Home Letters to the Editor Letter to the Editor: Deep concern about cuts at Ohio U

Letter to the Editor: Deep concern about cuts at Ohio U

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Letter to the Editor

Bernhard Debatin, an Ohio University professor and the director of studies for the Honors Tutorial College journalism program, sent this Letter to the Editor in response to the university’s firing of faculty members due to budget cuts.

President Nellis, dear Duane:

I have gotten to know you as an approachable, friendly person. I hope you will read my letter in this spirit, too.

We all know that these are extraordinary and challenging times. I very much appreciated that you and Provost Elizabeth Sayrs announced, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, that you “asked University leadership to pause the personnel-related budget reduction” (March 25, 2020).

Similarly, I found it heartening that the Provost, together with Faculty Senate, decided to “grant an automatic, one-year extension to the tenure clock of all faculty who currently hold tenure-track appointments” (March 26, 2020).

But then, just about a month later, we suddenly learn, out of the blue, that instructional and probationary tenure track faculty are getting fired — so far and first in the two diversity crown jewels of our university, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and African American Studies (AAS). And we also learn that 140 unionized employees are getting a pink slip. This seems only the beginning. As the situation is unfolding, I am afraid we will hear much more terrible news from other departments soon, too.

This left me speechless, horrified, angry and deeply disappointed. Not simply because these cuts directly affect my family, but first and foremost because of the heartless and highly damaging approach that stands behind this.

The message that the fired faculty and staff are getting is: The promise of not laying off people during the COVID-19 crisis was not meant honestly, it was just made to get us through the semester. Now that the semester is over, we can fire you because we don’t need you any more to get through this COVID-19-ridden semester. That is painfully cynical.

Furthermore, in the case of the fired faculty, the message is that the programs they represent are irrelevant— so much for our university’s commitment to diversity. WGSS had three full-time faculty, all three instructors. All three will be gone. One was discouraged and left before the cuts hit her, the other two were now fired (or, rather: their contracts will not be renewed, for semantic precision, but it amounts to the same). WGSS now only has a couple of half-time tenure-line faculty; but that’s not how you can run a program.

Similarly, African-American Studies is such a small program that the loss of their only probationary tenure-line faculty is a hard blow, too. Not to mention the fact that the generous one-year extension to the tenure clock now looks really cynical, too.

In your message on March 28, 2020, a day before the first personnel cuts were announced, you repeated the “commitment to pause budget-related personnel actions that had been considered prior to the pandemic as we assessed our new reality.” Yes, you did talk at length about the challenges ahead in this message, but nowhere did you say that the pause is over. And, as far as I know, neither is COVID-19. Plus, the current cuts are not even COVID-19 related but addressing the result of previous mismanagement, prominently the $37 million increase in administrative spending and the continuing subsidies for the athletic department to the tune of $18 million per year.

And, for what it’s worth, last week’s First Friday message, with your rather chirpy tone and your emphasis on how our Bobcat Community has remained strong and is staying united, seems particularly insensitive and detached from a reality where parts of the Bobcat Community are actually getting fired at a time when the future could not be any more uncertain. A word of recognition of and compassion with those who are getting laid off would have been at least a sign of humanity.

My friend and colleague Mike Sweeney just sent a letter to the Board of Trustees, with you cc-ed, in which he outlined that there are alternatives to firing people. But that would, of course, require resolve and courage, as well as truly shared governance to negotiate, rather than top-down-decide the details. He stated we could,

“close the horrible budget deficit by having EVERY Ohio U employee, no exceptions, take a furlough, rather than firing the lowest-paid, most vulnerable employees. Imagine those furloughs fitting along a gradient, in which, say, the top-paid employees take a 25 percent cut, followed by 20, 15, and 10 percent, with the lowest paid taking a 5 percent cut. All in the name of averting any firings of our Ohio U colleagues at any level. What a PR story/headline that would be: “The Ohio U Bobcat family unites in shared sacrifice to save colleagues’ jobs.”

I have nothing to add to this other than that I hope, at least for now, that you and other university leaders have the courage to go this path, rather than destroying, piece by piece and pink slip by pink slip, what makes this university an institution of higher education that I used to be so proud of.

Finally, I just learned that my graduating HTC advisee Grant Gravagna also sent a letter to the Board of Trustees, in which he stated,

“financial cutbacks might indeed be necessary to see Ohio U through this turbulent time. But there are likely other avenues of getting there … As faculty layoffs begin, I know one thing to be certain. The decision to sever ties with professors has led this once proud graduating senior to think twice before contributing to his alma mater as an alumnus … I will cherish the education, friends, memories, and mentorships I gained while on the bricks of Athens, but will always lament the way the university’s Board of Trustees and many of its administrators chose to say farewell.”

This is why these cuts are also damaging beyond the suffering they create for the ones who are getting fired. This is a major PR debacle and I am very concerned that Ohio University will increasingly lose the support of their alumni, unless there’s some real change in how things are done.


Bernhard Debatin

Note: This letter has been slightly edited for typos and to reflect the correct number of fired union members.

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