Faculty Non-Renewals, Staff Layoffs, and Threats to Philosophy at Ohio University

Ohio University (Athens, Ohio) has told at least 140 of its staff they will be laid off and has begun issuing non-renewal notices to both non-tenure and tenure-track faculty in an attempt to “grapple with a budget crisis that started even before the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

One reader aware of the situation there wrote in on Friday:

What is particularly disturbing is that the administration had informed staff in late March (when moving all instruction online), that despite the budget crisis, they would not lay off anyone this year in light of the pandemic, and tenure track faculty would get one year added to their tenure clocks. As soon as the term ended, and all the staff had been working hard to move everything online and continue the students’ education, the administration reversed their decision, and today (May 1st, of all days!) they are starting to make these decisions official. Staff (both instructional and tenure track) are receiving non renewal letters, department chairs are being asked to rank their faculty so that the administration can make cuts (so far, chairs are refusing to comply). As far as I am aware, the university administration is taking a very low pay reduction, especially compared to what other institutions (and private corporations) are doing. All the sports programs are still running and funded. Some positions within the administration and sports programs are paid more than the governor of Ohio.

Scott Carson, associate professor of philosophy at Ohio University, writes:

The present pandemic has had severe and negative effects on many, and I don’t intend to suggest that things are any worse here than anywhere else—indeed in some ways Athens County has been very lucky: only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far.

However, the economic impact of the pandemic on what is a very rural part of the country, already suffering from that other pandemic, the opioid crisis, cannot be overstated. Ohio University, the only large-scale employer in several southeastern Ohio counties, is facing staggering financial deficits. In such circumstances it is not unusual to see institutions undertake drastic measures to preserve their own existence; sometimes these measures come at the expense of those who constitute the institution itself.

When I was hired by Ohio University in 1996, there were 18 full time faculty in the Department of Philosophy. We are down to eight, but we are now looking at losing three more due to the economic situation here. To lose three of my colleagues all at once is a very difficult blow to me personally, but it is an even bigger blow to them and their families, obviously, and to our Department. Some of these colleagues have taught by my side for over 15 years now, and their teaching made our academic mission possible. Most other non-tenure track faculty will probably not be renewed; 160 classified staff have already been laid off; and the faculty who remain will, in all likelihood, be furloughed.

Philosophy is by no means the only department at Ohio University being gutted by this crisis, but along with other disciplines in the Humanities it stands to suffer the most in terms of its ability to deliver a high quality education to those students who still choose to come here.

It has always been my view, and for a long time it was the view of anyone working in higher education, that the humanities are an essential component in any institution that seeks to bring forth well-rounded, intelligent, humane, and civilized people. It seems to me that such people are in rather short supply sometimes, and perhaps now more than ever it seems foolhardy to make the production of such people even more difficult than it was before.

A major research institution like Ohio University ought to be ashamed of itself for allowing the humanities—not just philosophy, but the humanities in general—to sink into oblivion while insisting on maintaining an athletics program that loses $15-20 million every year; it ought to be ashamed of itself for instituting a hiring freeze on faculty for humanities programs while continuing to hire literally dozens of new administrators every year; it ought to be ashamed of itself for issuing non-renewal notices to people who have given the better part of their professional lives to an institution that paid them less than other faculty and only recently even gave them any benefits package; it ought to be ashamed of itself for paying some of its coaches and administrators more than the governor of Ohio makes in a year; and it ought to be ashamed of itself for continuing to boast of an education focused on “critical thinking” as it proceeds to virtually eliminate the very disciplines that make “critical thinking” possible.

I apologize for the length of this rant, but if you feel as strongly as I do about the role of the humanities in general, and of philosophy in particular, in higher education today, I would urge you to write to our president, Duane Nellis, or to the Board of Trustees of Ohio University, to tell them your thoughts on the importance of an education grounded in the disciplines that for centuries have been at the very core of a college education. Adding your voice to the outcry here—even if you are a humanities professor yourself or an administrator at an institution that values such things—may not make any difference, but a voice heard and ignored is better than a silence taken as acceptance or, worse, approval.

Yesterday on Twitter, @OU_SaveOurProfs announced that Ohio University philosophy faculty member Jeremy Morris was notified by the university that his contract will not be renewed.

A petition objecting to the nonrenewal of instructional faculty contracts at Ohio University is accepting signatures here.

UPDATE: The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter at Ohio University this morning released a statement calling for the university to reverse its firings of faculty and staff. From the statement:

The OU-AAUP Executive Committee calls for Ohio University to reverse the apparent terminations of two instructional and one tenure-line faculty and 140 unionized custodial staff at Ohio University, which occurred this past week. We also call for a halt to any further terminations, until a process of true shared governance and transparency can be established and implemented. These non-renewal decisions are occurring in the absence of any clear and detailed communication about OU’s budget situation and its strategy for dealing with it. Faculty have been excluded from the deliberations among top administrators in blatant disregard for shared governance (a process of collaborative faculty-administration decision-making). Faculty to date have only been allowed to participate in “curricular continuity and safety,” according to Faculty Senate president Robin Muhammad’s recent Faculty Senate communication. Further, the ostensible decision not to renew the three faculty members in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and in African American Studies will irremediably weaken or destroy programs that directly support diversity and inclusion, one of Ohio University’s primary institutional commitments.

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