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.

Here is a mass email just sent by Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Amber (emphasis added):

Over the last two years we have taken a number of essential steps together to ensure that we continue to fulfill our distinctive mission as a leading liberal arts college and conservatory of music: namely, educating our students for lives of meaning.

Our efforts have made possible strategic investments and have required shared sacrifices, as we have faced unprecedented financial and demographics challenges, including an unsustainable structural deficit.

Our work to eliminate this deficit has included changes in our healthcare benefits, our retirement benefits and the size of our administrative staff — all financial levers identified in the One Oberlin report endorsed by the General Faculty and adopted by the Board of Trustees. We have contracted tenure track faculty lines and are relying less on visiting faculty. While these changes have been difficult, they will allow us to establish a firmer financial foundation for decades to come.

Yet there is more that we must do. As you will recall, 63 percent of our budget is dedicated to compensation. To ensure our excellence, we must continue to address the largest share of our budget while we simultaneously invest in our future.

Against that backdrop, Oberlin has notified the United Auto Workers that we are formally considering contracting with outside vendors for dining and custodial services currently provided by college employees. This would affect roughly 52 full-time dining employees and 56 full-time custodial employees, depending on the number of filled positions this summer, when the transition would occur. This step is permitted under our UAW contract, and we will begin collective bargaining with the UAW in coming weeks to determine how best to move forward.

Over the long term, these changes could save a critical $1 million a year in the operational costs of the dining program, and potentially another $1 million or more a year in custodial services, as potential vendors are better able to reach economies of scale based on their size and expertise.

We expect our potential vendors’ deep experience would help us achieve improved levels of service for our students, faculty, and staff. Oberlin, like many college campuses that have made this decision, would thereafter be able to focus our resources on the mission-centered activities the institution can best provide, investing in the academic and creative endeavors that prepare our students for lives of purpose.

This is not a decision we take lightly. We recognize the disruption and anxiety this process will cause members of our Oberlin family. We are providing early notice to the union because we respect their commitment to Oberlin, and so that affected employees would have an extended period of time to plan. Throughout the spring, we will continue to have discussions with the union, work closely with potential vendors, and work with affected employees themselves to provide the best options and opportunities.

It is our hope that many employees will be given the opportunity to interview for jobs with the newly selected vendors. It is possible that some affected employees may choose retirement because of their eligibility. Through their collective bargaining contracts, a smaller group may be eligible for other employment at Oberlin. For those who are not re-employed with the potential vendors, Oberlin would provide outplacement support. It is possible some people would not find employment quickly. In these cases, we would provide transition support and severance negotiated with the UAW.

We also understand that this will affect the rest of our campus community. Yet we must make difficult choices to ensure the long-term health of the institution, and we must make them soon. Each year that goes by without fully securing financial sustainability reduces the options available to Oberlin.

For those who want to know more about this process, we have a website that provides more detailed information. We have posted information at www.oberlin.edu/custodial-dining-workforce-updates, including an extensive set of frequently asked questions. Of course, the website is not exhaustive, as some of the outcomes will be based on conversations with the unions and potential vendors. We will update the campus community at appropriate points in our planning and in our negotiations with the UAW and with potential vendors.

While we will continue to consider a variety of options for managing institutional cost and investments, we are not planning additional changes like those described in this letter.

As challenging as these considerations are, it is important to keep in mind that our collective efforts have begun to demonstrate results. Our admission classes the past two years have been the largest in the past six years. We have been able to invest in new academic programs, Winter Term, Career Communities, Connect Cleveland, faculty salaries and more. Meanwhile, we have kept sacrosanct our commitment to financial aid to ensure diversity. The breadth and depth of our liberal arts and conservatory educations have been protected, as have academic programs. We have preserved core institutional elements of the College, the Conservatory, the Art Museum, and the residential experience.

We believe that taken holistically, the efforts to manage our costs, to invest in our future, and to build educational momentum and leadership will pave the way for a period of sustainability and stability.


Carmen Twillie Ambar

President, Oberlin College

It is not clear from the announcement if these 108 full time positions that will no longer be given to union employees represent all such custodial and dining hall employees, or just a portion. The Frequently Asked Questions posted by the college suggest this is a complete elimination of unionized custodial and dining hall workers.

Will this eliminate the union?

No. The UAW will continue to represent other groups of employees at Oberlin, and we look forward to continuing good relations with all of Oberlin’s employee unions.

It the Frequently Asked Questions, Oberlin College denies that the cuts are related to the Gibson’s Bakery case:

Is this connected to a need to pay the Gibson’s judgment?

This effort is completely independent of the Gibson judgment and is directly connected to the need to support Oberlin’s mission and improve the College’s operating budget as identified by President Ambar in her first few months on campus.  The Gibson’s matter is now on appeal and therefore it would not be appropriate to comment further.

Oberlin College is as woke as it comes.

It will be interesting to see if the woke students, faculty and staff react to this union-busting with the same outrage and aggressiveness as was directed at Gibson’s Bakery for having the temerity to stop a student from shoplifting.

UPDATE 2-19-2020

The Chronicle-Telegram has details on how it went down in a particularly cold-hearted way:

For a union representative who learned of the college’s proposal at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, just two hours before his membership would hear the plan, the news came like a punch in the gut, delivered in “bad faith.”…

Villar said he got a call at 11 a.m. Tuesday to meet at 11:30 with upper management, who told him “that they will no longer be needing custodial or CDS, Campus Dining Services, staff because of the deficit.”

That’s more than 110 employees, Villar said, including some with more than 30 years service to the college and at least one with 43 years service. Others are only three to four years from retirement and are members of families who have worked there for generations.

“It came with no warning, no type of ‘Let’s see if we can have a hiring freeze, a pay freeze,’ ” said Villar, whose mother also worked for the college. “They said they were going to tell our members at 1:30 that they were going to implement the changes, and this is where we’re going to head going forward. It was pretty much a slap in the face.”

Villar said he was told the affected employees would be let go as of July 1.


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