The Ohio University Faculty Senate voted 44-11 Monday night to approve a vote of no confidence in OU President Duane Nellis and VP for Finance Deborah Shaffer. Senators accused them of leading the university to a budget crisis made much worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote came around 10 p.m. Monday during a lengthy digital meeting.
Nellis and OU Provost Elizabeth Sayrs took questions early in the meeting, further outlining the university’s steps to cut costs during the pandemic, which is wreaking havoc on colleges across the country. Even before that, though, OU already faced a significant budget shortfall due to declining enrollment over the last few years; as of March, OU President Nellis had said OU’s academic colleges would need to make $26 million in cuts over the next three years, and administrative units would need to make $8 million in cuts (the timeline on the administrative cuts was unclear).
The vote also comes as OU announced its first wave of layoffs, which it characterized as due to the pandemic, last Friday, affecting 140 members of the local 1699 AFSCME union. Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Tuesday that he will cut Ohio’s higher-education budget by about $110 million over the next two months, a measure that undoubtedly will worsen OU’s budget crisis. OU will have its funding cut by $6.6 million.
The OU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and that union chapter had planned a motorcade-style protest starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday in Athens (after The NEWS’ print deadline), starting at the Peden Stadium parking lot. The main demands were that OU revoke those layoffs and halt any additional layoffs during the pandemic, as well as implement a cap on all salaries at the university at the level of Gov. DeWine’s salary, which is $153,650.
The non-binding no-confidence resolution vote on Monday was authored by Julie White, professor of political science, and David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration. White said the resolution came after a petition recommending the no-confidence vote was signed by almost 200 OU faculty members Monday; that petition had more than 520 signatures as of Wednesday morning. White charged during the meeting that OU has suffered from budget mismanagement “for a very long time.”
“If we really are in a dire situation, it really is time to look at new models for a new normal in the university,” she said, adding that OU has not adequately involved faculty in recent budgeting decisions. “We need a much flatter structure of administration.”
Ridpath noted that other universities have made serious cuts to their athletics programs during the pandemic due to almost all games being cancelled, noting multiple headlines he’s seen in recent weeks of universities slashing athletics budgets and staff. That hasn’t happened at OU, he said.
OU TRUSTEE CHAIR David Scholl said in a statement provided Monday night, soon after the vote of no confidence, that he wants to make it “abundantly clear” that the Board of Trustees stands “firmly behind” Nellis and Schaffer.
“Ohio University, like its peer institutions across the nation, must overcome major challenges to remain competitive and financially viable in today’s environment,” Scholl said. “This was true prior to COVID-19, and the scale and urgency is exacerbated now. President Nellis has openly shared that, in order to support the university’s academic mission and meet the expectations of our students, we must rise to this challenge. We must act. He has challenged leaders from all areas of shared governance to work together to innovate and collaborate on efforts to modernize with urgency.”
While The NEWS has confirmed that two OU Women’s and Gender Studies professors have said they were told that they would not have their contracts renewed, Provost Sayrs insisted during Monday evening’s meeting that “no decisions have been made yet” on cuts to faculty and faculty contracts. She also said that OU is not eliminating any “programs or departments” at this time.
She attributed any news coming out about faculty cuts as “inconsistent messaging” being given to deans and department chairs.
“I apologize for anything my communications have done to contribute to that,” she said. “The reality is that no decisions have been made, and I have asked the deans to have difficult conversations with every chair.”
Sayrs and Nellis both reported that on top of themselves taking a voluntary 15-percent pay cut, all senior-level provost staff have been asked to take a voluntary 10-percent pay cut (Nellis said that some of those staff have agreed to cut more than that amount). Nellis’ base salary is $489,357 per year, and Sayrs’ base salary is $378,750 (before the 15-percent pay cuts).
Meanwhile, all administrative units are looking at cutting 20 percent of their budgets, Nellis said, including OU’s athletics department. He said the entire university is looking at serious budget cuts, though he did say the university has “layers of management” that have been built up over the years that it will need to reduce.
“I cannot promise to hold any area harmless from budget reductions if we’re going to ensure a stable future for our university,” Nellis said. “We face difficult and painful decisions, but we will endure and emerge ever more ready to meet the changing needs of our students.”
Sayrs and Nellis explained that about 80 percent of OU’s costs are personnel-related. Nellis said the university has seen, or will see, the following revenue-related losses:
• Refunding students’ housing and dining plans due to the pandemic, with a cost of about $18 million.
• OU has lost about $90 million in its foundation portfolio since July 1 last year.
• Lost $2.5 million in revenue by not implementing a 4.1 percent tuition increase slated for the 2020-2021 freshman class.
• If the state goes ahead with a 20-percent reduction for funding for all higher education institutions, that would amount to a $8.7 million loss this year and $35 million loss in the next year.
The federal CARES Act did provide about $9.7 million in emergency relief to OU and $9.7 million to its students, but Nellis said that $9.7 million is only about 1 percent of OU’s total budget, and added that that relief has been eclipsed by the refunds given to students for their dining/housing plans alone.
MONDAY EVENING, TED WELSER, an associate professor of sociology, questioned Sayrs on why the university isn’t looking at steeper cuts for people with salaries higher than $150,000. He noted that, at least according to OU’s 2018-2019 salary data, the university would save almost $22 million if those staff were cut down to $150,000 per year.
“I think a lot of people prefer thinking about salary (cuts) rather than eliminating positions,” Welser said.
Sayrs responded that she will take that recommendation back to OU’s budget planning staff, but she said that “you can only get so much with even very large salary” reductions.
“It does not meet what our projected draws on our reserves are,” Sayrs said.
According to salary data from the 2019-2020 school year, almost 120 people at OU make more than $150,000 per year.
Joe McLaughlin, former chair of OU’s Faculty Senate and an associate professor of English, sent an email to OU Faculty Senate members Monday afternoon advocating for the no-confidence vote.
“In the period 2009-14, the university spent 38.62% of its budget on ‘Instruction,’ while in the period 2015-19, that percentage dipped to 34.74%,” McLaughlin wrote. “When computed in terms of the 2019 budget, that average reduction represents a $28.58 million decrease in spending on instruction, a number very close to the budget gap pre-COVID. President Nellis has NOT identified the increase in administrative spending over the past decade as THE biggest budget problem we face and the highest priority in addressing coming budget cuts. Instead, academic colleges are poised to take the biggest percentage cuts.”
OU’s highest-paid employees are as follows, according to 2019-2020 salary data: Head Men’s Basketball Coach Jeff Boals, $581,000; Head Football Coach Frank Solich, $524,928; Nellis (salary mentioned above); Sayrs (also mentioned above): Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean Kenneth Johnson, $327,726; VP for Finance Deborah Shaffer, $307,545; and VP for Advancement and CEO of the OU Foundation Nico Karagosian, $305,000.