Home Campus Here’s what Voluntary Separation actually means for Ohio U

Here’s what Voluntary Separation actually means for Ohio U

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Several protesters held hand-painted signs. Photo by Sarah Donaldson.

Since it was officially announced on Feb. 5, the Voluntary Separation Agreement (VSA) program has been a hot point of debate among both faculty and students. Many on campus have been wondering what the program is, how it will impact the university and how effective it will be in the midst of Ohio University’s attempts to curb recent budgetary issues.

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about VSA, and some more information about the program’s intentions and some potential consequences of it.

What is the Voluntary Separation Agreement?

The VSA is a program that specifically allows tenured faculty, professors and associate professors to leave the university with pay. Ohio U will pay faculty who participate in VSA “one year of their base salary paid in four equal installments over 18 months” as well as a payment for health care benefits, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Faculty do not have to retire in order to take the VSA, which is available to all tenured faculty regardless of their age or retirement eligibility. Robin Oliver, vice president for University Communications and Marketing, stated that faculty may also take the VSA offer if they are interested in leaving the university or taking a sabbatical.

When was the VSA introduced?

The program was officially announced on Feb. 5, 2020. 

Qualified employees must decide whether or not to take the VSA offer by March 21. After that, Oliver said there is a seven day opt-out program where they can change their decision. 

Why is the university offering the VSA? 

The VSA is the latest attempt by the university to change its financial structure. Oliver said that the VSA is one way the university is currently trying to contend with decreasing enrollment and shifting operational costs while still being respectful to current employees and faculty. 

“We knew we had people who were ready to make a personal decision about their own personal future, and this was a way to provide them an incentive now to make that decision instead of waiting,” Oliver said. “This is about finding the people where they are and meeting a desire they already have.”

Robert Stewart, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, announced in late February that he is planning to take the VSA and retire at the end of the school year, and he told The New Political that when he steps down, it will ultimately help the university’s budget in the long run.  

“What the university is trying to do with this buyout is reduce the number of layoffs,” Stewart said. “In a way, what they need are my dollars — my salary — to advance the cause. They need a lot of people like me to give up their salaries and walk away so they can hire new people that are younger, less expensive and bring new ideas. It’s going to take a little while to get to that spot, but this is a good way for the university to get to that spot without laying people off.”

Oliver also said that the university’s financial savings will not be immediate, since it will still be paying VSA faculty their annual salary for 18 months. However, she did acknowledge that with fewer faculty members, the university will save funds over time.

“There’s been a lot of dialogue about budget, but because Ohio U has healthy fiscal reserves, we have resources we can set aside that can bridge us operationally as we make these reductions,” Oliver said. “Even though the revenue reality is immediate, we can take some time to meet that reality because of the reserves we have available.” 

Who is eligible for the VSA?

The VSA is only available for tenured associate professors, professors and administrative faculty with the “same rank” as tenured faculty. In total, 608 employees are eligible for VSA, regardless of their age or retirement eligibility. 

There are, however, some exceptions to these qualifications, Oliver said. For example, employees of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine are not eligible because that school is currently meeting enrollment targets, and it has growing demand for faculty. 

Why might a university employee take the VSA offer?

A faculty member’s decision to take a VSA offer is personal, and can vary. In Stewart’s case, he had originally planned on teaching for two more years before retiring and possibly teaching part time through a previously offered early retirement program for faculty. But, he decided to take the VSA offer because he had enough money saved to comfortably retire early. He also determined that retirement was the best decision for both the school and his family.

“As I have gotten older and have seen the duties and responsibilities of the directors’ job, it has worn me down,” Stewart said. “It’s tiring to do this job the way it should be done, and I’ve gotten older, I realized that’s getting harder to do. So, I decided to take a look at this buyout and see if it would work for me.”

Robin Muhammad, the Ohio U Faculty Senate chair, additionally noted that many current faculty who are interested in taking the VSA are similar to Stewart in that they were already looking to retire. She also said that other faculty who are not near retirement age may be interested in the program if they were previously interested in moving institutions or ceasing their work at the university. 

Why might someone turn the VSA down? 

On the other hand, Muhammad acknowledges that other eligible faculty member will turn down the VSA offer for a variety of reasons. Some faculty members will not take the offer because the monetary reward is not great enough, she said. But, she also thinks many faculty members do not want to take the offer because of the disruption it could cause to their teaching, research and personal lives. 

“For most people, they have made an investment to this institution,” Muhammad said. “We’re here because we’re committed to the institution. There’s just not enough being offered to make that disruption. We have families here, we’re involved in the community, it’s not just a salary. It’s about this place and the campus.” 

Why is the VSA getting so much attention right now? 

Since its announcement, the VSA has garnered plenty of attention from faculty and students. Oliver said the attention being paid to the program may be a result of miscommunication over both the eligibility of the program and how many faculty members will accept the VSA. 

“The biggest thing to me is this sort of misunderstanding about who is eligible,” Oliver said. “I think maybe because we announced it with the early retirement program for custodial workers and because many professors who might decide to do this are at the end of their career, people are assuming eligibility is only open to a certain age group. Because of that, people are looking at that 608 number and thinking we’re going to let go of 608 professors. But, we’ve made this program available to all tenured faculty, and that is the number.” 

However, just because not every eligible faculty member will be taking VSA does not lessen some of Muhammad’s concerns about the professors who will be leaving and unlikely to be replaced.

“It’s probably going to be significant if some of those folks who are taking advantage of VSA are coming out of small departments or departments that have relied heavily on their work,” Muhammad said. “That’s a hole in programs. That’s already happening. That’s an easy prediction to make.” 

Currently, Muhammad is hoping that the program results in more opportunities between faculty, students and upper administration. Faculty Senate is also working on legislation that asks administrators to retain and support all faculty and has also had frequent meetings with administrators expressing its concerns. 

In the midst of the debates and confusion over VSA and what impact it will have on campus, Muhammad hopes that the university come out of this program by not only taking a closer look at its inner communications, but also how Ohio U supports both its faculty and students. 

“We need as many people to help provide students with the education they paid for,” Muhammad said. “We can’t keep doing that if you keep cutting us.” 

What is the Early Retirement Incentive Plan?

At the same time Ohio U announced VSA, the university also announced an early retirement program for custodial workers part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The program is also called The AFSCME ERIP (Early Retirement Incentive Plan). Despite being announced at the same time as the VSA, this is a completely separate program.

Who is eligible for AFSCME ERIP? 

This program is specifically for residential custodians who are members of AFSCME and who have a specific number of years of service depending on their age. 

The Columbus Dispatch also reported that 66 residence hall custodians are currently eligible for AFSCME ERIP.

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