Faculty union, administration strike a deal
By Thomas Albano
For about two weeks, Rider University’s community was rocked and divided by moves announced on Oct. 29 by President Gregory Dell’Omo. But the quake has subsided … for now.
A deal officially ratified by faculty and Rider’s Board of Trustees last week solidified an agreement reached between Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the administration, reversing cuts announced by Dell’Omo while helping the university deal with a projected $7.6 million deficit.
“[This deal] stabilizes the situation,” Dell’Omo said. “It allows us to have more time to work things through, develop things, review situations and so forth. There’s no magic wand that solves the problem overnight, but it does stabilize the situation of the university.”
Details of the new agreement include: the saving of 14 programs set to be eliminated, as well as three set to be curtailed from majors to minors; a faculty wage freeze for the current and next academic year, which will cost the average full-time faculty member approximately $4,500 during that time; creation of additional retirement incentives for faculty members to retire at the end of this academic year; elimination of the general requirement to hire full-time faculty members to fill any vacancies in departments; and an increase in the proportion of classes that can be taught by adjuncts or by full-time faculty as overloads.
While many faculty members wanted to do whatever possible to save the affected programs and faculty, Dr. Jeffrey Halpern, contract administrator for Rider’s chapter of the AAUP, wished things could have gone differently.
“We still view the proposal as a hard decision, but the original idea was not correct,” Halpern said. “We strongly considered arbitration, but the problem was that we could already see the damage that was happening to the university as a whole. For arbitration, even if we moved quickly, a decision wouldn’t be made for months. Students would transfer. It would be institutional suicide.
“We weighed that against the cost we would pay — and not just the fiscal cost. We put it in front of the membership to make a decision. We wanted to help the institution — save it from the consequences of layoffs and program cuts. Students looked at Rider as a place they could rely upon. To bring students into a school in September and then cut majors in October is not a moral thing to do.”
Dell’Omo says he understands why faculty are upset and wants to mend the broken trust, but emphasized these changes were needed as the financial difficulties have been building up for years now. He said decisions had to be made quickly because under the current contract, any faculty layoffs had to be announced by the end of October if they were to take effect the following fall.
“I’ve heard quite a bit that I’ve only been here for four months. I understand that, but the problem has been developing for over six years,” Dell’Omo said. “The problem, over time, has been evident, based on all the metrics you look at. It’s not insurmountable, and I’m confident we’ll get through it, but we have to work together to make this happen.”
One of the biggest complaints that came out of the president’s decision to cut programs was that there was no input from outside a specific group of administrators, who determined that the cuts needed to be made. It also interrupted a process known as the Prioritization Task Force for Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. This group, led by Provost DonnaJean Fredeen and made up of faculty members, chairpersons and deans, was created to analyze various programs, and decide how to handle each program by expanding, cutting, merging or eliminating it, or keeping it as is.
“Yes, I fully admit when I made the announcement cutting the 14 programs, I cut into that process,” Dell’Omo said. “The nature of the problems was getting so serious and we had to make that Oct. 31 deadline. But now that’s been pulled back. We hope the prioritization process continues and what comes out of that process, we’ll see what happens. But that is part of the consultative process. So, when faculty and others say, ‘Why aren’t you getting the university involved?’ That’s exactly what that’s doing.”
Halpern, however, feels that there are ways to bring the community back together and figure out the perfect strategy for programs at the university.
“There’s a very big conversation that has to occur,” he said. “What is our mission for the university? A lot of the complaints about these decisions were that they were only made by a handful of folks. You’re making the future of the institution unclear in this way.
“We hear much talk about bringing in new programs. This is still just a handful of people saying this. There’s a disconnection between the view some people have and the direction the university is heading under this new administration. Not even the biggest state universities offer every conceivable major.”
Dell’Omo added that the new agreement’s provision allowing full-time faculty vacancies to go unfilled, and its increase in possible sections that can be taught by adjuncts, increases the university’s adaptability.
“It gives more flexibility to make decisions in terms of adjuncts on a program-by-program, course-by-course basis,” Dell’Omo said. “It doesn’t automatically require that the new contract goes from 35 percent adjuncts to 40 percent adjuncts.
“[The contract] had a formula for when a vacancy occurred as to when you had to hire a full-time faculty member to fill that vacancy. That’s what you’re looking for — the ability to adjust. When you get into a formula approach, many times it ties your hands. I commend the faculty for that — they proposed that.”
Halpern, though, does not favor the ability to hire more adjuncts, believing that it will greatly affect students’ education.
“As matter of principle, I feel this isn’t a good decision,” Halpern said. “This is not a rant against adjunct faculty. Some of our best faculty are adjunct. But they cannot make the same level of commitment. We’ve had rules on replacement of faculty; those rules have since been loosened. Chances are, students are more likely to have adjuncts. A department’s strength relies solely on long-term faculty, in my view.”
According to Dell’Omo, any student currently in any major can continue without fear of the program being cut. He said the value of the degree comes from the work of the student and not the program of the university, citing how the program in which he got his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin was cut after he graduated.
His focus is to strengthen the university through new programs.
“You want to make sure you have enough growing programs that will help fund some of the lower enrolled programs,” Dell’Omo said. “That’s what we want to do is really generate a lot more revenue for the university. Not just to make the university stronger, but allow you then to create a bigger flexibility.
“As long as we had enough revenue to cover [the cut programs], I’d keep those programs. Because I think they’re wonderful — it had nothing to do with the quality of the programs. But if you don’t have a university that is getting stronger and stronger financially to cover those, you’re always going to have challenges.”
Additional reporting by Brandon Scalea