Editor’s Note: To avoid disaster, college needs better rollout for buyout

By Megan Bennett, Editor-in-Chief

The second employee buyout in two years was announced to faculty and staff March 1, and those who are eligible have already begun contemplating leaving Columbia, as reported on the Front Page.

Vice President of Business Affairs and CFO Jerry Tarrer along with Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden announced in an email that tenured faculty over the age of 62 who have been at the college for 10 years as well as staff members over the age of 55 with 20 years at the college are eligible for the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program. If they choose to accept, and are approved by their supervisor, they will receive one year’s salary and one year’s health insurance benefits—a better deal than the three months  of insurance offered to faculty and staff in the 2015 VSIP.

Before the administration begins accepting requests for the buyout, Tarrer and Wearden need to take an honest look at the effects of the 2015 VSIP. After more than 60 of the eligible 134 faculty and staff members left the college, the changes in academic departments and college offices were obvious. Some workloads became heavier and, in some cases, work was no longer done. In the Front Page story, Wearden said the last buyout didn’t have notable issues, but that isn’t how it felt for those at the bottom. Some vital faculty and staff  positions went unfilled, and the jobs weren’t allocated properly or fairly.

Tenured faculty are often the only people teaching certain courses—sometimes of their own design—or completing other department-wide work, and the last VSIP affected that. Staff members left student service areas such as the College Advising Center and others, which have only recently healed from understaffing. 

Though Tarrer and Wearden have the right idea of preventing faculty and staff with important, nonexpendable positions from accepting the buyout, the failed attempts at being judicious during the last VSIP had obvious repercussions.

To get the full scope of the impact of losing some of these employees, college leaders need to do more than consult with supervisors. They need to gauge the perspectives of  co-workers, and, in some cases, students. If one of the tenured faculty members eligible for the VSIP is the only teacher for a required course, the administration needs to view student evaluations to consider how positive aspects of the course can be  preserved. At the very least, there needs to be a qualified replacement ready for that course before the faculty member leaves to prevent required curriculum from elimination.

Understaffing is not—and should not be—the only concern. As reported on the Front Page, the last buyout was followed by a reduction in workforce, or mass layoffs, that affected VSIP-eligible employees who did not take the deal. Though the administration cannot legally tell anyone before they deny the buyout that they may still lose their jobs, and Tarrer says that is not the intention this time, it should be on the radar of all faculty and staff.

Buyouts like these during times of major financial constraints and declining enrollment may be necessary, but they are not the only way to save money. It is true that the current number of faculty and staff isn’t needed for a college of Columbia’s size, but the same could be said for the number of Columbia administrators. Despite that, Wearden sent out an email Feb. 4 announcing four new administration-level employees, not to mention the ones announced in the fall. The growing administration should also show commitment to adjustments and reductions, not just the employees who have direct links to the student experience. 

While initially concerning, buyouts can help colleges with shrinking revenue and are sometimes the only option. However, the reductions should be across-the-board and treated appropriately. If not, the attempts to save money will backfire because of the long-term damage done to the student experience.