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Oberlin College alum suspends Social Justice Internship Fund over school’s “union busting”

Oberlin College alum suspends Social Justice Internship Fund over school’s “union busting”

Susan Phillips ‘76: “union busting, added to the Gibson’s fiasco, will serve only to strike another deeply damaging blow to Oberlin’s reputation and future”

Oberlin College has been in the throes of turmoil for a decade. Aggressive, and sometimes absurd, social justice warfare hit the school’s image and enrollment long before the Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit and massive verdict.

The latest controversy surrounds cost-cutting in an attempt to narrow a multi-million dollar ‘structural deficit’. While there have been some cutbacks at administrative and faculty levels, the college now is attempting to jettison it’s unionized custodial and dining hall workers.

As Legal Insurrection was the first to report, Under financial stress, Oberlin College seeks to end unionized custodial and dining hall services:

Oberlin College has been under financial stress for a number of years, in part the result of problems filling incoming classes. for the tuition-dependent school. There have been cutbacks in many areas of the campus, including faculty.

Oberlin College is rated as financially sound by bond rating agency Moody’s, but the outlook was downgraded to negative in 2018.

The financial impact of the Gibson’s Bakery loss is not yet clear. It will be interesting to see if the negative publicity impacts the incoming class, and how much in grant money needs to be spent to maintain quality and quantity. But clearly Oberlin College has suffered a public relations body blow from the case.

The seriousness of the situation is further revealed in a campus announcement that Oberlin College will seek to replace UAW union workers in the dining hall and custodial services with outsourced contractors.

There have been protests on campus in support of the union workers, but the reaction of alumni is harder to gauge. At least one alum, someone who funds a scholarship, is expressing her disgust.

Susan L. Phillips, Oberlin College Class of 1976, is the former International Vice President of the Food and Commercial Workers Union and is a current labor consultant. Phillips established a summer social justice internship fund for Oberlin College students:

Susan Phillips ‘76 Social Justice Internship Fund

The Social Justice Internship Fund provides financial support to students for expenses related to unpaid or low-paid summer internships that directly support workers’ rights, civil liberties and rights, poverty, food security, gender equality, environmental protection, and homelessness. Other areas will be considered if the applicant can satisfactorily demonstrate how their internship relates to social justice or the greater social good.

Susan Phillips spent most of her career in the U.S. labor movement. She served first as publications director and then as an international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, where she created programs to increase the involvement of women, young members, and retirees in union activities. She is eager to support students who are considering work in various aspects of social justice.

The fund is intended to cover expenses associated with, but not limited to travel, transportation, housing, food, utilities, equipment, or other such appropriate expenses. Students selected to receive this fund whose need-based financial aid package from Oberlin includes a summer earnings expectation may use a portion of their award to cover this obligation and offset lost summer earnings.


Students from all classes (including graduating seniors) and all majors

Students with demonstrated financial need are encouraged to apply.

The entry above is from Wayback Machine, because the scholarship no longer appears on the Oberlin College website scholarship page because Phillips has suspended the scholarship in protest of the union layoffs.

Phillips announced suspension of the scholarship fund in an An Open Letter to Students published in the student-run Oberlin Review. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added):

It’s with sincere and profound sorrow that I want you to know that the Susan Phillips Social Justice Scholarship Fund spring interviews have been suspended indefinitely….

As you well know, the Oberlin administration has announced that it is seriously considering laying off 108 United Automobile Workers-represented custodial and food service workers and outsourcing those positions. As a lifelong union activist, I can’t in good conscience fund a social justice program when Oberlin’s administrators are contemplating going down the road of union busting. The outsourcing proposal runs completely counter to Oberlin’s long history of promoting social justice. Consequently, if Oberlin succeeds in busting UAW Local 2192, the scholarship fund will be terminated permanently.

I fully understand the need to cut expenses to ensure Oberlin’s long-term survival. But targeting members of the union that has represented Oberlin’s service workers for two-and-a-half decades is callous, short-sighted, and of questionable benefit….

The College administration claimed that Oberlin’s support staffs’ wages are far higher than comparable positions in the area. This statement overlooks the value of the cooperative history of labor relations that has existed between the UAW and Oberlin since the 1990s. Outsourcing these jobs not only would devastate the lives and futures of those laid off but also would undermine Lorain County’s economy by creating throw-away jobs with substandard pay. Even a single person can’t live comfortably on the $9–13 per-hour rate subcontractors typically pay for custodial and foodservice employment — much less support a family.

The so-called “shared sacrifice” is not being evenly felt across the board. Even if top-salaried employees, including professors, have taken wage freezes and benefit reductions, they start at a much higher level and the economic squeeze is likely felt minimally by those who do keep their jobs, if at all. Living in a small town like Oberlin is more than affordable for people who have six-figure salaries…. Workers should never be considered expendable.

I love Oberlin and continue to try to find ways to be involved with Oberlin students. But union busting, added to the Gibson’s fiasco, will serve only to strike another deeply damaging blow to Oberlin’s reputation and future….

Clearly, Oberlin College is facing multiple challenges. The biggest challenge is not financial, it’s credibility. As one student protester noted, “Willingly impoverishing over 100 longtime employees and their families means that, at the end of the day, the values we claim to stand for are hollow.”

The ferocious attacks on the Gibson family and the willingness to discard long-term union custodial and dining hall workers demonstrate that Oberlin College may not be what it purports to be. As that sinks into the public consciousness, something will have to give. Loss of credibility for a higher education institution can be more damaging than money. Just ask Mizzou and Evergreen State.

[Featured Image: Screen grab from Chronicle-Telegram video]


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Unions are seldom a good idea in a competitive market place though there are some situations where they are essential.

The management of Oberlin is so derelict that I can actually see where an argument could be made in favor of protecting untenured culinary arts specialists and allied food services brethern from hate mongers like those hateful, hatey Gibsons! /sarc

An alumni revolt, time to start selling some assets.

The salaries and benefits for 108 union employees are a drop in the bucket compared to $45 million from the Gibson case. Firing the union employees is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Best turn the ship and avoid the iceberg.

    freddy33 in reply to Sally MJ. | February 29, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Actually not. Do the math. Assume they save $15,000 per year per employee. That is $1.63 million. Now you would need $41 million to generate that income each year at 4% interest. Problem they have is structural with a decreasing enrollment due in part to demographics (declining customer base size) and limited price elasticity (their prices are already high). Notwithstanding Gibson, they were already in a financial swamp.

      JusticeDelivered in reply to freddy33. | March 1, 2020 at 9:22 am

      41 million out of in excess of 1 billion.

      Oberlin can return to useful core majors, dump all the useless affirmative majors and staff associated with them. That will fix the structural problem.

      Dump Carmen Twillie Ambar, her leadership has been an unmitigated disaster. When they replace her, pay should be far less than $500 grand.

    Right on. You must have been reading my articles on

      JusticeDelivered in reply to J.D.Nobody. | March 1, 2020 at 11:14 am

      I suggest that you create a sit on

      At some point they might try to force your website down, there is precedent regarding sucks websites.

      You can point more than one domain name to the same website.

      maybe you should consider a HallOfShame for the most belligerent players, including the three slugs involved in the theft.

      There is merit in using a subdomain for HallOfShame.YourDomain.XXX

Twillie – having fun yet?

    MajorWood in reply to walls. | March 1, 2020 at 12:22 am

    The question now is whether her legacy will be as the first black president of the college or as the last president of the college.

    An early lesson in mountain climbing is about the “turnaround point.” If you aren’t at “x” by a certain time, you turn around because you can’t summit and have a safe return part of the trip. 90+% of mountain climbing accidents are actually mountain descending accidents. I mention this only because Oberlin passed the turnaround point about 15 minutes after the shoplifting verdict was handed down. At this point I can only see a rapid descent down the North face in their future. They have a bad case of summit fever and no amount of reality is going to divert them from their agenda.

    JusticeDelivered in reply to walls. | March 1, 2020 at 11:20 am

    I suspect that this will ruin her reputation. Afterall, she was not smart enough to understand libel defamation, or too arrogant to pay attention.

    In business circles, she would already have been fired, and she would be a leper, damn near unemployable.

Loss of credibility for a higher education institution can be more damaging than money.

Huh? What does this mean? Paying too much for kitchen and custodial work enhances an institution’s credibility?

    Maybe referring to the loss of credibility that occurs when a school that bows to the altar of social justice screws the little guy over. I bet Oberlin has a lot of highly paid administrators who could afford a pay cut and still live in Lorain quite nicely.

    JusticeDelivered in reply to tom_swift. | March 1, 2020 at 11:33 am

    The real issue here is not paying too much, it is about public image and controversy. It was stupid to generate more bad publicity.

    It is also about the community, and generating even more resentment there. In what ways can the community hurt the college?

I had a chance last week to see and briefly work with the students and the union. The students were far more disciplined in their planning than I expected and were a pretty smart group. They did lack some life experience, but they are still kids. They will be dynamite people in a few years.

The students, like about everyone else involved in this mess, do not fully appreciate the bigger picture in which the BOT and the administration have let things snowball for perhaps 20 years. Fighting the union is now necessary because of managerial incompetence, not because of the union. The union president came across as the type a person with whom you can do business.

It is noteworthy that this protest brought out over twice as many people as did the infamous 2016 vilification of the Gibsons. will continue to post on the bigger context in which this mess has happened.

/s/ JD Nobody, OC ’61

Re Prof. Jacobson’s point about the hard to measure alumni response there is an indicator of sorts. Since the union troubles have hit the news the page visits on are about 15x and climbing from where they were earlier.

Clearly, Oberlin College is facing multiple challenges. The biggest challenge is not financial, it’s credibility

I don’t disagree about their credibility swirling the loo, but I wouldn’t low ball their financial problems in an era where even established and seemingly well-run private liberal arts colleges are failing because of plummeting enrollments and skyrocketing labor costs. From what we can see there’s no way Oberlin is well-run. And we don’t know where else they are doing behind the scenes. The way they’ve dealt with the Oberlin matter can’t be a one-off.

Either way, I say Oberlin’s biggest problem is its complete failure and lack of competent leadership.

    Observer in reply to maxmillion. | March 1, 2020 at 7:38 am

    That’s what happens when an institution values “diversity” over competence.

      JusticeDelivered in reply to Observer. | March 1, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      Diversity over competence is the whole point of affirmative crap. Put a less qualified person in college so that they can put on airs of being equal. Put them in jobs which they are not competent to do (similar in some respects to the Peter Principle).

      First it was blacks, now it is all brown people who feel entitled to be immediately promoted to their, often well past their level of competency.

      This has introduced huge inefficiencies in academia, industry and government. It has adversely affected our competitiveness.

      I do not think people should be judged on race, I do think they should be judged on character and competency, regardless of race.

        MajorWood in reply to JusticeDelivered. | March 3, 2020 at 2:03 pm

        >> I do think they should be judged on character and competency <<

        Ironically, this is what MLK actually said but it seems to have been completely glossed over by the affirmative action crowd.

That should be the way they’ve dealt with the Gibson’s matter… in the 2nd paragraph

“The Social Justice Internship Fund provides financial support to students for expenses related to unpaid or low-paid summer internships that directly support workers’ rights, civil liberties and rights, poverty, food security, gender equality, environmental protection, and homelessness.”

Anyone else find this description slightly ironic, or is it just me?

    MajorWood in reply to p. | March 1, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    I turn off the irony meter when discussing Oberlin these days to save the batteries.

The real injustice here is the disparity in wages between Oberlin graduates and these UAW employees. Because there is no commercial value to the degrees earned at Oberlin the UAW workers are making more than the Oberlin graduates can expect to make.

This fiasco is just another example of the poor leadership at Oberlin. Their action in cutting the union staff is just too blatantly antithetical to their professed values to go without comment. Management should have foreseen the student reaction; after all, protesting this type of “ruthless capitalism” is exactly what the school has been teaching them to do.

This is not to say that the action of eliminating the union employees was wrong or unnecessary – we don’t have enough information to say that. What we CAN say though is that it was mishandled.

The school should have used the class National Lampoon approach – “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll have to shoot this puppy”. In this case, more specifically, “if we can’t reduce costs by $2M per year we will have to cut the union janitorial staff.” When the cost-cutting comes up short (netting only $1.6M, you throw a big, tearful, apologetic goodbye party for “our old friends”.

The school then looks like ‘the hero that tried, but failed to rescue the drowning toddler’ while saving $3.2M per year – the cuts from the failed attempt to save the staff, AND the savings from eliminating the union employees.

Why, yes, I AM a retired HR exec, why do you ask?

    freddy33 in reply to Hodge. | March 1, 2020 at 10:11 am

    “Mishandled” is the Oberlin motto.

      MajorWood in reply to freddy33. | March 2, 2020 at 1:19 am

      I like the fact that a socially active leftist alumnus openly refers to the Gibsons situation as a “fiasco.” WOW! I was perusing the issue of the Oberlin Review which contained Phillip’s letter to the students and I saw a small piece from Booker Peek where he twice emphasized that alumni support of the college was the right thing to do. I have to differ with him here. The college isn’t showing any signs of learning from their misadventures and giving them more money is not the answer. When tough love is mentioned as an option, it becomes the only option.

Another reason why working-class people should turn their backs on the Left.

She did the right thing for the wrong reason.

united auto workers… servers and custodians….
I see when unionizing they were not picky about who they glommed onto…

Moon Battery | March 1, 2020 at 12:29 pm

Oberlame is circling the drain.

Someone described a conservative as a liberal who has been mugged. I don’t think it was her intention, but Ms. Phillips just created 25 conservatives (or 25 now inclined to become adults at some point) from those students who won’t be getting their stipend this summer. The sudden growth of competing factions on campus may soon turn Oberlin into Milwaukee lite (misspelling intentional).

This afternoon I witnessed what appeared to be burning College President Ambar in effigy. Picture and comments at