Ohio University on Friday confirmed that it had issued lay-off notices to 140 employees, all members of the AFSCME Local 1699 union, as the university continues to grapple with an existing budget crisis that has worsened seriously since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began spreading earlier this year.
Those employees – workers such as custodians, culinary and maintenance staff – will have their positions eliminated as of May 31, OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in a statement Friday. Leatherwood called this the “first significant personnel reduction” that OU has implemented so far since the pandemic began.
“The majority of the institution’s operational costs are in its employees, which requires the university to make extremely difficult decisions regarding our workforce, including today’s action,” she said. “Ohio University recognizes and regrets the difficult impact this will have on our valued employees, their families, and our community at large.”
OU President Duane Nellis in a letter issued last Tuesday said the university is facing serious financial struggles due to the coronavirus pandemic and enrollment declines in recent years. (See related story about a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence from Monday evening.)
Some academic instructors in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences also learned late last week that they likely will receive non-renewal notices on their contracts. This includes two members of the university’s already-small Women’s and Gender Studies department and potentially at least one instructor in the African-American Studies program.
John Ackison, president of the 1699 union, said in a brief interview Friday that he’s frustrated by the news, noting that OU’s budget problems date back further than the current coronavirus pandemic, which has severely impacted colleges across the country.
“It (layoffs happening) is all over campus… They’re laying off professors and keeping high-dollar administrators,” Ackison said.
April Lorring Stone, a cook in OU’s Central Service Kitchen who was coming up on her seventh year of working at OU, said that last Friday she was notified she was being laid off. This was after she and other culinary workers were already notified that they would not be employed through the summer, she said in a letter sent Tuesday.
“I have seen my co-workers sacrifice their bodies (burns, cuts, pulled muscles and tendons, even broken bones), mental health, and even their relationships’ well-being – in order to give the students and the university the best of themselves,” she wrote. “I have been a friend, a stand-in big sister, parent and a counselor for young people who are away from their homes, family and support networks – while they seek out their paths in life.”
Patty Stokes, an assistant professor of instruction in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, confirmed Friday that she had been told she will be given a non-renewal notice on her contract, possibly this week, along with another full-time faculty member in the WGSS department. If that’s the case, per OU’s faculty handbook, those two instructors likely will be given a “terminal year” to finish out their teaching (meaning one final year of teaching), then be let go.
Stokes has worked as an instructor at OU since at least 2002, starting off as an adjunct, moving up to a full-time position in 2008. In a Facebook post she shared about being terminated last Thursday (simply with the statement “My Job Is Gone,” as of 9 a.m. yesterday/Wednesday, 327 comments had been posted, many by former students and fellow faculty expressing sadness and anger at her termination.
“What breaks my heart is just not being able to use that gift that I have and the experience I have for future generations of students,” she said Friday. “I know that many have benefited. I’m not being immodest in saying that. I know that our work has changed people’s lives. That’s the phrase that keeps coming up over and over again. ‘Your classes changed my life, I’m a different person because of it.’”
Stokes said that despite OU administration’s stated commitment to “diversity and inclusion” over the years, the move to cut her position and that of fellow WGSS associate professor of instruction Kim Little will leave the department without a single full-time faculty member devoted to solely teaching WGSS classes. Several faculty members have a split workload, essentially spending half their time teaching WGSS classes on top of other duties, but they will be the only ones left once Little and Stokes are gone, Stokes said.
When asked about the potential for other layoffs being announced for faculty at OU, Provost Elizabeth Sayrs said this Monday that she had not approved any plans for such layoffs or contract non-renewals.
Still, on twitter, an OU student group called #SaveOUrProfs has continually been reporting out the names of OU faculty members who have confirmed with the group that they were told they will not have their contracts renewed. As of Wednesday morning, a total of eight professors had been named in that capacity, including instructors from the English, Psychology and Spanish departments.
Stokes, in a Facebook post Tuesday, responded to Sayrs’ statement Monday evening: “At Faculty Senate last night, the provost assured us no decisions had been made. Of course, that is far from an assurance that anyone’s job is safe. I think it mostly reflects distributed decision-making, such that the provost is not fully aware of actions the deans have taken: plausible deniability. Nothing will be clear until everything is clear - with letters of non-renewal in our mailboxes.”
OU spokesperson Leatherwood said in her statement Friday that the university will save roughly $11 million through the cuts to union staffers and also from an early-retirement incentive program offered earlier this year.
“Prior to the pandemic the university had already implemented a series of measures to reduce costs, inclusive of offering voluntary separation agreements and early retirement incentives and enacting spending controls on external costs,” Leatherwood wrote. “Unfortunately, the unprecedented impact that this crisis will have on our university has increased the need for budget reductions and heightened the urgency.
“In addition to the elimination of 140 filled positions, vacant positions equivalent to 32.25 full time employees and 17 positions vacated through the ERIP program will remain unfilled,” she added. “With a total of 189.25 eliminated positions, the university anticipates a cost-savings of $11,317,926 through this reduction in force.”
DANIELL NEWTON-WEIDER, A COOK at the Hungry Cat food truck at OU, said Monday that while she wasn’t directly notified of being laid off on Friday, she and other employees like her in the union are worried that they’ll still be laid off through the process of “bumping,” Essentially, if an employee with more seniority has their job abolished, they have the potential to take a person with less seniority’s job if they have the qualifications for it.
She said she’s upset at the way the cuts have been enacted, targeting people in positions of seniority instead of “cutting from the bottom up,” which allows that process of “bumping.”
“It’s kind of like they want us to do their dirty business for them,” she said. “It’s like Ohio University wants us to fight for our jobs; it’s very reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Games’.”
Carol Garlock, a second-shift custodian at OU, was another person who was given a lay-off notice on Friday last week. She said that as a 46-year-old single mom of three children, the loss of pay and health insurance will have a big impact on her family. She noted that job offerings are slim in Athens County; food service and retail jobs hardly provide people with enough money to provide for families like hers, she said.
“My thoughts and concerns are not only about my brothers and sisters of local union 1699 but for the professors and students, facility and staff,” she said. “What kind of education are the kids going to get? When the kids come back to campus, what are they coming back to? The students will return to a campus that’s not as clean, (with) poor building upkeep and limited educators.
“I truly believe that the massive cuts to the university will not only hurt our enrollment, but destroy the university’s reputation and the core value of what it stands for,” she added.