In early May, Milton “Milt” Wyman received an email notice that he was eligible for Oberlin College’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Package (VSIP). “The Plan,” as it was more commonly referred to by Oberlin College workers, had been offered to full-time faculty and staff with more than ten years of service.
According to the Plan’s terms, eligibile faculty and staff could retire early in exchange for twelve months of continued pay and waived health insurance premiums following their departure from Oberlin College.
Although Wyman decided not to accept the offer — “I just wasn’t ready to retire,” he would later tell me — as chair of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union he was tasked with extending it to eligible Oberlin College union workers, which include facilities, grounds, and custodial staff.
The email Wyman forwarded to UAW union workers bore the words of Chief Human Resources Office Joseph Vitale, an email that approximately 300 eligible faculty and professional staff would receive. “We have designed the plan to offer a group of longer serviced employees an opportunity to separate from Oberlin with a favorable compensation and benefits package that is not otherwise available to separating employees,” Vitale said.
At the time, Wyman suspected that the Plan had been designed to cut employment costs, rather than to aid Oberlin College employees. Now, several months after the buyout, he’s sure of it.
In the end, 98 faculty and staff accepted the College’s offer to retire early, a turnout that is projected to more than offset the cost of slowing the rate of tuition increase and save the College $2.5 to $3.5 million annually. In a post-hoc evaluation of the program, Marvin Krislov declared the Plan a roaring success.
“It’s helped people retire in a way that preserves their dignity and gives them some extra money,” he said. “And it helps the institution in that it allows for predictability.” While similar buyout programs have been implemented at peer institutions including Vassar College and New York University, implementation of the Plan has proved to be anything but predictable at Oberlin College.
For Professor of Theater and Dance Roger Copeland, the plan has far from prioritized its recipients. If “dignity” was the College’s priority in implementing a buyout program, Copeland said that administrators should have engaged in dialogue with faculty and staff before delivering them eligibility notices.
“The buyout package was never mentioned — let alone discussed or debated — at any meetings of the General Faculty,” Copeland said.
What’s more, in order to qualify for the Plan, an employee had to be at least 52 years old with a minimum of 10 years of service. Due to the program’s insistence on seniority, Copeland believed that one intent of the buyout was to reduce the number of tenured faculty on campus, as they tend to be “the longest-serving — and thus highest-paid.”
That more than half of the employees who left Oberlin College through VSIP were members of an on-campus union, including UAW, led several Plan-eligible employees to conclude that one goal of the buyout was to weaken union representation on campus. Not only are temporary, non-unionized employees cheaper to employ by the hour, but they can also be hired part-time without Oberlin College having to offer them health benefits packages.
The reality is that for Oberlin College employees, VSIP as-advertised and VSIP as-implemented are related in name only. Whereas one intends to “expedite attrition and decrease long-term operational costs,” the other has undermined job security and further strained student-staff relations on campus.
In the interest of fleshing out this latter narrative, I interviewed several employees in the Oberlin College’s facilities, grounds, and custodial departments on their experiences working in the wake of buyout negotiations.
I think it necessary to preface that due to a non-disparagement clause inserted into the Plan’s language by Oberlin College’s legal counsel, almost all of the staff that I interviewed requested to remain anonymous.
The clause restricts employees who accepted the Plan from engaging in “conduct, verbal or otherwise, that disparages the reputation, goodwill or standing in the community of the College.” For recently-retired faculty and staff, there is a very real fear that speaking out publicly against the Plan could result in legal violation of the contract and loss of the benefits promised by the program.
It should be added, however, a similar fear exists for buyout-eligible faculty and staff who did not choose to retire through the Plan. Each of the current Oberlin College employees I interviewed agreed that commenting on the program publicly could jeopardize their employment status. After obtaining a copy of the Voluntary Separation Incentive Plan, I learned that their fears originated from a particularly harrowing clause in the Plan’s language.
“After the election period for the Plan has ended, the College will decide how best to design the organizational structure moving forward, this may include changes in job duties or an involuntary reduction in force,” the Plan reads.
The effects of the Plan, and Oberlin College’s financial instability more generally, are already manifesting in subtle ways in our community. From increased response times for work orders to irregular custodial services in campus dorms, examples of Oberlin’s understaffed facilities, grounds, and custodial departments abound but are perhaps easily overlooked.
One current employee who had not been offered the Plan recalled pulling into the Mudd Library parking lot for work in early January. As he stepped out of his car, he found that “for the first time in [his] career” the sidewalks had not been plowed.
“I called over to Grounds to see if they could take care of the ice,” he said. “They told me that they were down four people. It makes sense, but that doesn’t make it safe.” In the end, the employee decided to drop his things off in his office and shovel the sidewalk.
Over the course of conversations, however, I learned that not all staff are afforded the privilege of picking up extra work at their convenience. According to the same employee, facilities staff have been explicitly told to perform the same amount of labor with fewer people following the Plan.
The employee described being “pulled into a room, sat down one-on-one, and told that [his] job description now included the responsibilities of the person who just retired.” As other Oberlin College employees would confirm, in these meetings staff are routinely tasked with responsibilities that they either do not feel qualified enough to perform or are not in sufficient physical condition to carry out. Assuming additional responsibility often meant that an employee would have to leave their station or building, he added.
In addition to asking that employees travel across campus on foot in the wintertime, Milt Wyman argued that the delineation of responsibility was an ineffective use of time. “If you’re going from where you’re supposed to be to clean up something on the other side of campus in an unfamiliar place, you can lose an hour or so,” Wyman said.
It probably goes without saying, but employees did not receive additional compensation as a result of assuming new responsibilities. “The problem is you don’t have any leverage in those conversations,” another employee added. “When you know that the college is trying to make cuts, not being able to take on extra responsibility can make the difference between being in and out of a job.”
Not all departments on Oberlin’s campus are able to divide responsibilities among their employee base in the same way as facilities, grounds, and custodial, however. In Student Academic Services (SAS), one staff member’s retirement through the Plan resulted in the halving of the number of courses offered in the Learning Assistance (LRNS) program this semester.
According to Oberlin College’s website, the LRNS program “provides comprehensive academic support for all students in the development of skills necessary for effective performance in and positive adjustment to Oberlin College’s learning environment.” Courses offered in past semesters have included Effective Study Strategies, Effective Reading Strategies, and Developing QFR Skills.
Thobeka Mnisi, student senator at Oberlin College, explained that LRNS courses primarily serviced low-income and undocumented students who were less familiar with United States academics. That may be one reason why the larger student body is unaware of the program’s cut, let alone its existence, Mnisi said.
To see what, if anything, was being done to fill the vacancy in SAS, I reached out to Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo.
“I expect we will develop a plan over the course of the semester,” she told me an email. “We are actively examining the structure and organization of this important office to ensure that any future hiring is focused to best meets the needs of students, with particular attention to SAS’s longstanding commitment supporting equitable educational opportunities.”
Unfortunately, not all staff members on Oberlin’s campus are as hopeful that the administration will begin hiring non-faculty positions in the near future. Another employee in Oberlin College’s student union recounted a week in December in which several staff managers had been mistakenly CC’d on an email outlining forty “expendable” positions to be removed from the payroll.
“Before the email there had been rumors going around that the College wanted to get rid of 270 staff [with the buyout]. 270 was the magic number,” the employee said. “So this felt like a way for them to offset that count.”
When December passed and none of the people on the list had been contacted by Oberlin’s administration, the employee reported that tension among staff finally began to subside. “And then in January, four people working in King/Rice were laid off. All four of their names were on that list,” she said.
“As of Jan. 17, four additional administrative assistants faced position eliminations,” a report issued by the Oberlin Review confirms. “Two of the four were part-time employees who worked at the College for over 20 years but were unable to apply for VSIP because the program requires staff to work full-time. As a result, they were released without the opportunity to receive the same benefits as those who opted for VSIP.”
Following the terminations, the student union employee reported that she was advised to “remain calm.”
“The administration has literally advised that we pretend that everything is okay,” she said. “They want us to do it for the students, so that they’re not worried about the future of their college. But where have the students been when it’s time to negotiate contracts for OCOPE and UAW?”
Consistent among my interviews was the opinion that the Oberlin College administration had painted a picture of the student body as responsible for the institution’s present financial status, whether through decreasing enrollment rates or increasing demands for academic services.
“I remember walking into a meeting where Mike Frandsen [Oberlin College’s Vice President of Finance] was presenting on Oberlin College’s financial status,” another employee said. “He told us there were fewer students enrolling at Oberlin, that fewer students could pay full tuition, and that the cost of student resources and services far exceeded our allotted budget for them.”
The employee reported that they felt trapped between student demands and an administration looking to cut costs. “What do you do when you feel like you can’t say no to students without them protesting and there isn’t money to pay for the services they want?” they said.
“Or, if the college does pay for the services, more employees may lose their jobs.”
Chief Human Resources Office Joseph Vitale and Vice President of Finance declined to comment.