by Amethyst Martinez
Major changes are making their way to the university after severe financial struggles have caused uncertainty at every level of Rider, leading to staff layoffs, cabinet restructuring and more.
The Zoom meeting, hosted for staff and faculty on July 27, discussed major departmental shifts at the university, along with enrollment numbers, layoffs and details of Rider’s three-year plan, dubbed “The Path Forward” by Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo, which outlines major changes in order to return to financial sustainability.
Dell’Omo announced that eight staff members were laid off earlier in the week, and more than 20 university positions were eliminated – half due to employees leaving or retiring. He also suggested that an assessment of low-enrollment academic programs could lead to faculty layoffs this fall.
Non-union Rider employees will see Rider’s contribution to their retirements slashed, from 5% to 2.5%, starting Sept. 1, Dell’Omo said.
The president did not take questions during the meeting and scheduled in-person meetings for faculty and staff to speak to divisional heads after his online announcements.
Financial position ‘dangerously uncertain’
“Rider’s financial position, which was challenging before the pandemic, has become dangerously uncertain,” said Dell’Omo. “We must stabilize our finances.”
During the meeting, “The Path Forward” plan was described as an “aggressive, comprehensive approach to achieving deficit elimination,” with the goal of a positive operating balance by the 2026 fiscal year.
“This is no easy task,” said Dell’Omo. “The Path Forward plan, first and foremost, must address our operational cash flow situation.”
The plan is hoping $15.8 million in spending cuts and revenue enhancements over the next three years to bring the plan to fruition.
Dell’Omo described the plan as “ambitious but achievable” increases in enrollment, student retention rates and housing occupancy on campus.
The cost reduction aspect was explained through examples such as the voluntary separation program for staff and faculty early retirements, which Dell’Omo said saved the university $2.1 million in staff reductions and an additional $2.5 million over the next five years in faculty retirements.
“At this time, we do not plan to offer any additional voluntary separations or retirement programs for faculty and staff,” said Dell’Omo.
Layoffs: ‘difficult’ choices were made
Dell’Omo then moved on to staff layoffs, which he said were affecting almost every division on campus.
“None of us want this to be a reality, but unfortunately, our financial circumstances dictate this action,” said Dell’Omo.
The divisions affected included academic affairs, student affairs, administration, athletics, university advancement, enrollment management, university operations, finance and human resources.
One of the highest-ranking examples is Leanna Fenneberg, past vice president of student affairs, who said in an out-of-office email that her position was eliminated.
DEI: ‘Folks should be concerned’
Barbara Lawrence and Pamela Pruitt, two past Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) frontrunners at the university, both left within the past month, leading to mass uncertainty regarding the handling of DEI initiatives at Rider.
In an interview with The Rider News on June 30, her last day working for Rider, Lawrence described Fenneberg, Pruitt and her own departure as “a tremendous loss” for the university.
“I think it speaks volumes about where their real priority was with the diversity work, which wasn’t what I think people thought. Folks should be concerned,” said Lawrence.
Dell’Omo announced in the webinar that Heeyoung Kim, director of faculty development, will be taking over as both the chief diversity officer and director of the Teaching and Learning Center. The president said that during her years at Rider, Kim has played an “important role supporting various diversity initiatives.” Kim will also be overseeing the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, combining both Lawrence and Pruitt’s jobs at the university.
In the same interview, Lawrence predicted, “They will probably appoint people who were already [at the university.] You know, people they feel much more comfortable with.”
Other organizational restructuring: Dell’Omo’s cabinet, and more
Student affairs is receiving restructuring, too. The department will be run by Provost DonnaJean Fredeen, who will oversee both academic and student affairs. With Fenneberg’s dismissal, Nick Barbati, previously the associate dean of campus life, has been named as the assistant vice president of student affairs, and will become Rider’s chief student affairs officer.
Christine Mehlhorn, previously the associate dean of students, will be appointed as dean of students, and will report to Barbati. Responsibilities include overseeing all student health and well-being functions at Rider, including the Student Health Center, the counseling center and student accessibility and support services.
Roberta Butler, formerly the associate dean of residence life, has been named dean of residence life and will become a part of the enrollment management team, working under Drew Aromando, vice president of enrollment management.
After aligning “academic support functions,” James Conlon, the director One Stop Services, will now have oversight of Student Support Services and the Educational Opportunity Program.
Aromando will also assume responsibility over the Registrar’s Office.
Rider’s radio station 107.7 The Bronc will now be under Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Kelly Bidle, and will join other campus media organizations such as The Rider News and the Rider University Network (RUN) in reporting to her.
Pam Mingle, a co-director of the Gail Bierenbaum Women’s Leadership Council and the senior director of development in Rider’s fundraising division has also submitted a resignation from the university. Ryan Baumuller, director of planned giving, will now take on a broader role overseeing planned giving and major gifts to the university.
Lastly, Mike Reca, vice president of facilities and university operations, will now oversee Public Safety and OIT, along with the Rider Food Pantry.
All personnel changes and restructuring listed will begin Aug. 1, before the upcoming fall semester.
“I believe the structural and organizational changes are going to help position Rider to best face the future,” said Dell’Omo during the webinar.
Dell’Omo also announced that undergraduate enrollment is looking stronger for this school year in relation to the past two years, as well as slightly ahead of 2019, the last fall before the pandemic dramatically reduced the number of new students. Freshmen transfer deposits combined are currently at 1,076 deposits total for the fall semester, which Dell’Omo described as “exceeding our goals.”
Returning students are also rising, with freshmen to sophomore retention rates at 83%, four points higher than this time last year. More students are also living on campus this year, with 1,673 new and returning students planning to use university housing, a 14% increase.
However, Dell’Omo said Rider is still trying to get back to pre-pandemic numbers that had closer to 2,000 students living on campus each year.
He also announced a new housing partnership with Mercer County Community College, which allows students from that college to use Rider housing.
Dell’Omo closed out his webinar saying: “I believe very strongly that there is a path forward for Rider if we all work together.”