Petition and Offer to the Oberlin BOT

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Posted Mar 14, 2020 at 00:45. Revised Jun 7, 2021 at 23:35.

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Oberlin College and Controversy LogoPetition to the BOT

Sent on 12 March 2020 via email to:

President Ambar
VP, Dean of Admissions/Financial Aid, Manuel Carballo
VP, Communications, Ben Jones
VP, Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo
VP of Advancement, Michael Grzesiak
VP, General Counsel and Secretary, Donica Varner
VP, Finance and Administration, Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings
Dean of Arts and Sciences, David Kamitsuka
Dean of the Conservatory, William Quillen

To All Trustee, Non-Trustee, and Faculty Members of the Board of Trustees

Chris Canavan, Chair of Executive Cmte
David S. Krischer, Chair of Budget and Finance Cmte
Ron Cheung, Dept. of Economics, Budget and Finance Cmte
Lillie Johnson Edwards, Chair of Academic Affairs Cmte
Steve Dolcemaschio, Chair of Audit Cmte
Michael Kamarck, Chair of Capital Planning Cmte
Cynthia Franz, Dept. of Psychology & Environmental Studies, Capital Planning Cmte:
Chesley Maddox-Dorsey, Chair of Development and Alumni Affairs Cmte
Roger Falcón, Development and Alumni Affairs Cmte; Chair, Annual Fund Advisory Board
Robert Bosch, Dept of Mathematics, Development and Alumni Affairs Cmte
Jennifer Fraser, Conservatory, Development and Alumni Affairs Cmte
Cynthia Hogan, Chair of Student Affairs Cmte
Jan Cooper, Dept. of English, Student Affairs Cmte
Amy Chen and Leah Modigliani, Co-Chairs, Investment Cmte
Charles S. Birenbaum, Inv. Cmte
Richard T. Brandt, Inv. Cmte
Sean Gavin, Inv. Cmte
Eric R. Katzman, Inv. Cmte
Leonard V. Smith, Dept of History, Inv. Cmte
Peter Rathjens (Arrowstreet Capital), Non-Trustee Member, Inv. Cmte
Phil Vasan (Blackrock), Non-Trustee Member, Inv. Cmte
Alan Wurtzel, Honorary Trustee and Member, Inv. Cmte

Re: Oberlin Finances, Endowment, and Plan to Fire 108 UAW Employees

Dear President Ambar, Members of the Oberlin College Administration and Board of Trustees:

We have been following with alarm the College’s plan to fire 108 unionized grounds and dining workers and to replace their jobs/benefits with lower-paying sub-contracted positions. If it goes forward, the College’s decision will have a devastating effect on the surrounding community, which, as you know, already suffers from a high level of poverty. One of our nation’s most agonizing social justice struggles at present concerns healthcare, a benefit you plan to take from these people, along with their jobs. Union-busting runs completely counter to Oberlin’s historical commitment to social justice. It seems to us that the College is losing sight of what Oberlin stands for.

We understand and support the need to be fiscally responsible. We also hold that the College must act in the best interest of all stakeholders: this, of course, includes faculty, employees of the college, students, and alumni, as well as the surrounding community. Several of us have reviewed the audited financials and the 990s of the College since the 2008 financial crisis, as well as its statements of investment policy. Based on this review, we infer that the current budgetary crisis predates President Ambar’s tenure as President. Given the freeze on faculty salaries along with other belt-tightening measures, we also interpret the College’s current plans for addressing its fiscal crisis as a call for help. But that call risks going unheard, for two reasons.

First, the actual financial condition of the College and its endowment are not fully revealed by the information we have reviewed. We also understand that the Administration, the Office of Investment Management, and the Trustees have not been forthcoming when asked for specific information about the present financial condition of the College and its endowment. The consistent complaints we have heard about the College’s lack of transparency, especially in the face of such extreme measures as the College is now considering, undermine the perception that the Administration and Trustees are practicing good governance and doing their absolute best in a difficult situation. The exact nature of the difficult situation remains exceedingly unclear to everyone outside your various roles and offices, despite it being the main rationale for the College’s proposed actions. Everyone else must apparently accept the state of things as a matter of faith. Given the stakes, that is not enough.

Second, as Alumni, we have an enormous stake in ensuring that the College’s finances are handled well and sustainably, in a way that consistently advances its ability to fulfill its fundamental educational mission. The College relies heavily on donations from alumni to fund the endowment and planned donations are already being withheld in the wake of the College’s decision to fire 108 of its unionized employees. We fully support withholding donations until the endowment is independently reviewed and assessed. It is now crucial that you reassure alumni that you are and have been managing the money they give you as well as you possibly can.

We request of the President, Administration, and Trustees that:

– Specific contact persons be designated from the Administration, the Office of Investment Management, and the Trustees who will be able and willing to provide prompt, frank answers to questions that we, other alumni, the faculty, and the UAW representative may have about the state of the College’s finances and the endowment, including but not restricted to: historical/present rates of return, any and all management fees and associated costs, and any relevant performance metrics.

– An independent evaluation of the College’s endowment with the full cooperation of the College, Administration, and Board of Trustees be undertaken immediately, which we will arrange at no cost to the College. All necessary precautions concerning confidentiality re: the endowment’s underlying investments will be guaranteed and assured.

A full disclosure of the current salaries in the Administration and the Office of Investment Management and any planned cuts to these salaries as a result of the same pressures prompting the College to fire 108 union employees.

We look forward to receiving a detailed, substantive response to this letter and our specific requests no later than 12 pm on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Together, we can cooperate to restore the financial health and stability of the college and – most urgently – avoid the anticipated job cuts. Outsourcing may look good in the short run, but it damages people and institutions in the long run. We are confident that the Administration, the College’s auditor, and the Board of Trustees can give us the information we need to undertake an independent and impartial assessment of the endowment and the College’s overall finances in the name of restoring transparency and confidence. Together, we can chart a more sustainable path forward.

Kind regards,
Alumni for a Sustainable Oberlin Endowment
Steering Committee:

Kelly Grotke ’89
Les Leopold ’69
Fred Magdoff ’63
Jane Katz Field ’70
Susan Phillips ‘76
Kris Raab ’89
Joanna Silver ‘95
Rebecca Givan ‘97
Jenny Bower ’14

NOTE: We received a brief response to our letter on 12 March 2020, from Chris Canavan and Chesley Maddox-Dorsey of the Board of Trustees. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they said they could not meet our deadline. This is reasonable, and so we have given them more time. Our offer of help was not rejected, but the matter has been deferred. In response, we have asked them to issue a public guarantee that no employee would lose their health benefits during the pandemic. We have not yet received a response to this request. [A response would take the matter up after they have dealt with the COVID-19 situation]

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