On Friday, the Ohio University community received an email from President Nellis that has quickly sown widespread fear. If I may summarize and translate for those who lack fluency in administrative PR: “Very bad stuff is going to happen soon. Mostly to faculty and students and academic quality. Heads of non-academic units have successfully defended their divisions from the worst of the fiscal pain and suffering. The university has remembered at the last minute to pretend there was shared governance and calls for collaboration after the key budgetary decisions have already been made and modeled in detail in Cutler Hall. Those who question any of this are not ‘team players’.”

Nearly three years into the Nellis administration, disappointment and frustration reign supreme among faculty, students and others. Under the McDavis/ Benoit administration, Ohio University transformed itself “from great to good.” Despite great hopes for a more academically informed president and provost, Ohio University has continued its journey down the path of eroding academic quality. Our current administrators were welcomed by faculty because they could talk the academic talk, but the values expressed in their budgetary decisions leave much to be desired.

Last spring, instructional faculty were fired, and current planning – despite assurances that nothing has been finalized – gives every indication of significant faculty lay-offs over the next three years. Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences have heard their budget will be reduced by 20 percent over the next three years and the College of Health Science & Professions, a unit the university seems interested in protecting from harm, learned from their dean they would be reduced by just over 13 percent over the same period. The first major set of instructional faculty layoffs likely will be announced in the weeks following the March meeting of the Board of Trustees.

There are many reasons for the university’s current budgetary crisis. One of the more significant has been College Credit Plus (CC+), a program sold to Ohioans as a way to reduce the cost of higher education, but which has proven penny wise and pound foolish from an educational perspective. It has hurt universities, and more importantly hurt students who believe they are getting a college education and arrive on campuses poorly prepared for more advanced work. University leaders across Ohio, including college presidents, know this, and it’s a shame they have not had the political courage to campaign vigorously against CC+.

At Ohio University, the two main reasons for the current budgetary crisis are years of recklessly ambitious enrollment forecasting and administrative bloat.

With regard to the first, there does seem to be a dawning awareness among university leaders to be more sober in their enrollment planning over the next several years, although long-term budget projections shared with the campus show an uptick after several years. Such optimism seems to be the product of ongoing magical thinking. Many of the university leaders, including deans, provosts, associate provosts, etc., responsible for former pie-in-the-sky enrollment projections are still in their positions.

As for the second cause of the current crisis, research conducted and shared widely last fall by the Ohio University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (OU-AAUP) document administrative bloat at the university over the last 10 years. While faculty numbers have remained relatively flat, the number of administrators has increased significantly, and the salaries of upper-level administrators have increased at rates far exceeding those of all other employee groups. 

According to 2019 salary data published in The Post in October, 106 Ohio University employees make more than $153,650 per year – the 2019 salary of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine! Of those 106 highest earners, only 34 are faculty, almost exclusively in the colleges of Medicine, Engineering and Business.  And only four of those faculty are in the top 50 earners at OU.

Further evidence of administrative bloat or, at the very least, Ohio University’s disinvestment in academic spending, can also be discovered by examining the university’s annual audited financial statements. During the period, 2009-2014, on average the university spent 38.62 percent of its budget on “Instruction” (direct expenditures on instruction such as faculty salaries and benefits). Since then (2015-19), that average annual expenditure has plummeted to 34.74 percent, dipping as low as 33.10 percent in 2018.

While an average decline in spending of 3.88 percent over the two periods may not seem significant, when computed in terms of the university’s annual expense budget for 2019 ($736,620,000), it represents a $28.58 million decrease in expenditures on direct instruction.

While some of that may be attributable to increased capital expenses on new construction, much of it is attributable to the diversion of funds from academic to administrative expenditures.  Current budget planning, which depends on heavy reductions of non-tenure-track instructional faculty, will only make matters worse.

Rather than continue along the course charted by those responsible for its budget crisis, Ohio University should adopt the following course of action:

• Immediately suspend all plans to fire instructional faculty. Expenditures on faculty are not the reason for the budget crisis, and reductions will further erode academic quality and contribute to a downward enrollment spiral; while enrollments depend upon a number of factors, there can be no doubt that our current problems are attributable to our decrease in academic quality and national rankings, the reasons for which can be clearly documented in the university’s decreased levels of spending on instruction;

• Return Ohio University to the level of expenditure on instruction it maintained during the 2009-14 period (38.62 percent of total budget); maintaining that percentage should be one of the most important metrics, if not the most important, on which the Board of Trustees evaluates our administration;

• Beginning July 1, introduce a one-day per week furlough of the 72 administrative employees who make more than Gov. DeWine; such a furlough should remain in effect until these positions become vacant and replacements, when deemed necessary, can be hired at salaries more in keeping with public service than private-sector extravagance; colleagues report that the chair of the Board of Trustees and the university’s Chief Financial Officer have publicly argued that inflated administrative salaries are compliance matters – we will reportedly be in trouble if we don’t pay skyrocketing market rates; I’d be curious to know how the Ohio State Auditor would respond to such an argument;

• Ask the chair of the Faculty Senate to form a task force for “Reimagining the Administrative Enterprise”; such a committee should receive any requested logistical support from the Provost, VP for Finance & Administration, and other senior administrators; this committee would parallel the committee of administrators, several of whom talk and think more like management consultants than educators, currently “Reimagining the Academic Enterprise” – the tail has been wagging the dog for too long at Ohio University. 

Rather than correcting the university’s course of action, “Fearlessly First” and the budgetary practices of the Nellis/ Djalali administration represent the same path staked out by their predecessors. Indeed, they have continued to rely for much of their “imagination” on those highly paid administrative personnel who were the agents and embodiments of bloat under their predecessors.  

 “Fearlessly First” and the university budget planning that gives flesh to its rhetoric inspire fear among faculty because they are more of the same.  The same abandonment of academic quality as the university’s highest priority. The same administrative bloat. The same twisting in the wind while pivoting, reimagining, repositioning and chasing market fads.  And frankly, the same predictable strategies being pursued at most public institutions.

Why? Because that’s the safest path. For university leaders, it’s OK to fail, as long as you fail the same way as everyone else. There’s nothing “fearless” about pursing that strategy. To be truly “fearless” would be to restore Ohio University’s greatness by reinvesting, with dollars and not simply rhetoric, in the educational mission of preparing students for successful careers, engaged citizenship, and lives enriched with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Editor’s note: Joe McLaughlin is an associate professor of English and the former chair of Faculty Senate at Ohio University.

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