By Thomas Regan
Despite several negotiation meetings throughout the fall semester, Rider administrators and faculty union negotiators are poised to finish the term in an impasse, recently wrangling via email alone, and each side issuing written statements Tuesday to Rider’s educators.
The union’s lead negotiator, in an interview Tuesday, grimly acknowledged the parties remain “very far apart” in negotiations to reduce costs.
The two groups have met several times since the start of the semester; however, Jeffrey Halpern, lead negotiator for Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said “fundamentally different goals” continue to hinder discussions.
“We’re still going to try and close the gap and come to some agreement,” he said. “But, this isn’t [really a situation where] I started here and you started there, so let’s meet in the middle. No, that’s not going to happen. There is going to need to be a change in the goals.”
The conversations between the administration and the AAUP began in early September, after President Gregory Dell’Omo announced a projected deficit of $10 million for the 2017 fiscal year.
In the wake of the financial issues, Wall Street credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Rider’s profile to BBB- on Nov. 28, citing “weakened credit characteristics, including deficit operating trends with growing losses expected, an above-average endowment spending rate and modest financial resources.”
The ratings agency assigns a grade that measures a company’s ability to repay its debt, which means the lower the grade, the more it will cost to borrow money.
During recent negotiations between the administration and the AAUP, Halpern said the faculty union proposed a plan that would incentivize retirement in an effort to bring the university’s population of long-tenured and higher-paid professors in line with its competitors.
Dell’Omo was not available for comment on Nov. 29. However, in an email to faculty, he said, “Given the pressing nature of the situation, and the need to find short-term solutions as soon as possible, I had hoped these discussions would have progressed further by now. The growing gap between our revenue and the net tuition that the market will bear and our cost of instruction relative to peers are major factors driving our deficits, and must be addressed.”
Halpern said the AAUP’s offer could save Rider $5.5 million annually in the cost of instruction by 2020.
However, in a Nov. 21 email to AAUP negotiators that the union shared with faculty members on Nov. 29, Rider’s Associate Vice President for Human Resources and Affirmative Action Robert Stoto said the cost of instruction is “out of line with its peers for more reasons than faculty longevity.”
In the union’s email reply to Stoto, Halpern compared Rider’s labor-expense increases to that of university officers. According to the email, the cost of labor has grown 7.8 percent between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, while Rider officer salaries have increased 18.7 percent in that time.
Kristine Brown, university spokeswoman, could not confirm or comment on the numbers exchanged in the emails.
“The administration received this information only [Monday]. … The administration has responded by requesting that the AAUP leadership provide the detail supporting their analysis, including the assumptions behind the conclusions they presented,” Brown said in a written statement to The Rider News on Tuesday.
Halpern also indicated in the email that AAUP faculty labor costs are currently at 37.9 percent of the total cost of labor, which is below the 38.5 percent cost in 2012.
According to the terse, back-and-forth emails, the union claimed administration’s proposal would slash full-time bargaining member benefits from $32,600 per member to $20,300.
Halpern compared the current benefit package to that of Monmouth, which the email said is $32,090. Cutting benefit packages, he worries, will damage the university’s ability to recruit students and add to the faculty.
“Faculty morale is at the lowest it has ever been in my nearly 40-year career at Rider,” Halpern said in an interview. “[Recent negotiations] have left faculty members feeling they have no ground to stand on with everything shifting. The administration wants the faculty to be focused on developing new programs, but how can people focus on that when they’re really worried about being laid off next year? Or if their compensation will be cut so much, they cannot support their family.”
Brown said the university will continue to discuss necessary measures to lower costs.
“The administration firmly believes that continuing a dialogue with the AAUP about these important matters is very important, and remains ready and willing to do so,” Brown said in the written statement.
Dell’Omo will meet with faculty and staff to provide presidential updates on Dec. 1 at 11:30 a.m. in Talbott 1 on the Princeton campus and at 4:30 p.m. in the Cavalla Room on the Lawrenceville campus.
Despite the projected deficit and the downgrade of Rider’s credit-rating, Standard & Poor’s report said the organization expects the university to recover or stabilize.
“The stable outlook reflects our anticipation that, over the two-year outlook period, Rider will maintain sufficient financial resources and current demand metrics as it continues to stabilize, if not grow, enrollment,” the report said. “While we expect operating deficits in the near term, we also expect the university to progress toward break-even results over time through management’s strategic initiatives and cost-saving measures.”
For the full S&P report, click here.