Mandate Mishandled? – Graduating senior weighs in

Two months have passed since the Board of Trustees mandated the elimination of 15 full-time equivalent positions.  Over the past weeks, the campus as a whole seems to have accepted the idea that cuts are coming, and try as we might; it seems there is little we can do to stop, or even amend them.  So the cuts are going to happen.  Fine.  Something has to create a stable financial model, and if this is what the board chooses, then we must accept that.  However, the events of the past couple weeks have called into question not the ends of these administrative decisions, but the means.

What I mean is simply that an unhappy, but necessary decision has been handled without its due sensitivity and collegiality.  So far, a process plagued with cold impersonality, poor timing, and terrible communication has delivered nothing but bad news to an increasingly disheartened campus most recently culminating in letters of termination for the 28 untenured tenure-track professors—a legal formality.

Yet, the contention is no longer that the cuts shouldn’t happen at all, it’s that they should be carried out in a manner that is mindful and empathetic to the people that must weather this very upsetting ordeal—in a manner that doesn’t treat them as just a legal formality.  So is it by the book? Yes.  Is it necessary?  Maybe.  Is it legal?  Um, not entirely sure.  But is it observant of the common decency that should be shown to an employee and colleague in distress?  Absolutely not.

After all, we are a small school, and 28 is a small enough number to put names to faces, yet each of these faculty members received the same impersonal letter “pursuant to 2.14.1 of the Faculty Handbook.”  Moreover, the mandate was given with less than three months notice, scarcely enough time for faculty to satisfactorily negotiate alternate solutions.  Then when the faculty did spend hours carefully drafting up a counter-proposal to the original BOT mandate, it was almost immediately flicked away and dismissed as “insufficient”.  This rapport is what is insufficient. 

Treatment like this is not only unfair, but also alien to an institution known for its cohesive and supportive nature.  This is management under the corporate model, and with numbers, perhaps it makes sense, but unhappiness and unrest abound on this campus because there is more to this institution than salaries and expenses.  This approach is an attempt to forcibly squash a dynamic and vibrant community of people, of friends, into the cold, symmetrical box of the corporate model, and it is hurting people.

It hurts people when all the work they have done for the college feels meaningless because, for all intents and purposes, they are just a file on a desk, just another part of a program to be reviewed.  It hurts people when their department is treated with less value than other departments at a school that was founded on a belief in the benefits of a liberal arts education.  It hurts people when they feel alienated and devalued by an institution that they sacrifice to teach at, an institution that is lucky to have such qualified educators, an institution they would fight to stay at—an institution that they love.  This cohesion, that spirit that vivifies and connects this campus—students, teachers, and staff—is what makes Albion College great; it is what brings people to this school and what keeps them here.  It is the real Albion advantage, and it is being trampled upon.

The quick and painless approach has failed.  This was supposed to be a necessary process to be administered as innocuously as possible, yet many weeks later, we still continue to fish around painfully for the appropriate vein from which to draw off part of the college’s lifeblood.  While the “cut deep, but cut once” approach may have been the most effective way to make necessary budget cuts, it is clear from the scores of upset faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni that this delicate surgery has been performed with all the grace of a sledgehammer, and that the personal and democratic ethos that this school is known for has been lost somewhere amidst the pages of Xeroxed memos and letters.

The school is still not in any danger of closing; Albion remains financially secure and will go on no matter what happens on May 13th.  Still, it is clear that we have created a dire situation here, and though no one wanted it to be like this, this is what we have on our hands now:

We have professors leaving because they are being strangled with red tape when all they want to do is teach; we have older professors retiring to take pressure off the younger faculty that could be fired; we have students transferring because they are afraid that they may not have a program to come back to in August; we have alumni withholding funds because this is not the Albion that they grew up with.  No, we are not in a state of financial exigency, but it is unquestionable that the stress and frustration brought on by this mandate have put us in a different and great kind of danger.

This danger is the disillusionment that comes with losing part of what Albion College means to all of us.  If we become disillusioned with our school, we will struggle to bring ourselves to give back to an institution that is aversely changed from how we left it.  We will feel disingenuous about encouraging prospective students to climb aboard a mutinous ship.  We will continue with our lives, succeeding because of the excellent education and experiences we’ve enjoyed here, but when we look back, it will be with sorrow and disappointment, because it will no longer be an institution worthy of the investment of our time and money; it will no longer be the home that we love.

It will no longer be our Albion, dear Albion.  And that is a tragedy.

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