Jim Mosher OU budget

Jim Mosher, associate professor at OU, presents an anaylysis last Thursday of university staffing and enrollment data at a meeting of the university’s chapter of the AAUP. Photo by Conor Morris.

An Ohio University professors group this week released a research paper delving into the university’s current budget crisis, arguing that by shifting resources to upper administration and athletics, OU has played a role in that crisis.

This is after more than 100 OU faculty met last Thursday evening to air grievances about university administration. They discussed a plan of action in response to looming budget cuts that they say could drastically damage OU’s academic quality.

Faculty members at the meeting also discussed a possible faculty walkout in response to the administration’s handling of the university’s budget crisis, as well as the possibility of attempting to unionize OU faculty. The Ohio University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) hosted the meeting.

The university administration set a target of roughly $19.3 million in budget reductions last spring that it asked OU’s various Athens campus academic colleges to make over the next four years. The largest portion of that – about $8 million – is coming from the College of Arts and Sciences. 

OU’s AAUP chapter raised the alarm last month about how those cuts and other proposals could drastically impact the quality of education at the university. The chapter at the time cited potential layoffs of as many as 40 or more “Group II” instruction-heavy faculty members (who are non-tenure track).

However, Robin Oliver, vice president for university communications and marketing at OU, said Tuesday that as of yet no decisions have been made about what the academic colleges will need to cut in the latest round of budget discussions. The university’s academic deans, as well as the heads of its administrative and other departments, are all working on budgeting for the next fiscal year, she added, and earlier this month they submitted several scenarios to university administration on how they could make 5 percent and 10 percent budget reductions. Oliver cautioned that these are just planning practices at this point, however.

During Thursday’s meeting, Jim Mosher, an OU associate professor who specializes in comparative politics, presented an analysis of university staffing and enrollment data. His analysis suggests that OU’s current budget crisis is a result of poor fiscal management by the university over the last decade as well as bloat of administrative staff.

Meanwhile, the AAUP “white paper” released this week – using similar data as analyzed by Mosher – found much the same.

The paper reads: “The primary takeaway is that, since 1979, OU has made no major new investments in the direct teaching mission on a per-student basis even though inflation-adjusted tuition and revenue at the university have raced upward during the same period. The sharp increase in administrators indicates much of the increases in revenue per student has quite possibly gone toward the administrative structure rather than OU’s mission of teaching and research.”

The data analyzed in the paper show that since the ’70s, faculty salaries and numbers of faculty employed at OU have largely remained stagnant, while the cost of tuition has continued to rise. During that same time period analyzed, according to the data, the number of administrators per student at the university has ballooned, with a 45 percent increase in the total size of that staff between 2011 and 2017.

Noting that the university is still reviewing the white paper, Oliver said that for now she doesn’t have a direct response to the paper’s general findings. However, she explained that in fiscal year 2016, a significant number of positions were converted from Group III faculty to “administrative regular term positions,” so that might be inflating the numbers somewhat.

She acknowledged that the university has seen a growth in administrative positions in recent years, but that’s largely in the area of “student support services” – roles such as counselors and advisers, she said.

The white paper also takes issue with the reasons that the university administration has given when asked about the cause of the budget crisis: changing demographics across the country, and fewer high-school students graduating in Ohio. Oliver, the OU VP for communications, said declining enrollment in recent years is also a big factor.

AAUP’s white paper presents an analysis of Ohio demographical data showing that contrary to some assertions, the number of 18-year-olds in Ohio has remained relatively stable in recent years, and will only undergo a decline in the next eight to 10 years.

Associate professor Mosher in his presentation attributed the recent downturn in OU enrollment to the university’s own actions, arguing that it has “priced itself out” with the cost of tuition compared to the quality of students it has attempted to recruit.

After Mosher’s presentation last week, many faculty members expressed outrage at the OU administration’s handling of the budget crisis.

David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management and an AAUP member, took issue with OU’s athletics budget, with 70 percent of its funding coming directly from students’ tuition (he claimed that each student is paying roughly $1,300 per year to subsidize the athletics department).

Ridpath said that OU’s athletics department is typically considered a “sacred cow” and is left untouched during budget cut discussions, despite such little financial benefit to the university from operating the sports program. The so-called “front-porch theory” of athletics as a primary recruitment tool for a university – which the professor said has been espoused by OU President Duane Nellis – has long been disproven, according to Ridpath.

Oliver noted that all departments at OU are looking at reductions to their budgets, including athletics. The university completely removing its athletics department or otherwise drastically cutting it down would not be a viable solution, she added.

“It’s really important to point out that all of our athletes are students,” she said. “They are here to earn their degrees first and foremost, and we are here to support their earning their degree.”

The entire OU athletics department’s budget was $27.1 million in the 2015 year, with roughly $16 million in revenues for that program coming from student fees and tuition, The NEWS previously reported (OU had $745 million in total revenue in the 2016 fiscal year, compared to $692.8 million in total expenses).

The NEWS previously reported that most of OU’s administrative offices took a $4.8 million cut in 2018, along with another $1.5 million reduction expected this year, and another $2.15 million cut in Fiscal Year 2020. 

OU’s auxiliary departments – athletics, culinary and housing – also have made or will make reductions: About $2.5 million in FY18; $1.5 million in FY19; and almost $700,000 in FY2020. Athletics is only contributing about $600,000 in reductions across those three years.

OU President Nellis and Provost Chaden Djalali have stated that OU is not alone in facing budget challenges due to declining enrollment.

“Ohio University is not alone; colleges and universities across the nation are struggling with funding challenges, including the decreasing enrollments in residential programs, affordability issues, rising student debt, and competition from for-profit and other alternatives to four-year universities,” they wrote in a March 24 letter to faculty and staff. “There is a growing need for institutions of higher learning to identify alternative revenue sources and to implement cost-saving measures to create a sustainable financial future.”

DAVID HOKANSON, A GROUP II faculty member in OU’s College of Business, said in a comment shared during last Thursday’s meeting (he was viewing the event remotely) that he already has been informed that his contract will not be renewed because of the budget crisis.

“It has become clear that Group II faculty are clearly second-class citizens in the university structure,” he wrote. 

AAUP President Loren Lybarger said he’s open to his organization working on a petition drive for unionizing OU’s faculty, as well as planning a walk-out, but said faculty need to all communicate with one another and band together.

AAUP Vice President Julie White and Lybarger said AAUP plans to speak with OU President Nellis soon and will present the results of Mosher’s research.

“Does it have more weight now with 100 people in this room?” White asked. “I hope so... I think part of the strategy has to be, you don’t even know what your gen(eral) ed(ucation requirements) is going to look like, and you’re releasing some of our most committed teachers who are committed to that mission.”

White was speaking about an upcoming revision to OU’s general education structure that a leadership team (which is lead by faculty members) at OU is working on. The university’s Group II faculty – who could be most impacted by the budget cuts – are the ones who teach the bulk of those courses.

OU Provost Chaden Djalali said in a statement last week that both administrative and academic units are in the early phases of building their budgets for the next fiscal year.

“Part of that process includes implementing academic strategies to rebalance the operating budget as part of the university’s Strategic Framework,” Djalali wrote.

He added that academic deans are evaluating “all programs to identify potential candidates for program sunsetting, right-sizing, or merging within and across colleges.”

The OU AAUP white paper concludes by noting the harm that could be caused by firing instructional faculty.

“Firing faculty of instruction – a move that will significantly increase the teaching burden of tenured and tenure-track (T/TT) faculty, negatively affects the capacity of these faculty to carry out already substantial research and service activities, radically reduce the number of courses OU can offer, and in some cases force the closing of entire academic programs – should be the university’s last resort and should only occur in the context of a formally declared financial emergency,” the paper reads.

OU’s Oliver said the university needs to be “extremely innovative” in considering how to reinvent itself to become “fearlessly first,” but it’s going to mean difficult conversations across the university.

“As we move forward in this (budget) process, it is going to be challenging for the entire institution,” she said.

OU administrators are set to have an “open house” on “reimagining the academic enterprise” with faculty, students and staff from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today (Nov. 21) in Baker University Center Room 242, OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said Friday.

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