Tensions Are Building in Faculty-Cutting Process
The events of two weeks ago surrounding the proposed elimination of the Asian-American history professorship gave students a unique glimpse into the workings of College governance through the back-and-forth that happened between the College Faculty Council, the Comparative American Studies department and President Nancy Dye. While the deliberations of those who made the choice to discontinue the position are bound by confidentiality, the circumstances involving the decision and its ultimate reversal reveal quite a bit about the College’s ongoing faculty reduction process, and may also indicate in what manner this process will continue and culminate.
“When I try to understand what happened, I get argument from one side and deafening silence from the other,” Politics Professor Marc Blecher noted of the vocal response of community members compared to the CFC’s policy of not sharing the specifics of meeting discussions. “I understand why there needs to be confidentiality, but it makes it hard to understand the issue, much less to develop or express a position on it.”
These sentiments exist in the context of the recently-increased scrutiny of Oberlin’s longstanding institution of College governance by faculty. This has been an issue since the faculty reduction plan was officially presented to faculty last February as part of a number of measures meant to reduce what was then a $1.5 million structural budget deficit. Over the next five years the College plans to eliminate seven permanent faculty positions in order to reduce operating expenses by $2.7 million. These cuts will be made through attrition. This means that as positions become vacant either through retirement, resignation or death, the CFC will decide whether these vacancies will be filled.
The CFC is an executive committee elected by the College faculty to make personnel decisions, typically regarding tenure. The eight professors who serve on this committee represent all three divisions of the College. The dean of the College chairs meetings of the committee and the president serves as an ex-officio member, though traditionally neither has exercised his or her voting rights.
The CFC’s decisions are never final; they must be voted on by the College faculty. The final decision is made by the Board of Trustees. According to College bylaws, the President also has the right to review and potentially reverse these decisions. However, according to one faculty member, the CFC’s recommendations have almost always been followed in recent years.
In the faculty reduction process, the CFC is advised by the Educational Plans and Policies Committee, a student-faculty committee charged with establishing educational priorities and evaluating positions. In this process, the EPPC evaluates each position at the request of the CFC. These evaluations are general observations rather than simple up-or-down recommendations.
“We saw the [Asian-American history] position as important and rated it highly,” said Nicholas Jones, associate College dean and chair of the EPPC.
Thus far, the EPPC and CFC have reviewed four positions, though the Asian-American History position was the first to be ultimately recommended for elimination. It is now clear, however, that other factors besides the EPPC’s recommendation were at work in this decision.
In reviewing each position, CFC members rely on a variety of criteria decided upon by EPPC and CFC in October 2005, in a statement of “Procedure and Principles.” The basic guidelines are divided into “strategic criteria” and “performance criteria.”
Strategic criteria dictates that faculty reductions should be made while taking into consideration the “relation of the position and/or department to the future of liberal arts at Oberlin; relation of the position to the goal of fostering a diverse faculty; connections afforded by the position to other departments, with an eye to preserving productive synergies and minimizing redundancies with other departments (or within a department); [and] size of the department affected, and necessity of the position to the departmental curriculum and major,” among other criteria.
Performance criteria says that, when deciding to eliminate a position, thought should be put into the extent to which it “service[s]...the College, both in terms of courses that are available to the general student population and in co-curricular activities.” Also important are the “enrollments in courses, with particular attention to limits (e.g., a position will not be at risk for appropriate low enrollments caused by caps on FYSP courses); number of graduating majors; [and] information from the most recent program review regarding performance of the department and need for the position.”
The CFC declined to speak to the Review as to whether one criterion would be weighed more heavily against another, but College professors had their own thoughts about where priorities should lie.
“Taking enrollment numbers into account is a legitimate concern, but should it be a popularity contest or a beauty contest? No,” said Blecher.
“[As far as] losing a particular slot that would cut out the heart of the program, that’s extremely important to take into consideration,” he continued on a separate note.
In addition, the “Procedures and Principles” statement lays out guidelines for how the cuts are to proceed. The College plans to eliminate two to three positions in each of the next three years, intending to maintain the relative size of each division.
Enormous pressure has also been placed on those involved in making the cuts to complete them by the deadline, pressure that is only heightened by the inevitably random nature of attrition.
“Given this deadline and given the decision to do this only on the basis of attrition and given that we have no control over when someone might retire or resign, this is a highly constrained process,” said College Dean Harry Hirsch. “It’s important for people to understand these constraints. We don’t have a universe of endless choice here.”
Jones echoed this sentiment.
“The Chairman of the Board [of Trustees] has made it very clear that we have to do this, and if we don’t, the Board of Trustees would probably do it,” he said. “If we want to keep faculty governance going here, we have to carry this out.”
Still, Dye insisted that the time allotted should be adequate.
“It’s a pretty long deadline,” she said. “People should understand that this is not an unusual thing. Institutions often cut staff, and it is almost always done through attrition. It hasn’t happened for a long time at Oberlin.”
The EPPC distributed questionnaires to department heads last March asking them to sum up the educational goals of their department and describe how each faculty position helps to achieve those goals. Both Jones and Dye acknowledged that in most cases department heads felt all their positions were necessary. This further complicates the process of eliminating positions without injuring a department, even inadvertently.
Some faculty members are also beginning to worry that the entire process could degenerate into a turf war between rival departments.
“I am concerned that a number of small programs are increasingly in competitions with each other for students as well as resources in an environment where we must ‘prove’ the value of what we do through enrollments,” said Gender and Women’s Studies Department Chair Frances Hasso.
Dye had originally hoped that faculty would see the cuts as part of the larger picture of institutional planning.
“I think that people understand the need, as part of the financial plan, to make these cuts,” she said. “I think they can be made in highly effective ways.”
Dye also said that the CFC should be able to choose seven positions in the next five years given the large turnover rate for positions. Twelve to 14 positions are currently vacant.
In any case, it is clear that more cuts are coming soon — most likely at some point in the spring semester — and that whatever positions are cut, departments and its committed students will feel the impact.
“I think we have to be realistic and accept the fact that no department or program is going to be happy to be cut,” Hirsch said.
Jones also felt that a certain amount of controversy was unavoidable.
“You can’t do this without breaking eggs,” he said. “We are really trying to make the best out of a terrible situation.”
Hasso recognized the decision as part of a larger context.
“The Board of Trustees has determined that 12 positions must be cut for
the institution’s economic stability,” Hasso said. “The same
rationale was used in previous years to increase the price of our healthcare. At
this point, faculty are involved merely in figuring out how to do the unpleasant
work. These are the ironies of faculty governance.”