Layoff fears resurface after $1 million refusal 

By Jake Tiger

One million dollars over two years or layoffs.

This was the choice Rider’s administration presented to the institution’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors late last summer.

The proposition came shortly after the university president informed the Rider community that low-enrollment programs could no longer be justified on academic viability alone, and cuts were likely on the horizon.

On Aug. 31, the AAUP gathered for a vote: Would it open negotiations with the university regarding possible concessions? 

Eleven days later, the union alerted its membership of the result: No.

As an Oct. 31 layoff deadline creeps closer, a task force led by Rider Provost DonnaJean Fredeen is currently working on a new prioritization process that will assess the efficiency of Rider’s academic majors and determine which programs and faculty can be cut to save costs.

Eight years ago, a similar process and a swath of 14 full-time faculty layoffs resulted in union professors forfeiting three years of “significant” raises in exchange for keeping their jobs and programs.

Rider’s faculty has been here before. 

“I would imagine there are a good number of folks who are very stressed and worried about what’s going to happen,” said AAUP President Quinn Cunningham, an associate professor of business management. “I think people have been feeling that a little bit since the 2015 layoffs, because we know what happened and we know it can happen again any time they want…We say ‘death by a thousand cuts.’”

‘A very holistic approach’

During a Zoom webinar on July 27, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo was explicit in his vision for Rider’s future, as the university embarks on a three-year, post-COVID-19 financial overhaul.

“In the higher education environment we find ourselves in, we no longer have the opportunity of continuing to offer every low-enrollment program simply on the basis of its individual academic value,” said Dell’Omo during the summer webinar. “Each must be evaluated within the context of the university’s overall situation.”

While Dell’Omo specifically used the term “low-enrollment program,” there is much more than just enrollment when it comes to evaluating, prioritizing, and, in some cases, eliminating programs, according to Fredeen. 

She clarified that the process has never been as simple as ranking the size of each program and trimming off those below a certain threshold.

“There’s very much a quantitative aspect to this work, but there’s also a qualitative aspect,” said Fredeen. “We are really trying to do a very careful analysis.”

While enrollment and associated revenue are important factors, the administration plans to use a new procedure that will evaluate programs based on enrollment, retention, quality and connections with other fields of study at the institution.

Fredeen was unable to offer many specifics regarding the new process, only that it is meant to “dive deeper” than previous iterations into the value of each program.

“There are a lot of little pieces here that all come together,” said Fredeen. “It’s a very holistic approach, actually.”

The administration is hoping the analysis will be complete around mid-October, and no plans regarding elimination had been made yet, Fredeen said in an interview with The Rider News on Sept. 15.

According to Fredeen, the administration is not directly consulting faculty during the new process. Instead, faculty involvement is “based upon the degree to which they were involved in the last process,” as the program reports and action plans submitted by departments in 2022 are being used to determine each program’s path forward.

According to philosophy professor Joel Feldman, many of those reports were intentionally left blank by professors as a sort of protest that stemmed from the 2015 prioritization process.

Rider’s faculty has been here before.


Raises lost to layoffs

In Rider’s expansive book of lore, the page on the 2015 layoffs has a folded corner.

The series of cuts still lives in infamy among professors who managed to sidestep or circumvent the reductions, as the event sparked long-lasting tension between the union and Dell’Omo’s administration.

The layoffs occurred just months after the previous president, Mordechai Rozanski, was succeeded by Dell’Omo in July 2015.

“That was one of the first things he did,” said Elizabeth Scheiber, who was initially laid off in 2015 and is currently the chair of the Department of Languages, Literature and Culture. “He didn’t really get to know the place, he just laid a bunch of people off.”

That year, the university undertook a prioritization process in which it would assess programs based on a set of varying criteria, the administration filling out quantitative aspects such as costs and revenue, while the departments were responsible for qualitative details like expectations and productivity, Fredeen said.

She also stated that the administration used the scores to sort programs into quintiles, which helped in identifying the programs that were eventually cut.

That was the original plan, at least.

“It was basically rigged to where small programs were going to come out on the bottom anyway. … [The faculty] went along and tried to do an honest job,” said Feldman. “But in the middle of the prioritization process, on Oct. 29, 2015, the president decides, before this process is done, he’s actually just going to eliminate programs by fiat and he announced layoffs.”

Feldman was laid off in 2015 along with many others, and the philosophy major and minor were eliminated. His job was one of those preserved through union concessions.

About a year later, the administration completed the prioritization process and each department received a set of future-determining quintiles.

The Rider News obtained a copy of the report that was eventually sent out to each department on Nov. 21, 2016. The document includes a breakdown of the quintiles with 15 programs in each, as well as the administration’s recommended actions given their standing.

According to the report, philosophy ended up in the second-lowest quintile with a recommended action of “Reconfigure to Increase Curricular Efficiency.” Still, it was nearly axed entirely a year prior.

Additionally, the report seemingly deemed that most of the bottom quintile was still worth keeping, as only six programs had recommended actions that even mentioned the possibility of elimination, according to the report.

“I didn’t think the university was in that kind of dire financial situation,” said Scheiber. “I think that they put a budget together that made it look like they were.”

Of the undergraduate programs grouped into the report’s lowest percentile, Spanish is the only one that remains today, as it is the last major standing in a foreign languages department that has been “sliced and diced” over the years, Cunningham said.

According to Scheiber, Rider currently offers Spanish, French and Chinese courses. It once boasted Italian, Russian and German languages as well, but the department has dwindled since the 2015 layoff scare, just recently losing the French major after another prioritization process that began in fall 2021.

“It diminishes our own standing, our reputation, our contribution,” said Scheiber. “The department feels very discouraged … very unsupported.”

Katelyn Kelly holds up a sign in protest at a November 2015 SGA open forum. (The Rider News Photo Archive)

‘Depressing and demoralizing’

For the second prioritization process in 2021, the administration dusted off its criteria and quintiles, preparing for another round of cuts.

After filling out the quantitative data, the administration sent out the reports to each department, but a portion of Rider’s faculty chose not to participate. Fredeen said 56 of 82 total reports were filled out and returned by their programs.

Consequently, when evaluations were returned to departments, any qualitative criteria left blank by faculty were given the lowest possible value, leading to some contradictory results, Feldman said.

On the philosophy major’s prioritization report, just months before the program was cut, its strengths were said to be in revenue and costs, while every other area was considered a weakness.

According to Fredeen, the administration is using these reports for the current process.

Rider’s faculty has been here before.

The criteria used by the university are outlined in a book by Robert C. Dickeson called, “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance,” Fredeen said.

According to the book, some of the 10 criteria it discusses are history, development and expectations; internal and external demand; quality of program outcomes; size, scope and productivity; and impact, justification and overall essentiality.

Dickeson’s approach, however, has been widely criticized by faculty at a number of schools across the nation.

“Those were the criteria that we used,” said Fredeen. “We decided how we would rate each criterion. Not every criterion was rated equally, so we put the ratings scale on [the report].”

Fredeen said that enrollment numbers were given a bit more weight than other factors.

After the evaluations, the administration returned the reports to each department and asked that each program create an “action plan” to assess any shortcomings within a five-year timeframe, according to a 2022 prioritization report obtained by The Rider News.

However, Fredeen said the prioritization task force decided which programs would be eliminated before the reports were returned to departments.

Dell’Omo announced the administration’s 25 eliminations via an email in June 2022 that included the cuts of economics, piano and global studies and saw the French and philosophy majors reduced to minors after dodging the chopping block for nearly a decade. 

“They scrubbed us from the website, they closed the gates so we can’t accept any new majors … and now we’re down to one [student with a philosophy major],” said Feldman. “I built this thing and they just wrecked it and knocked it all over and now it’s nothing. It’s depressing and demoralizing.”

According to Scheiber, the cuts and layoffs departments have faced took a serious toll on faculty morale, and, given the university’s current financial situation, any reductions in the near future could be the most drastic the Rider has seen since at least 2015.

In a September presentation to university employees, Dell’Omo projected a $7.2 million deficit this year.

Until then, professors like Feldman are using what they love as a form of escapism during what could be their last year at the university. For Feldman, it wouldn’t be a first.

Rider’s faculty has been here before.

“The classroom is like a haven from the misery of this place,” said Feldman. “It’s a very depressing way to live, and I absolutely no longer feel a connection to the institution because I don’t feel it values me.”

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