Ohio State Dismantles International Office

April 20, 2007

Ohio State University’s recent elimination of eight positions -- most of them in management -- as part of a restructuring plan for its Office of International Affairs has triggered some concerns that the institution could undercut its commitment to international education by uprooting its veteran leaders during the academic year. The university’s vice provost, however, describes the move as a purely administrative one that will enhance the program by reducing bureaucracy and enhancing efficiency.

Managers in Ohio State’s Office of International Education -- which oversees international student issues and study abroad as part of the Office of International Affairs -- received word March 27 that their positions were being eliminated after an internal review of “core business functions” conducted by the human resources office. The cuts were not performance-based, said Mike Sherman, Ohio State’s vice provost for academic administration, but instead reflected a finding that business concerns were not well addressed within the existing structure of the office (Sherman cited, for instance, overlapping duties). All cuts were determined based on position, not the person filling the position, Sherman stressed.

In addition to five director/associate director and program manager positions, the university also eliminated two administrative associate posts and one classified civil service position.

Nine new positions have since been advertised to replace the eight eliminated, many of which have a business or public relations-oriented focus written right into the job title. The new positions advertised: four director positions (of business operations, communications, international students and scholars and study abroad), a human resources manager and fiscal/human resources associate, a communications and public relations coordinator, a special events coordinator, and an outreach manager.

Under the restructuring plan, the university will no longer maintain the Office of International Education within the larger international affairs office, instead absorbing all of the sub-office's positions within the latter.

The people in the current (more generically titled) management-level positions within the Office of International Education -- including the director, John Greisberger, a national leader in the field who in 2005 served as president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators -- were given five weeks notice, and offered the option of applying for a new position or taking severance pay. So far, said Sherman, one person has left, and all others have applied internally. “We’re anticipating that most but certainly not all individuals will be placed within the new organization,” said Sherman.

He added, “There are a large number of individuals who aren’t affected by this reorganization, but will find that with the business structure, the layers of organization will be reduced and we’ll basically become a more effective organization.”

Leaders in the study abroad world, however, have sharply questioned the university’s decision to remove its long-time leaders from management positions so abruptly in the middle of the year. Upon learning the news, international education directors at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of 12 Midwestern research universities including the Big 10, fired off a letter to Ohio State’s president expressing concern about the move to shake up the office in the middle of the academic year while international students are on the Columbus campus and Ohio State students are scattered everywhere abroad. All but one director signed, said Kathleen Sideli, associate dean of international programs and director of overseas study at Indiana University (she added that the director who did not sign felt restricted from doing so under university policy).

“This came as quite a surprise to us, knowing the reputation and number of years all these people had. We were stunned,” Sideli said. “We thought it quite unusual that a university would decapitate its Office of International Education by removing its top people.”

“This seemed to come out of the blue, and we’re just wondering if it was fair, if there was due process," she said. Sideli mentioned that external reviews by international education experts -- something that did not occur in this case -- are standard preludes to large-scale changes in the field.

At the least, she said, the university could have made the announcement in the summer and commended its leaders for years of service. “The fact that it wasn’t handled [professionally] raises questions in my mind about what really happened,” she said, explaining that people have begun to suspect personal motivations may have been in play. An Ohio State student newspaper editorial highly critical of the changes happening "outside the public view" also questions the reasons behind the changes -- questioning why, if this was done for efficiency, more positions have been created than cut.

More urgently, some have criticized the timing of the move, with the Ohio State editorial speculating about the potential impact on programming -- "It is easy to say such a move will not affect programs, but it is hard to imagine how instituting new leadership with a learning curve could back up that guarantee" -- and Sideli expressing concerns about the effect on international crisis management capacity.

“OSU has had a strong international education program, and it is essential that they continue to strengthen that program,” Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman for NAFSA, said via e-mail. “The timing of this action raises particular concerns about the well-being of the students. It is essential that the international students continue to receive the level of service they need, and that American students making plans to study abroad have the support and assistance they need.”

Officials whose positions were eliminated at Ohio State either did not return e-mail messages or verbally declined to comment. Meanwhile, Sherman, who chairs a crisis response team on international education issues, stressed that student safety was not endangered in any way by the changes, and said that the restructuring should only  enhance the university’s commitment to international education.

“We’re absolutely certain that this will improve our ability to be responsive to new and different things, which as a university we’re absolutely committed to,” said Sherman. “It’s absolutely consistent with our institutional priority to enhance the stature of Ohio State University from a global perspective.”

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