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VALLEY POLITICS | Universities at ground zero of budget battles

Faculty at many Ohio colleges are now voicing concern over the developments that have already occurred on many campuses. They now want a say in the decisions that will be made for the Fall term under the cloud of COVID-19.
Bill Doc Binning

COVID-19 has brought significant stress to Ohio’s public colleges.

First, there are layoffs and cutbacks brought on by state budget cuts due to COVID-19 induced revenue loss. On top of that, there are enrollment decreases and uncertainty about future enrollment.

One institution that has received considerable attention is Ohio University, an undergraduate college in southern Ohio, renowned for journalism. That university has had three rounds of layoffs totaling more than 100, including faculty. The enrollment decline started before the virus, which has accelerated the problem. 

Another Ohio college that has announced significant changes and layoffs is the University of Akron. New President Gary Miller (seems like Akron always has a new president) said “Thus, in order to design a budget under conditions confronting us, we must undertake a substantial reduction in force.”  

A proposal with substantial cuts will be presented to the Board of Trustees on Wednesday (July 15); faculty members are expected to be included in the cuts. 

Discussions with the unions are underway. 

The faculty is represented by AAUP, which has issued a statement taking on the University of Akron ‘s spending on athletics and argues that’s where cuts should be made before academics are cut, saying: “Students clearly do not attend UA because of athletics.” The Union proposes Akron leave the Mid American Conference and Division I athletics.

The union asserts the University has lost $21.52 million a year on athletic spending. The Union adds that many millions of dollars are diverted from the University’s general fund. The faculty union argues that Akron athletics has not been able to establish itself competitively in their conference and for certain has not generated revenue.

The Union, citing data from cleveland.com, says Akron students subsidize their college athletics at the highest level in the state. Akron is first with a tab of $1,528 per student. Youngstown State University is fourth at  $1,079 per head. Ohio University is $736 per student, 10th on the list. 

The union said the University of Akron should move to Division II, referring to “a real life example of an alternative scenario for remaining in NCAA Division I, by playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Youngstown State University is a Division I FCS institution that only spent a total of $15.9M on athletics in 2018.” 

The union points out that Youngstown State supplies 69 percent of that $10.95 million. While UA spent $34.9 million on athletics and supplied $24.3 million from its general fund in 2018. Since YSU has 19 sports and 404 athletes, while Akron has 19 sports and 396 athletes, they recommend that Akron copy the YSU model. 

They claim Akron would save millions if they could match the rest of YSU’s athletic budget.

The role of athletics in higher education will continue to be debated. However, in 2020, if colleges are moral leaders and social distancing is an expected norm, it is difficult to see what athletic activities will take place. 

The Ivy League has canceled all sports until January 2021. To the contrary,  Darrel Rowland of the Columbus Dispatch recently tweeted “Jim Harbaugh espouses the view that COVID-19 is merely ‘part of our society’ and playing football won’t make it worse.”

Youngstown State University has had less public drama than these other schools. So far, they laid off over 50 employees and have sought furloughs with some of the unions. They did undertake an academic reorganization under the cover of COVID-19.

Faculty at many Ohio colleges are now voicing concern over the developments that have already occurred on many campuses. Now they want to get their 2 cents into the process. The statewide AAUP, which represents most of the unionized campuses, but not YSU, across the state, expressed profound concern; “…  that so many of our campuses are planning to physically reopen campus in the fall, given the almost assured potential to launch a super-spreader event that will harm, or even kill members of our communities.” 

It has been reported elsewhere that senior faculty, who are the most vulnerable, have the greatest concerns over returning to teach in-person classes.

The faculty, at public colleges in the state, now want to be involved in the decision-making plans on instruction. The AAUP states the faculty want to “maintain the ability to teach their courses however they determine best helps their students meet their learning objectives, and to deliver courses in a manner they see fit.“  

Faculty were taken aback when most colleges went to online instruction to complete the Spring semester. The faculty now want a say in the decisions that will be made for the Fall term under the cloud of COVID-19.

Public universities are bureaucracies that change at a snail’s pace. The major force on campus is inertia. COVID-19 is bringing significant changes to many of these campuses, and there are more questions than answers about the future for students and faculty. The virus is still in charge. Harvard and Yale are going virtual this academic year. That will create more pressure on how these Ohio colleges open if the virus is still surging in August.  

There is a lot of money at stake. Some colleges have resisted expanding online classes because it impacts dorm revenue. Many students do prefer in-class instruction. International students, a good revenue source for many colleges, if they study entirely online, will lose their visa status, according to ICE. Some colleges are challenging this rule in court. 

For sure, many public higher education institutions will be quite different when the other side of COVID-19 is reached. 

Online instruction will become more common. The reduced state budget support for public colleges in Ohio might become the norm, as it has for local governments since the Great Recession cuts. That will provoke internal budget battles with sharper knives. 

The longer the virus stays and flourishes, the greater the uncertainty and the more profound the changes.

— Bill "Doc" Binning is a longtime Youngstown State University professor and occasional political operative who is now retired. 




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