable to hire and retain the best teaching staff. According to President Ambar though, the data on faculty departures in the past four years reflects the expected employee turnover for that time period.

“I think it’s important to say — and this may feel like it’s being dismissive, I’m not — that when you look at both retirements and departures, the numbers have not changed over the last four or five years in terms of the typical numbers that happen over those time periods,” President Ambar said. “So when you look at those numbers, there’s not a dramatic shift in the number of people who are retiring early or who are departing the institution.”

The Impact of Compensation on Oberlin’s Budget

The faculty motion called for a recommitment to a September 2013 Board resolution to raise compensation to the median of the ‘Sweet 16’ group of peer liberal arts colleges. However in 2019, the One Oberlin report identified total employee compensation — which includes more than just faculty — as accounting for more than 60 percent of the operating budget. Although that same re- port highlights the fact that on average Arts and Sciences faculty and senior staff salaries fall far below those of the

College’s peer institutions, the Board decided to cut faculty compensation benefits in order to meet its budgetary goals.

Canavan emphasized the heavy budgetary commitment of faculty compensation and the need to create a framework for long term stability in compensation.

“[Faculty compensation] is the most important financial commitment the institution makes, it’s the largest; it is also a commitment that you make for the long term,” Canavan said. “We also know that for faculty, compensation is the source of financial stability for them and for their families. And so we need to be sure that when we make a commitment like that, it is stable, resilient, and sustainable.”

The Road Forward

The Board’s letter also recognized the work done by faculty over the past two years and the importance of competitive compensation with peer institutions. In an effort to collaboratively address the situation, the Board has asked the administration to undertake a long-term compensation review. The Board will also begin considering ways to acknowledge the pandemic’s impact on faculty during its meetings this July and next January. President Ambar emphasized that the work to be done, while collaborative, must keep in mind a sustainable, cost-efficient solution through which the College can follow through on its promises.

For some faculty members, dipping into the endowment is a readily available and straightforward way to improve compensation. The Board argues that because of the endowment’s inherent dependence on market forces, an overdependence on the fund would result in an increasingly volatile rate of faculty pay. This, however, is an insufficient argument for Oberlin’s teaching staff.

“As one of my colleagues has argued, the board does tie faculty salaries to endowment performance in bad years when they don’t give us raises,” McMillin wrote. “But when the endowment is doing well, they say they can’t tie the two.”

Professor of Mathematics Jeffrey Witmer has already written a motion that will be introduced during next Wednesday’s General Faculty meeting. The motion stresses the importance of faculty and staff and the dangers in their becoming demoralized, emphasizing that investment in employees is an investment in Oberlin’s future. While efforts are made to use faculty governance platforms to address the situation, Alexis wants to keep the momentum of this first protest going, and asks that students and faculty continue their activism in support of this cause.

“So what I’m hoping for next steps, I was like, ‘who got neck in this game?’” Alexis said. “It has to be a weekly thing, at least until the board responds to us favorably. It’s like, how can we keep this momentum going? Because to see so many of us — student workers [too] — were treated that way. … I know what’s gonna come from the students, but I really also want fellow faculty members who are protected, tenured, full professors: what are they doing across all identities?”