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More academic layoffs at YSU — the union calls them 'retaliatory'

About 20 union faculty members in shrinking academic programs are expected to be let go. But others in "healthy" programs also received layoff notices this week.
YSU sign NEW
(Photo by William D. Lewis | Mahoning Matters)

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State University administrators on Thursday began to notify a number of faculty members that they would not be reappointed to their positions.

Though the university has been preparing to sunset 26 academic programs by next fall, these new layoff notices fall outside the scope of that plan.

Some of the faculty members who received notices of non-reappointment by email Thursday included tenure-track professors in programs that weren't marked for sunset, Susan Clutter, president of YSU's Ohio Education Association, said in a Friday release from the faculty union.

"To be quite frank, many of these ‘retrenchments’ seem targeted and retaliatory," Clutter is quoted in the news release, adding that many of the faculty members who received the notices were "key leaders" in the union's 2020 contract negotiations and subsequent strike.

YSU officials rejected that notion in a news release later that day.

Through the process of "retrenchment," university administrators may choose not to renew certain faculty members' positions as part of an annual staffing review, choosing which programs and educators to cut using performance metrics like declining enrollment or student-to-faculty ratios.

Administrators earlier this week suggested about 20 could be let go. The faculty members facing retrenchment will be informed by Nov. 22.

But retrenchment is an entirely separate process from the layoff notices sent Thursday. These relate to a separate article of the union's contract, which allows for non-renewal of non-tenured faculty without any basis in performance. They must be notified of their non-renewal by Nov. 15.

Charles Howell, dean of the Beeghly College of Liberal Arts, Social Sciences and Education emailed such a notice Thursday to assistant professor Jacob Ari Labendz, who was appointed in 2017 to run the university’s Center for Judaic Holocaust Studies.

The center is “dedicated to teaching and promoting research on all facets of Jewish culture and history,” according to the university’s website.

When speaking with Howell Thursday about the decision, Labendz questioned why professors in growing programs are being let go. 

“The idea was that there's a hope for the program to grow, but I believe there are too many faculty members,” he said. Additionally, the university is taking finances into account first, and the decision has nothing to do with his performance, Labendz said. 

Labendz said he feels it’s wrongheaded to get rid of a position that fosters an inclusive environment at the university and educates students about diversity. He said like other union members, he said he was surprised by the notice and said he believes there has been a lack of clarity in the process of making faculty cuts.

Labendz said he believes this is a strategic cost-cutting decision.

“I gained some [clarity] today from the dean who explained that this was not retrenchment, because the history program isn't being retrenched,” Labendz said.

Because Labendz is a contracted assistant professor, it’s easier for administrators to choose not to renew his position, “to cut costs quickly,” rather than retrench his department, which would be a much more involved process.

Speaking to Howell, Labendz said he also argued that his role is vital to the university and his current students. Labendz also teaches Jewish history courses, and said he has been able to bring in scholars, advocates and activists from around the world via Zoom to his students.

“We have partnerships with Kent State, and I have a conference that I'm hoping to plan with Purdue University,” he said. “I have programs that we do annually, and a Jewish-Muslim forum. … That will all be lost.”

The program is funded by The Mr. and Mrs. William B. Clayman Judaic and Holocaust Studies Endowment, established in 2003 by the Claymans, the founders of Niles Iron and Metal Co., according to an agreement provided to Mahoning Matters. The endowment helped expand the curriculum on Judaism, Jewish history and semitic languages at YSU.

Labendz said the program could repurpose some of the money, but he has a bigger question:

“Who's going to be here to direct it?” he said. “I'm the only one on campus qualified to teach about the Holocaust, the only one with training in Jewish studies.” 

Labendz holds a history doctorate. His research included European Jewish history and the history of the modern Middle East, according to the university’s website.

If the Judaic and Holocaust Studies program is discontinued or “ceases to exist for any reason,” the endowment funds would go to a scholar in residence to continue expanding their knowledge in those areas, according to the agreement.

The union’s contract allows for Labendz and other faculty who received non-renewal notices to appeal those decisions.

Clutter said union members were led to believe upcoming faculty cuts would only affect professors whose programs were underperforming. Thursday's notices came as a surprise.

"That faculty in programs administration marked as 'growing' or 'sustainable' are receiving these notices as well makes no sense and calls into question everything faculty were told by administration about their 'curricular efficiency' audit process," Clutter is quoted in the union’s release. "They are eliminating tenure-track faculty in healthy programs while they're expanding administration, giving administrators raises and increasing funding to athletics — clearly, YSU's spending priorities need to be reassessed.”

In response to the union’s Friday news release, YSU officials said the process is part of the university’s “downsizing” and that the university is following the rules of its union contract.

“The union leadership’s accusation that the actions are targeted and retaliatory is baseless,” reads the release. “Most of the reduction in force is, in fact, for faculty in programs designated as ‘sunset.’ Others, as per the university’s comprehensive review, are necessary to help programs in other designated categories reach their full potential.

“We remain hopeful that the process now underway, while painful and regrettable, can be conducted in a professional, collegiate manner. It is only together that we can most effectively face our challenges and assure a vibrant future for YSU.”

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