By Sarah Siock and Shaun Chornobroff
Since the early days of Gregory Dell’Omo’s tenure as president of Rider University, there has been consistent distrust between his administration and Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The university’s recent partnership with the higher education consulting firm Credo is the latest example of the AAUP’s frustration.
The opposition to Credo
The partnership launched in June after a financially challenging year for Rider due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Credo’s website, the firm works “to help higher education thrive in order to impact the success of students.” However, in an email to union members sent on Oct. 1, AAUP leadership condemned the partnership, claiming it will “embolden further missteps” and asked members to not engage with Credo representatives.
Credo, the union claims, has a “disturbing pattern of deep cuts of programs and departments, and reduction in student services,” and called on faculty and students to “engage in educational but disruptive actions” at the university to protest Credo and the process.
Political science professor and Rider’s AAUP President Barbara Franz told The Rider News, “Credo was hired to justify and vindicate the slashing of Rider’s programs and eliminating faculty. Credo simply will provide the cover for actions the administration already plans to implement.”
In an Oct. 5 email sent to the AAUP Executive Committee, Robert Stoto, Rider’s vice president of human resources, along with Mark Solomon, the university’s vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, wrote, “the actions outlined in that email, should they occur, including calls that faculty do not participate in the contractually initiated process of constituting a task force, and that faculty engage in ‘disruptive’ actions, would violate our contract.”
The email advised the union to “rescind the Oct. 1 communication” and that they share that with its members.
In response, the AAUP’s executive committee made their stance clear.
“This attempt to intimidate the AAUP leadership is a violation both of our contractually protected academic freedom rights and federal labor law. Members of the bargaining unit are not required to serve on task forces. Calling on our members not to volunteer to carry out such work does not constitute a strike or slowdown but simply a call for them to exercise their contractual rights to choose what value activities they will carry out. Exercising our right to advise our members does not interfere with the university’s normal activities,” said the AAUP leader’s email sent on Oct. 6.
Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown previously told The Rider News the university chose to engage with Credo, “given all of the complex and multifaceted challenges Rider faces.”
Brown explained that the engagement will consist of two phases. Phase one, which is currently taking place, will focus on three components of university operations: admissions, student success and efficiency and prioritization.
“In short, phase one will take a deep dive, through quantitative and qualitative data collection, review and analysis, into these critical institutional functions that intersect directly with the student experience and institutional financial health. Credo will then identify areas for greatest impact to improve the student experience at Rider from the top of the recruitment funnel all the way through to graduation, as well as opportunities to increase resource efficiency across the university,” said Brown.
Brown said the second phase is about to begin and will continue into 2022 with a focus on administrative and academic efficiency.
“Recommendations from Credo will be reviewed and prioritized by the university for implementation with the primary goal of assuring that Rider remains an attractive competitive choice when students and families decide which college will provide the best value in terms of their investment. We must be responsive to all of the factors influencing higher education today so we can transform Rider into the strongest institution possible,” Brown said.
Brown did not disclose the cost of Rider’s partnership with Credo.
Reminiscent of the past
Several professors expressed fears that Credo’s prioritization process will result in layoffs and the cutting of academic programs. Faculty pointed to the start of Dell’Omo’s tenure at Rider in 2015. In October of that year, the university announced layoffs for 14 faculty members, the elimination of 14 academic programs and the curtailing of three programs from majors to minors. However, after negotiations with the union, which resulted in a faculty wage freeze for the current and following academic year, the programs and faculty were saved.
Philosophy professor Joel Feldman said, “It was clear to me that they intended and wanted to eliminate programs, they were all small programs, relatively small … and that the goal was not to prioritize and make things better, but it was to cut and eliminate.”
According to the administration’s intended layoff plan in 2015, the programs in danger included advertising, American studies, art and art history, business education, business economics, economics, French, geoscience, German, Italian, marine science, organizational leadership, philosophy, piano, sociology and web design.
Before the negotiations took place in 2015, Feldman was told he was laid off and the philosophy major would no longer be offered at Rider. He is currently one of the two remaining full-time professors that teach philosophy.
“It was pretty clear to me that it was the humanities, the liberal arts and the social sciences that were in their crosshairs,” said Feldman.
What is Credo?
The AAUP has completed extensive research into Credo which they compiled into two documents titled “A Bargaining Unit Member’s Guide to Credo.”
The research details Credo’s history of institutions with which they have engaged in the past.
A document that was posted to the AAUP’s website on Sept. 28 said, “Likely led by Credo – Bethel, Elon, LaSalle, Marquette and Wartburg have all made enormous reductions to core programs. Cuts, consolidations and entire program closures have resulted. These include foreign languages, classics, political science, performing arts, visual art and history. Sciences, especially physics, have undergone significant cuts as well. Even athletic programs have been sizably cut in some cases, though they are often the pet project of administrations.”
A blog post published on April 16, 2019, on the Credo website read “College and university leaders must explicitly, unequivocally embrace an entrepreneurial business mindset, educating their campuses about the financial realities and complexities of institutional revenues, expenses and discount rates.”
It’s a logic that Joel Phillips, a professor of composition and music theory at Rider’s Westminster Choir College disagrees with.
“The idea of a university is that there is supposed to be … fundamental things that support the education of an individual,” said Phillips. “What it [programs being removed] boils down to is which majors are the most profitable?”
Credo’s student assessment
Rider’s partnership with Credo will also focus on retention and recruitment of students as the university is currently experiencing a downward trend in enrollment numbers. Dell’Omo said at the fall convocation that Rider’s total enrollment is 3,827 students, which is a drop from 4,218 students last academic year.
Included in phase one of Credo’s partnership is a “student experience assessment.”
In an Oct. 1 email sent to students, Dell’Omo said the Credo team “engaged a number of distinct student groups to hear first-hand about the lived student experience pre-and post-matriculation.”
Senior acting major Christianah Akinsanmi was one student selected to speak with a Credo consultant in a group setting on Sept. 17 and Oct. 6. Akinsanmi said the consultant asked the group about their experiences at Rider and focused on issues about students of color.
Akinsanmi said, “Because we were multicultural students, they wanted us to focus on our experience and whether or not we’ve ever been disrespected by faculty or how we felt reaching out to them about issues that pertain to us and our identity.”
Akinsanmi explained that the first meeting included 11 students and the second was smaller with only six students. At both meetings no Rider faculty was present and Credo representatives asked questions. The group was told the meetings were confidential, but Akinsanmi questioned how students’ words will influence Credo’s assessment.
“It feels like they’re going to take my language and my experiences and use that to support the administration and whatever they choose to do,” said Akinsanmi.
An uncertain future
With the AAUP’s continued opposition to the Credo partnership, the consulting firm’s impact on the university remains uncertain.
“This is an administration that’s not about cooperation, it’s not about consulting, none of that,” Phillips said strongly. “They want to issue edicts, they want to give marching orders, and if you don’t want to fall in line and follow those orders, they want to get rid of you.”
Feldman echoed Phillips’ sentiment and said he will not engage with Credo representatives.
Feldman said, “At this point, I think we’ve learned our lesson … and I think that especially with knowing Credo’s record it is vital that the faculty do not collaborate in our own demise.”
However, Brown said Credo’s work will continue with or without the AAUP’s participation.
She said, “The engagement with Credo is designed to ensure the viability of Rider University during a time of critical competition in the higher education market. It is our hope that faculty will lend their time and talents to collaborate on this work for the good of the institution as a whole. The administration’s invitation for faculty participation remains an open one, however the work with Credo will progress regardless of faculty participation.”