Dye presidency at crossroads
As faculty begins the self-executing task of thinning its ranks under an administrative directive, a simple question has underpinned the ongoing friction: are these reductions a choice or a necessity?
While the administration initially framed the reductions as a deliberate strategic aim, the issue has since been couched in the rhetoric of crisis.
President Nancy Dye told the Review in early November; “Oberlin does not have a financial crisis.” In fact, when first announced by the administration the possible cuts were clearly framed in broad terms.
“It should not be done simply as a financial strategy,” Dye said at the time. Nevertheless, she insisted the College was not “financially sustainable,” pointing to a recurring $1.5 million deficit as evidence for the need of cuts. She asserted that Oberlin had an “operational deficit,” derived from administration projections of seven figure budget deficits in each of the next five years.
Immediately following her proposition to reduce personnel, committees comprised of various faculty began solidifying their turf in the event of cuts. On Nov. 4, the education plans and policies committee passed a unanimous motion warning that “downsizing has the potential to cause great damage to the curriculum” and demanded EPPC input into any reductions.
From the initial stage to the present, faculty have organized little opposition to the cuts themselves. In fact, some believe faculty cuts have a silver lining, despite their painful execution.
“Maybe we do need to reduce faculty,” said computer science professor Bob Geitz in an Oct. 30, 2004 faculty meeting. He suggested the process of reducing faculty would necessitate healthy discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the College curriculum. When the process began in early March, he noted, “There are departments that haven’t been reviewed in over 10 years.”
However, one fateful event forced the administration to change its tune in justifying its rationale for cuts: the politically disastrous Dannenberg-in-London issue.
On Dec. 10, the College eliminated the London program without consulting the faculty, citing its “immense cost” and the need to act on short-term financial concerns.
Faculty outrage was immediate and potent. Forty-two year faculty member David Young said at the time, “This is the most outrageous decision that I can remember, and I’ve seen a lot of stupidity.”
“Canceling [London] is like abolishing the classics department,” politics professor Chris Howell told the Review on Dec. 10, 2004.
To compound the faculty’s frustration, the London program faculty committee was unaware the program was going to be cut before the announcement was made. “We were taken by surprise,” committee chair Marc Blecher declared.
To quell discontent, the administration adopted a mantra of budgetary necessity as justification for circumventing faculty governance.
“When you have a $2.5 million budget deficit, some pretty heroic actions are required,” Provost Clayton Koppes said as rationale for the administration’s unilateral action.
The perception of a financial quagmire began to take a life of its own after the London debacle.
When the College formally announced 12 reductions in faculty on Feb. 9, their stated reasoning was almost exclusively financially motivated.
“These are difficult choices to make but the alternatives may be far worse,” Vice President of Finance Ron Watts said at the time.
The perception of a budget crisis has affected students as well. The administration has used a financial argument in support of constructing new dormitories on North Campus, which will bring more rent-paying students back into the College’s revenue stream. “Oberlin effectively becomes a residential college again,” Watts told faculty on Feb. 9, signaling the plan also has strategic motives.
The perception of a budget crisis has begun vociferate calls by faculty and students for heightened administrative transparency.
“It’s really about process,” said junior Cecilia Hayford, co-founder of Students for Administrative Reform. “I personally disagree with a lot of the decisions that have been made but we’re more concerned about the way they were carried out.”
The administration continues to expand strategically while using a budget crisis to justify cuts to faculty.
Politics professor Eve Sandberg, a supporter of the administration, voiced frustration over the handling of approving a new Master’s program in education. The administration pushed hard for the program in November, while campaigning for a reduction in faculty.
“In order to participate in an ordered and effective decision-making process, we need sufficient information and we need it in a timely manner,” Sandberg said. “Someone has to pay attention to upcoming deadlines with the state and the [Board of] Trustees to effectively schedule the decision-making process backwards so as we don’t feel we are rushed.”
Whether justified or not, budget scrutiny has also fallen on the position of the Provost, which Dye reconstituted this year to run the day-to-day operations of the College and allow her to do more fundraising.
Sandberg believes some faculty want it both ways. “For those who feel the President should be off fundraising, it doesn’t hold to oppose the Provost,” she said.
Demand for administrative transparency has dramatically increased since the administration began referring to an “operational deficit” last fall.
When the cuts were announced in February, not all faculty were satisfied by the administration’s rationale.
“This should have been done with more faculty discussion,” said one faculty member who wished to remain anonymous. “We haven’t been a part of this at all.”
In April, politics professor Ben Schiff voiced frustration with the administration’s governing style. He spoke soon after his candidacy for the dean of the college position was terminated, a decision he claimed rested on the President’s decision not to hire an internal candidate.
“I believe there has emerged a pattern of action by the President that suppresses faculty governance, represses faculty independence, avoids administrative accountability and obscures decisions by limiting information flows,” Schiff wrote on the faculty’s Listserv.
The strife between the administration and some faculty has cut deeper than any previous time in Dye’s presidency.
“This is the low point in the president’s tenure,” Blecher said.
Last week’s revelation that the administration insinuated to a dean candidate that it might cut two faculty liaison administrators from the dean of the college office fueled concern over the administration’s commitment to preserving communication with the faculty.
In the current campus climate, almost any move by the administration has come to be viewed as deception by some members of the faculty or student body. When faculty has requested further justification, the administration has forwarded immediate budget concerns as the rationale for many of its major initiatives.
The result is a dichotomy between the objectives of the administration and faculty, widened by the lack of communication and a state of mistrust.
Dye has long argued for an “optimal” size of the College; this concept is based on her analysis of Oberlin’s finances as well as curricular goals, among other considerations.
The operational deficit, in fact, was an outgrowth of strategic aims, combined with a little bad luck. A sub-par admissions cycle ensured the College a deficit in the current fiscal year, but administrators labeled it an operational one “because they said to get more students at that point would compromise quality,” Blecher said.
Likewise, the Master’s Degree program in Education was a strategic curricular goal of the College. It remained an important initiative even in the midst of a financial downturn because the College saw black ink in its future. It was clear it would take a few years to get off the ground and would evolve to offset its own costs.
A Provost would cost the College money in the short-term and not fix immediate budget problems. However, it would make sense in the context of long-range financial sustainability.
“The theory of a provost is excellent,” said Vice President of Developmental Affairs Ernie Iseminger. “The application is the challenge.”
While Dye is inarguably facing her most trying period as president, the College is simultaneously notching record returns in goals from fundraising to admissions rates and retention.
Sandberg pointed out Oberlin has improved its acceptance rate from 77 percent to 38 percent during her tenure. In addition, Dye has provided important direction in the creation of the Center for Service and Learning, pushed for Arabic studies programs and increased the diversity of the student body by paying special attention to accepted minority students as an attempt to enroll them.
Sandberg observed that many faculty did not keep up with the successes of the College, but pounced on the failures.
“A majority of faculty choose not to come to faculty meetings except when there’s conflict,” she said. “They don’t hear the good news on admissions or retention.”
Iseminger said Dye has helped with fundraising, sealing the deal on major donors to the College. Oberlin’s last campaign, wrapped up in 2004, raised $175 million, he said, surpassing its goal of $165 million and breaking all fundraising records in the College’s history.
“The College is as strong today as it has been in the seven years I’ve been here,” Iseminger said. “[She] has created so many great relationships, I hope she will continue here through the next campaign in seven years.”
Iseminger said he couldn’t understand the pessimism of the College
faculty. “This place eats itself up sometimes.”