Q&A: Voices from the Town Hall

On Oct. 29, when President Gregory Dell’Omo announced program cuts and layoffs, faculty members were invited to ask administrators their questions. Below is an excerpt of the discussion from that meeting.


Dell’Omo: Now, I will take your questions.

Dr. Linda Materna: My name is Linda Materna. I teach Spanish. I’m very deeply upset by these things, as you can imagine. What I’d like to do, President Dell’Omo, is first say that on an emotional level, my heart is broken. I came to this institution in the early 1980s, and we were an institution characterized by a focus on the fundamentals, which in my mind are liberal arts and sciences, and not vocational learning in a four-year institution. I’ve dedicated my life to Rider, and you’ve been here for four months.

I’d like to pose a series of questions to you. Some of them are rhetorical, perhaps you’d like to answer one or not: Why are we, what appears to be, and I know you’ve given your reasons, triaging with a sense of such profound destruction… How can I go back to work and get my wage increased, when my employees — excuse me, my colleagues — can’t pay their mortgage? They have nowhere to go. And we’re going to help them — someone who’s 40 or 50 years old. We’re not a family. We’re not a family, I’m sorry. This is not what happens in families. That myth should be wiped right out of your heads.

Why do we have a prioritization committee when everything’s already been decided? Why are we trying to break the faculty union which in my experience has produced some of the best faculty that you can find out there? Are we cutting off our nose just by our face? I’m looking at this listening committee that people were invited to, but none of the rest of us could listen into. And the majors I see here look like the catalog of Mercer County Community College, for $50,000 a year — applied programs which come and go — I know they’ll give you flexibility because in 5 years, when ISIS goes away, we won’t need homeland security, then we can get rid of that and do something else. We’re going to be chasing the tail of economic forces that we can’t project, and none of your jobs will be secure. Don’t pretend to yourself.

Number six, you’ve been here four months. I have not heard a vision statement from you, what could you learn in four months unless, obviously, this was going on before? Because we’re not stupid people, to know this is what we should do, that there aren’t other solutions. We got a comparison from people who went to this listening committee, which we never knew about in our department until now. All of our comparative salaries are listed, as if we’re making an egregious amount of money. Read The Chronicle – we’re not. We’re holding our own, maybe, for now. All that is solid, need not continue. What about the administrative salaries? I understand you make a million dollars. Maybe that’s fine, you can smile.

Dell’Omo: I can assure you, I don’t know where that theory came from.

Materna: Okay, whatever. Then it’s a rumor. I’m sorry.

Dell’Omo: There’s a lot of rumors.

Materna: I know. Maybe some of your statistics are rumors. Why break off negotiations so quickly unless you wanted to? Why not let the union dialogue with you again?

Dell’Omo: My door’s always open.

Materna: You didn’t wait. You just went right for the jugular. If the door were open, you would have said, “look guys, I’m going to do this. Now’s your chance.” Hey, that’s what I would do, but I’m not you. And let me end by saying, in the name and the quality of this institution that we work so hard for, what is going on? I do not see — and I’m not a dope, just because I teach Spanish — how we can survive as a vocational institution for $50,000 a year. Fire me tomorrow. I really don’t care.

Dell’Omo: You threw a lot out there; I understand it and appreciate it. I know this will not appease anybody, but these were very difficult decisions. Now, I can say that I’ve been here for less than four months — three months.

I can tell you though, these challenges the university is facing, that the industry has been facing, quite clearly have been discussed with the union, the faculty and the university committee well before I got here. It goes back to prior negotiations, and I can tell you, when you have $16 million in budget cuts going back to 2009, you have to understand that these were problems that were arising, that we’re trying to massage. And it comes down to the point that at some point in time, the problems get so bad and have such urgency, you just can’t continue letting things linger on and on and on.

Do you think we like these decisions? Do you think we like making $16 million in cuts? Absolutely not. And we know, not only are these tough business decisions, but they are tough personal decisions for people in this room. There’s no question about that. I fully understand your anger. I fully understand your frustration. Believe me, I go through the same things. It really is a matter of getting this university healthy again. If we ignore these problems, and we continue to kick the can down the road, we’ll be talking about more serious cuts, and more serious changes to this university than you can even see on this chart right now.

No one wants to do this, and I understand your position, but believe me – this is not done out of trying to beat the union. We don’t want universities like that. We want challenges, but we have to make decisions that put the university’s health first and foremost. And this information has not been hidden, it is not something that came out of left field just yesterday. This is an ongoing strategy. So you tell your colleagues who are your non-bargain side of the university, that we haven’t sacrificed it. They sacrifice a lot.

Materna: Don’t think I don’t feel your pain. I’m not against you. I’m sorry, you made that statement which makes me look like I don’t care about them, and I resent that, I do. I know it’s been going on, I —

Dell’Omo: You made the implication, specifically, that this came out of left field, that I’ve been here for four months and I came up with this magic solution.

Materna: But this is a plan. You haven’t even come to talk to our department, and you already have a plan, and you’ve been here three or four months. I beg you to reconsider these lay-offs, to find a way to talk to the faculty. I don’t want a raise. I don’t want to see three of my colleagues’ lives destroyed.

Dell’Omo: No one does, but you know —

Materna: I urge you. That’s all.

Dell’Omo: Thank you…

Questioner 2: I have a very brief question. I’d just like to know why you decided not to wait for the prioritization task force to make a decision?

Dell’Omo: Very understandable question. I hope we continue the prioritization process. First I should say, and I said this publicly already — these prioritization processes that we’re going through, and that many other universities are going through, will have to become a continuous part of higher education culture in the future. Because again, the economics of education today are such that if we’re going to have any change and growth and redirection in the university based on changes to its environment, we have to not only be able to generate new dollars, but reallocate dollars. I know that’s a very unusual concept in higher education.

Secondly, I hope this process continues in that regard, because I do think it’s important — and some people will snicker at this — but I think it’s important to have a university feedback, community feedback, faculty feedback, non-faculty feedback on the nature of our programs and our initiatives, to provide recommendations and input and insight on how to move the university forward. Why we jumped into it right now instead of letting it play out into the spring, is because the nature of the problem has gotten so bad, it’s so urgent that we’re required at this step in the process to basically jump-start this decision making process. We have a $7.6 million deficit this year. And I know some people may dispute that number and how the accounting is done, but believe me, that is real. And that number will continue to grow over the next two or three years unless we do make some tough decisions.

And, by the way, this does not solve all our problems. We still have challenges and other things we have to implement and growth strategies, as well as being more efficient. So I understand it may look somewhat cynical to many people, and it really was out of a sense of urgency and immediacy needed to address the issues, to get us on the track of affordability, savings and moving on some other investments.

Questioner 3: Hi, I’m serving on the prioritization task force, ironically. My first question is, why, since we’ve known for at least 18 years that the eco-boom is over and how many 18 year olds would be available to us as a pool the university had not, in its decision making, factored that in until recently? Why decisions were made to, for instance, build North Hall with seminar sized rooms and cut sections so now we don’t have seminar-sized classes?

I’d also like to know why, that with all of the problems with the economy and with higher education and everything, that the administration continually tells people here that their reason why all of this is happening is because of the greedy faculty, and they try to break us up? Here, in the library, we work together — the staff, the faculty, and the administration.

We’re partners, we’re team members. And to have the administration continually tell them that the reason why they have layoffs is because of our greed, when you look at the track of our salaries versus the track of tuition and the track of expenses? We’re not driving this train, and yet you’re blaming us. I’m tired of having the finger pointed at me, as being so overwhelmed with greed that I’m causing people to lose their jobs. It’s not accurate.

Dell’Omo: For the 18 years that you mentioned, obviously, I can’t answer that since I wasn’t here. But I can tell you in my 30+ years in higher education, with 10 as a president, and 6 or 7 years as a dean and a vice president, the issue is not us saying we knew this was coming. We wanted to deal with things proactively so we wouldn’t get to the point where we have to make such dramatic changes as we see here. So can answer for how this university handled it.

I do think though, no one like to make tough decision, and no one likes to affect the lives of our colleagues and our friends. And this is not easy. Many times, universities kick the can down the road and hope things get better and that things won’t change. It might be considered at the time for people, but it does result in more dramatic decisions than what we’re seeing here.

As far as faculty, I can’t speak to that either. I do look at our cost structure and the cost of operations, and when I look at benchmarks against some of our peers that we compete with or look at our students, we know why students don’t come here. They apply, get accepted, they get a financial aid package that’s pretty competitive, but they go someplace else. And we know why in many cases, it is an affordability issue. We’re constrained in terms of how much we can actually give in financial aid, although that’s probably been the fastest growing line out of our budget in the past couple of years.

Our facilities — these are killers. When you’re dealing with an institution like Rider, as many institutions are like us, we’re tuition-dependent institutions. And we live and die over enrollment. Yes, some external funds come in. But we’re not a research university. We have to be very conscious of our cost structures to be able to provide the kind of valuable experience students want. And facilities is one of those. Now we’re not out there building Taj Mahals. We’re not out there building climbing walls. You read about some of our peer institutions going crazy with stuff like residence halls and new student centers. We’ve been very modest in this institution – probably because we didn’t have the resources to do more.

But you have to look at those things in conjunction with everything else you’re doing. The nature of your programs, the quality of your programs, the outcomes, the experiences, the campus facilities, the athletics — it’s all part of a portfolio, and we’re constantly balancing those things. I’ve had people mention West Village. Why did we build a dorm of that nature? That dorm’s full. I would argue that we should have built more West Villages when we have 200 to 300 empty beds on campus because we have dorms that are just not acceptable today. Not just the design, but air conditioning and so forth. Those are market killers.

And we have to be able to balance all those interests. So people who are criticizing faculty for being the cause of the problem — I apologize for that. That is not the case. And believe me, that is not my focus at all. But I do look at cost of running operations. I look at areas where we’re high or low, and try to figure out how we can bring it to be more balanced, and allow us to be more affordable be more competitive in our market. But it’s not about blaming one group or another group.

Anne Osborne: Hi, I’m Anne Osborne, I’m in the history department. I want to say first of all that I agree with the comments from the floor that have already been made. But I’d like to raise another issue, which is whether this program has any prospect of succeeding, if you have totally alienated and betrayed the faculty, at least in our view. In order to turn the university around, you need a dedicated, committed, high morale, high energy faculty that are willing to use all their creativity, all their extra effort, to find ways to make this work the best it possibly can.

And even if all of this is necessary — and I assume that there’s some question about that — but even if it is necessary, it seems to me that this has got to be an extremely unproductive way of doing it, with no faculty input, no longer-term discussion. I know these things have come up in bargaining, people have said over the years that we’ve got to take action. But to go from turning down an AAUP offer a few weeks ago to cutting programs, eliminating full time faculty, that has got to kill morale and create even more distrust, and make it even harder to do the kinds of things that need to be done. It seems to be not only unfair, but extremely unwise.

Dell’Omo: I cannot agree more with you on the fact that I’d like to have this be a much more collegial environment, and a much more proactive discussion and decision making process that is much more inclusive. However, two things.

One is the magnitude of this problem, and the fact that there’s still a number of people who don’t think there’s really a problem makes that look difficult. There is a union here. You have to work with the union as well as the faculty. It’s not as simple as you would see it in a more collegial environment. And I’m not criticizing it, but that’s just the reality of the situation, and again, same thing with the prioritization question, this stuff is serious. It’s been building, and it’s been out there, and I had to assume people knew it would lead to this, in terms of maybe not the decision, but the nature of the problem in our industry. What we’re going through right here is not unique to Rider University. We’ve seen it already in many other institutions, some of which are small institutions that are not nearly as healthy or prestigious as Rider University is.

But there are schools that are moving this category quite quickly. And so we’re not going to be the first or the last that announces these kinds of tough decisions. We like to do it in a more collegial environment, but we didn’t have the time right now to do that. For those who have gotten to know me a little bit, who I’ve been able to interact with at a deeper level, I think people will appreciate that I am a much more inclusive, collegial type of individual.


Excerpts printed in the 11/04/15 issue.

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