Staff cuts possible
Reeling from a projected $1.5 million deficit this year, the College has discussed reducing the size of the faculty, the student body or both over several years in the course of the institution’s long-range strategic planning initiative.
The student body could be downsized by as much as 10 percent, Provost Clayton Koppes told the general faculty last week. He added that teaching ranks could shrink as well.
President Nancy Dye stressed that cuts were one of several proposals being considered. She said a preliminary report of the strategic planning discussions would be released soon. The document has not yet been approved by the Strategic Planning Taskforce, Koppes said, making it impossible to divulge the other proposals under consideration.
A 10 percent reduction in students would remove about 300 from the campus enrollment, while a reduction in faculty would total 29.
Dye said that faculty downsizing, if it were to happen, would be done through attrition and retirements.
The president noted that the planning discussions were avidly concerned with the College’s financial sustainability.
“Oberlin does not have a financial crisis,” she said.
But College projections show budget deficits of more than one million dollars in each of the next five years, triggering Dye to assert that Oberlin has an “operational deficit.”
She revealed that the College is already spending six percent of the endowment a year, the maximum allowed, while projecting hefty deficits that would need to be compensated for by using endowment money.
However, draining the endowment’s principal for quick cash has to be avoided. “The endowment isn’t expected to grow anytime soon,” Dye said. “We have to plan for the College as though it will last forever. We’re not a Silicon Valley start-up.”
The interest gained on the endowment provides more annual funding for the College than any other source except tuition. The endowment returns this year will be less than those of 2003 or 2001, when 11 employees were laid off from the College.
Faculty concern became increasingly apparent Thursday, when the Educational Plans and Policies Committee voted unanimously for the formation of a subcommittee to examine avenues for possible staff reductions. The motion outlined a special body that would include two members from both EPPC and the College Faculty Council.
“The members of EPPC are concerned that there be adequate planning and coordination of advice from EPPC and the council if the downsizing of faculty is achieved through permanent reduction in the staff,” said EPPC Chair Grover Zinn.The motion notes that “downsizing has the potential to cause great damage to the curriculum” and stresses a need “to manage any shrinkage of the faculty as carefully as possible.” It also states that, if positions must be cut out of the faculty, “we will need to look at the pool of upcoming retirements as a group to minimize harm to the curriculum.”
Acting Dean of the College Jeff Whitmer suggested to the general faculty that an alternative to cutting positions might be to reduce the number of replacements for faculty on sabbatical.
The College used this tactic with success in the 1980s, when the budget last ran substantial deficits and avoided laying off faculty.
Dye maintained that right now the talk about downsizing is mere conjecture. She said any move would have to be tied to educational motives, not just financial advantages.
“It’s premature to be actually talking about this as though it would actually happen,” she said. “We would have to understand how this would make Oberlin stronger, more excellent. It should not be done simply as a financial strategy.”
Koppes concurred. “We are not really at the stage of drawing conclusions,” he said. He described the preliminary document of the strategic plans as “highlighted discussions.”
Dye mentioned the need to proceed “very carefully and thoughtfully.”
However, Professor of Computer Science Bob Geitz sees these strategic planning discussions as a sign that change in the curriculum is hovering on the horizon.
While speaking out against a proposed Masters in Teaching program in a faculty meeting last week, he pointed out the magnitude of the discussions, arguing, “Maybe we do need to shrink the faculty. But you look at the people who got their degrees in the 1960s — about 35 of them — who will be looking at retirement in the next few years, and you see, for example, both professors of American Government. You look at these positions and you think: how can we lose these positions without leaving significant gaps in our curriculum?”
Dye suggested that the reaction around campus could influence the fate of
such a downsizing proposal. “We might decide it’s not worth
it,” she said.