Successful Institution Determined By Its Faculty

On March 1, the Board of Trustees sent the kind of message to faculty and staff that has historically sparked civil unrest and even touched off revolutions in countries across the globe. On Dec. 15, 2021, the General Faculty voted on a motion asking the board to return to the faculty compensation plan of 2013 and restore to all Oberlin employees the choice between the Preferred Provider Organization and Consumer-Driven Health Plan health plans, to which we had access until Jan. 1 of this year. This motion had overwhelming faculty support, but we received a letter from the Board of Trustees in response that was not only antagonistic, but condescending. Rather than honor the 2013 commitment to ensuring competitive faculty salaries, the board has authorized President Carmen Twillie Ambar and her team to conduct a new, long-term compensation study, after which the trustees will reassess our calls for more equitable compensation.

The message was one of continued austerity. After years of belt-tightening, the workload has increased and wages have remained stagnant, with real earnings falling due to inflation. The board appears to believe that the sacrifices we have made are not enough and that the payoff we’ve been promised can be delayed indefinitely. The mood among the faculty, however, is one of growing impatience and even disenchantment.

While we wait, we have seen the salaries of other faculty members at our peer institutions rise. The matching of retirement contributions for tenured faculty members was suspended during the pandemic, and now we have lost our choice of health care coverage, with many seeing their copays and prescription drug costs triple. The result is that many great faculty members have left, are leaving, or are considering leaving, and it has become difficult to hire the best professors and offer the highest-possible quality education to our students.

The need for a new study was addressed at our most recent General Faculty meeting on March 16 of this year. It seemed as though President Ambar felt that nine years is a long time, and that it is important to take another look at the peer groups against which we are measuring ourselves to determine whether the comparison is reasonable. I and several of my colleagues feel that this sounds like a way of reevaluating where we stand among our peers so that faculty salaries at Oberlin will no longer be compared to the top tier of institutions.

This brings me to what is most concerning about the board’s attitude. Their letter noted that the two greatest sources of income for the College come from student tuition and donations. My concern, and that of many faculty members, is that our administrators are making decisions that specifically threaten both of those sources of income. In its pursuit of austerity, the board is dismissing the reality that faculty and staff here have been pushed past their limits. Because of this, the quality of an Oberlin education, and the very future of Oberlin, is at stake.

As I mentioned above, we are facing the threat of unsustainable attrition in our faculty ranks, and with salaries and benefits as low as they are, we are unable to replace those who leave with professors of equal or greater experience and expertise. Visiting assistant professors are hired in favor of keeping tenure lines open, and lecturers are hired in favor of visiting assistant professors. We will likely be able to fill the positions we need, but we will not be hiring the best. This environment is also convincing longer-serving faculty members to retire earlier than planned, which robs us of much-needed institutional memory.

At the last meeting, I was given the impression that one reason students cited for not choosing Oberlin was that it didn’t provide enough opportunities for internships or place enough students in careers outside of academia. This apparently necessitated that the College defer increasing compensation until we have captured a larger share of students who are looking for something other than a liberal arts education. But it is not the object of a liberal arts college to appeal to every student. 

Oberlin has a long-standing reputation for being an incredible place for learning and growing as a human being and sending students on to great careers. We will never attract every kind of student, but instead of shoring up our ability to attract as many students who are interested in an Oberlin education as possible, we are trying to change the formula so that we can find broader appeal. This is not an effective marketing strategy and, when it comes to something as crucial as the future of Oberlin, it doesn’t make sense.

Every student I’ve spoken to has said that they chose Oberlin specifically because they wanted the legendary liberal arts education that this institution provides. They want a challenging environment that offers diverse and dynamic options so that they can choose how to educate themselves beyond the specific course of study they’ve chosen. 

These students, and our faculty, know that success is about much more than having a well-paid job after college, securing an excellent fellowship, or getting into graduate school. Successful people are those who develop a lifelong love for learning, an enduring desire to understand the world around them in all its diversity, and the critical thinking skills with which they can ensure that truth and fairness guide both them and their communities into the future. One of the incredible things about Oberlin is that we provide the framework for this success by fostering an environment that is committed to educating the entire individual, not simply the career-oriented parts.

Much is made of the looming demographic cliff that threatens the future of all but the top-tier institutions of higher education. We are told that a better future awaits us and that, if we can tighten those belts one or two more notches, we’ll eventually get there. In the meantime, we are cutting funding to liberal arts at one of the best-respected liberal arts institutions in the country. As we race after the glittering object on the horizon, we are dropping diamonds from our pockets as if they weigh us down, and there is no guarantee that the glitter will be gold. In the end, it is the faculty who are paying the price out of our own pockets, while our students lose the quality of their education.