Rider University faculty still without a contract a week before start of school

More than 340 Rider University professors have signed up for picket line duty as the start of the fall semester nears and an agreement on a new contract for faculty has not been reached. The current contract for more than 580 full and part-time professors, librarians, coaches and athletic trainers at Rider and Westminster Choir College expires tomorrow, Aug. 31.

Representatives from the union for faculty, the American Association of University Professors, are scheduled to meet with representatives from the Rider University administration through Thursday to try to hammer out a deal. But Rider’s administration already has posted job listings for part-time, temporary substitute instructors in all fields.

“It is our obligation first and foremost to students, as well as all members of our university community, to make the necessary preparations now to continue university activities should bargaining unit members choose to take part in a work stoppage,” Rider University Spokeswoman Kristine Brown said. “The University’s plan provides for uninterrupted services, and therefore we have begun to line up alternative staffing options as needed to continue course instruction.”

Representatives for the faculty union said on Monday that the union has made offers for cost savings, but is still “far apart” from the administration in terms of an agreement.

“Confused budget projections and shifting demands by Rider University Administration has stymied faculty contract talks for months and could disrupt the Sept. 6 start of classes if no resolution is reached by this Thursday,” representatives for the union said in a written statement. “Wielding dismal and changing financial forecasts, Rider administration demanded in May that the American Association of University Professors chapter members give up approximately $10 million annually to keep the University solvent.”

Union representatives said Monday that the figure is a $4 million increase over demands made by the administration last November.

“Based on analysis of financial data provided by Rider’s finance division, we believe Rider’s current and future fiscal situation has been misrepresented,” Elizabeth Scheiber, AAUP chapter president, wrote in a letter to trustees on Monday (see bottom of story for full letter). “Rider is not in danger of a $10 million cash deficit this year or in future years, and will very likely have a cash surplus this year.”

But Brown said the bargaining process for a new contract is taking place at a critical juncture in the University’s history.

“Our goal remains to reach a fair balance between the interests of our faculty and staff and the necessary short and long-term structural adjustments for the University to achieve overall financial health. We want to ensure a high quality, affordable education for our current and future Rider students,” she said. “The University is committed to continuing the bargaining process in good faith and in a spirit of mutual respect, with the goal of finding common ground to solve these complex issues. We are confident we will be able to reach a successful conclusion to negotiations that is in the best interest of everyone.”

According to documents outlining the administration’s proposals for cost saving measures, Rider’s peak enrollment came in the fall of fall 2009. Enrollment began to decline the following year. Rider’s 2016 audited financial statements show net tuition revenue of $98.3 million, lower in real dollar terms than the five-year earlier 2011 audit total of $100 million.

“That is the result of both lower enrollment and the need to discount tuition at higher rates to address competitor net tuition costs and affordability concerns of students and their families.,” reads the document. “As enrollments declined, the University is facing a number of serious challenges and issues impacting its competitiveness and the sustainability of its financial model…Cost of attendance is the number one reason cited by students who choose not to attend Rider.”

Back in May, university officials proposed changes to the salary structure and health benefits contributions. Officials also wanted to change the faculty work load,  and reduce leaves for research and fellowships. They also called for a change the way promotions and tenure are handled, giving the administration more power over the process. Adjunct professors who receive benefits would have those taken away. The full document outlining the administration’s proposals is online here.

The Aug. 28 letter to the Rider University Board of Trustees:

We are reaching out to you not to open direct negotiations, as such negotiations are properly carried out with your designated representatives. But we would like to provide you with our perspective on the current contract negotiations and the overall danger that Rider faces. We hope that you will read this with an open mind.

In June of 2016 Rider’s VP of Finance began circulating a four-year budget projection. This dismal budget projected deficits in the range of $14 million in 2017 and in excess of $11 million going forward. Subsequent budget projections produced by Rider’s finance team over the course of the 2017 fiscal year reduced the projected cash budget deficit to approximately $6 million though President Dell’Omo continued to make references in that time frame to the University “facing a 10 million dollar deficit.”

Based on analysis of financial data provided by Rider’s finance division, we believe Rider’s current and future fiscal situation has been misrepresented. Rider is not in danger of a $10 million cash deficit this year or in future years, and will very likely have a cash surplus this year. According to Moody’s February 2017 update, “the university will produce operating cash flow in the 6-8% range.”

Despite significant evidence to the contrary, President Dell’Omo and Rider’s VP of Finance continue to refer to future projections of “unsustainable deficits” as if they were a certainty that will lead to the financial failure of the University within three years. These budget projections have been used to justify rash actions which include an unprecedented attempt to sell a University College, and the $10.1 million demand for concessions from the faculty in the May proposal. This $10.1 million demand for faculty concessions was $4 million greater than the demand made by Administration in January even though Rider’s finance office was projecting a much smaller deficit in May than it was in January.

The data indicate that Rider’s fiscal problems do not stem from excessive spending on faculty salaries and benefits. Indeed, a comparison of Rider’s faculty salaries and benefits in relation to our peer institutions demonstrates that we are compensated on par with these institutions.

Nevertheless, we recognize the difficult fiscal climate in which Rider operates and we have made significant concessions at the negotiating table. These concessions include a three-year wage freeze (bringing to six years that Rider faculty will have gone without a raise), reductions in pension benefits to a point below all of our peer institutions, significant decreases in institutional support of scholarship, reductions in health insurance benefits and structural changes that give administration total control over replacement hiring.

The current adversarial relationship between administration and faculty has had a serious impact on retention of quality faculty and does not bode well for the future of the University. A vote of no confidence in the president and his finance team this past spring provides some indication of faculty sentiment. A survey of faculty that we conducted in July and August indicate this sentiment has only deepened since the vote of no confidence. Eighty-three percent of Rider faculty are dissatisfied with the direction of the University, and 69 percent are considering leaving the institution. These numbers are shocking for an institution of higher education and should this sentiment continue, it will have a serious impact on Rider’s future. Such dismal morale weakens the institution and impacts retention and recruitment of new faculty. It limits the development of crucial new educational programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level.It impacts the quality of the student experience and will inevitably impact the retention of students and the recruitment of new students. This bleak outlook is not limited to the faculty. The results of the Fall 2016 climate survey conducted by Rider’s Administration were so bleak that they were never publicly released.

Only by faculty and administration working together can we provide a future for this University.This collaborative relationship can only be forged with a faculty who feel they are valued members of the institution and who have confidence in the leadership of the institution.

Efforts to impose draconian pay and benefits cuts and workload increases will only serve to undermine Rider’s ability to recruit top faculty and maintain a faculty committed to the future of the institution, and their effects on enrollment will only worsen the financial situation. Likewise,legally and morally dubious efforts to sell Westminster Choir College will lead to lawsuits, sharp reductions in donations and dwindling enrollments.

As Barry Mills president of Bowdoin College put it in a recent open letter about what defined Bowdoin and its mission, “Our faculty sit squarely in the central role of that mission and the quality of our faculty — along with the strength of our academic program — defines the College.” This trenchant observation is equally true about Rider University. We urge you to take direct and positive steps to avert a crisis this fall.

Elizabeth Scheiber, President
Rider University Chapter AAUP