By Shanna O’Mara
Rider’s administration and the union representing the university’s faculty narrowly avoided a strike or other labor action before this week’s start of classes, with administrators agreeing on Sept. 1 not to increase the number of courses each professor must teach but winning concessions in the form of cuts to faculty benefits.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) negotiating team met with members of the administration every day during the week leading up to the contract’s expiration date on Aug. 31, according to AAUP president Elizabeth Scheiber.
“It seemed like there was a true negotiation happening,” Scheiber said. “There was real listening to the other side, a real consideration for the other side. I’m not going to say that this was easy, like someone presented something and the other side said, ‘Of course we’ll do that.’ It was a little more combative than that. In the end, it seemed like in the interest of the institution, both sides were willing to give things up and both sides stood firm on certain issues.”
University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said the negotiations resulted in an agreement to establish “a 3-year contract for faculty, librarians and athletic staff, subject to ratification by the Board of Trustees and the AAUP membership.”
Scheiber and her team — contract administrator Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of communication David Dewberry, AAUP vice president Michael Brogan, professor of economics Herbert Gishlick, assistant grievance officer Joel Phillips, immediate past president Art Taylor, administrative assistant Terri Rue — all sat down with the administration until 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 1.
President Gregory Dell’Omo said both sides of the table were “very talented, very sincere, very committed to be successful,” although the issues at hand were controversial and evoked heated discussion.
The administration had proposed that professors teach four courses per semester instead of three, with no increase in pay.
In addition, as of May 2017, the administration pushed to take away all adjuncts’ benefits and to set their salary at $4,000, regardless of what they may have been making before the contract expired. The AAUP representatives ensured that adjuncts who receive benefits now will continue to do so and will be paid according to their set salary. New hires will start at $4,000, according to a table of outcomes released by Halpern on Sept. 5.
The contract also creates a new teaching position called “lecturers,” who will teach four courses per semester for a salary of $62,000. Initially, the administration wanted lecturers to teach five classes per semester for $55,000, according to the union summary of the agreement.
Although the university demanded $1.1 million from the bargaining unit to cover health insurance costs, the AAUP negotiating chief said they agreed to pay $873,000.
These winded negotiations came after financially stressful months for Rider.
In June 2016, Vice President for Finance Julie Karns released a four-year budget projection which set the university’s deficit around $14 million. Later that year, Dell’Omo said further studies found that the number to actually be around $10 million.
“There are so many unknowns in your budget process because it’s all based pretty much on enrollments and your cost structure,” Dell’Omo said during an Aug. 30 interview. “We get accused of first projecting a deficit and then, at the end of the year, if that deficit is lower, we’re accused of not knowing what we’re doing. It’s our job to work toward getting that deficit down.”
In an Aug. 23 letter to the Board of Trustees, Scheiber wrote, “Based on analysis of financial data provided by Rider’s finance division, we believe Rider’s current and future fiscal situation has been misrepresented. Rider is not in danger of a $10 million cash deficit this year or in future years, and will very likely have a cash surplus this year.”
Dell’Omo said this cash comes in September and January when students pay their tuition but is spent throughout the semester to cover bills and other operating costs.
“People always talk about ‘there’s an operating budget deficit but you have enough cash. You’re not going to run out of cash,’” Dell’Omo said. “They’re right. We’re not going to run out of cash, but if you keep running these operating deficits two, three, four, five years in a row, eventually you get so far in a hole with your cash that when that new round of tuition comes in, it’s going to be way off.”
Dell’Omo said 92 percent of Rider’s revenue comes from student expenses including tuition, room and board and other fees. However, this sum has been decreasing in recent years in keeping with a trend among higher education institutions.
“Our industry is going through some major changes to begin with,” Dell’Omo said. “Primarily, there are fewer students going to college today. When you look at the Northeast part of the country, there are fewer high school graduating seniors who are ready to go to college as opposed to prior generations. So that means we have a shrinking pool of you guys who are willing and able to go to college, who can afford college. That means the competition to get you is tougher.”
However, enrollment this year was actually higher than in previous years. Rider’s incoming freshman class is historically large, with 1,012 new students flocking to campus this September. This class is 15 percent larger than that of last year.
To compete with top competitors such as Rowan, Rutgers, Montclair, The College of New Jersey and Monmouth, and to reduce the university’s debt, Dell’Omo threatened to cut 13 majors and one minor as well as lay off 14 faculty members, most of whom were tenured, in November 2015. He and the Board of Trustees also made the decision on March 28, 2017 to sell Westminster Choir College to a third party. Less than a month later, the faculty union passed Rider’s first-in-history no-confidence vote against the president and his administration.
Since then, tensions have run high, according to a poll conducted by the AAUP this past summer. The study found that 83 percent of bargaining unit employees were dissatisfied with the direction of the university, and 69 percent were considering leaving. Even this tentative agreement has not mended the damage done, according to Scheiber.
“I think people are relieved that we reached an agreement, but I’m sensing that the [faculty] morale is still about the same,” she said.
Still, Scheiber said many professors are happy to return to the classroom and stay off the picket line.
In an Aug. 29 email to the AAUP’s bargaining unit members, the negotiating team announced that “a strike is not in the best interest of its members, the students, and Rider at this time,” and the administration agreed.
“I think everyone is of the same mindset that Rider benefits by not having a strike,” Dell’Omo said.
The union’s ratification meeting will be held on Sept. 14 in the Yvonne Theatre at 11:30 a.m.