Canaries in a ‘Toxic Mine’

Professors at Ohio U say tenure-track faculty cuts can't simply be blamed on COVID-19, but rather long-term financial mismanagement.

May 5, 2020
 
Twitter/Olivia Gemarro

Ohio University had budget woes long before the pandemic. Professors were fighting probable cuts to instruction even as the coronavirus bore down, so they welcomed a March email from President M. Duane Nellis saying that cuts to personnel were on pause.

The reprieve is apparently over. According to accounts from affected professors and their colleagues, some program and department chairs have begun notifying tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members that their contracts will not be renewed.

That’s in addition to 140 layoffs of unionized maintenance and other personnel announced last week in what some have called a “May Day massacre.”

The university has acknowledged the union layoffs, linking them to state funding losses and $18 million in student housing, dining and parking fee refunds related to the pandemic. But administrators say no final decisions about faculty nonrenewals have been made.

“As deans have been developing their plans and discussing with school directors and department chairs, we are aware that some faculty have been told their positions are under consideration by college leadership as part of college budget reduction plans,” Carly Leatherwood, university spokesperson, said via email. “At this point, no faculty have received formal letters of notice of nonrenewal. Plans have not come forward to the provost's office for final approval.”

Professors on the bad end of the news and their supporters say it feels final, however.

“I think they meant that in the very technical sense of nobody having gotten letters yet,” said Patricia Stokes, a long-serving instructor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies who learned last week that the two full-time, non-tenure-track teaching jobs in the program -- including hers -- are slated for elimination. “But in every meaningful way, this is a death knell to a thriving, fully enrolled program with devoted, incredible alumni and it’s just so sad and I’m so angry.”

A third instructional professor in the program, Loran Renee Marsan, left Ohio, and academe, earlier this year. She said Monday that she "saw the writing on the wall and also was being told I'd have to teach more classes for the same amount of pay." The other tenured and tenure-track professors in women's, gender and sexuality studies have joint appointments in other departments.

Stokes is worried about her professional future and those of her laid-off colleagues. She can't move because she has a son still in high school and another who attends Ohio. She also believes her age -- she's 56 -- and the frozen job market will hurt her prospects for getting a similar position elsewhere.

"This will mean the end of my academic career by any reasonable guess," she said. "And then there’s the overall impact that this will have on the region. Ohio University is the main employer here regionally."

According to the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the university’s only tenure-track professor of African American studies received word that his contract also would not be renewed. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ohio’s department of anthropology and sociology was told to eliminate four faculty lines, including a mix of instructional and tenure-track faculty across programs in sociology, criminology and anthropology, the AAUP chapter said it had confirmed with those knowledgeable about the situation. The suspicion among some professors is that tenure-track faculty members may targeted for cuts because they teach less than instructional faculty and are paid more.

While any faculty layoff is significant, relatively few institutions have moved thus far to cut tenure-track professors during the pandemic; it’s mostly non-tenure-track professors who have taken these hits.

Christine Mattley, chair of anthropology and sociology, declined comment about personnel changes.

Even if many of the players are mum in public, enough conversations were happening internally to spark a no-confidence vote against Nellis and Deb Shaffer, senior vice president for finance and administration, at a Faculty Senate meeting Monday night. The motion passed overwhelmingly.

Loren Lybarger, associate professor of classics and world religions and president of the campus AAUP chapter, said that “primarily our demand is for transparency, but also for real shared governance, for bringing faculty in and having real discussions about the situation and alternative solutions.” 

The university announced prior to the coronavirus outbreak that it planned to close a major budget deficit via incremental reductions of approximately $26 million over the next three years across its colleges. It was also pursuing $8 million in cuts through administrative efficiencies.

While the university has blamed declining enrollment for the deficit, among other external factors, many faculty members blame internal mismanagement of funds. A campus AAUP analysis, for example, found that there is no “demographic cliff” concerning enrollment, but rather more gradually declining numbers of college-bound seniors that can be dealt with through general faculty attrition instead of mass layoffs.

Faculty salaries can’t be blamed for the crisis, either, the AAUP found. While salaries are a major expenditure, they haven’t increased in any significant way in real dollars since the 1970s, and the faculty-student ratio has not increased in that period.

By contrast, the number of regular administrators per student has shot up by 45 percent since 2010, from about 800 to 1,190, according to the AAUP. Individual faculty members also cite administrative salaries that exceed $200,000 in one of the poorest counties in Ohio. Athletics are another faculty sore spot, with programs typically running an annual deficit of $20 million.

Lybarger said, “We pushed back and argued that there are other ways to do this” besides cutting faculty members. “We had launched a pressure campaign focusing on instructional faculty and done a lot of work on social media.”

Once the pandemic was declared and the campus was evacuated, faculty attention turned elsewhere, with the understanding that cuts were on hold.

Last week, Nellis sent an email to the campus suggesting it was time to move forward with balancing the budget by prioritizing student success, academic quality and scholarly excellence, and by embracing accountability, shared governance and shared responsibility, among other principles. The note did not mention faculty layoffs were imminent.

Many professors at Ohio and elsewhere have commented that it’s not a good look to gut a women’s and gender studies program of its only full-time instructional faculty and to deny the African American studies department its only tenure-track professor when diversity and equity are part of every institution’s strategic plans.  

Bill Reader, a professor of journalism at Ohio, said under-the-radar layoffs in popular programs in terms of enrollment don’t raise hopes for increasing overall university enrollment. He criticized the university for saying it was pausing personnel-related budget cuts for a month while apparently planning for them all along.

“We really rely on students coming from Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati, and if they’re reading about incompetent leadership who are not valuing academics and trying to protect pet programs and innovation centers and mediocre athletic programs in football and stuff like that, then of course they’re going to be reticent to sign contracts and agree to enroll, especially in this COVID-19 situation.”

Stokes and other professors believe that more cuts are coming to additional programs. Whatever happens, Stokes said she's glad the layoffs are getting attention and not just lost in the “fog” that is COVID-19.

“We’re canaries in a very toxic mine,” she said. “Many other schools are probably going to go through this.”

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