In just over one month, Vassar College will witness the final wave of employee departures that began this summer as part of a voluntary resignation or early retirement program. According to Vice President for Finance & Administration Robert Walton, at the end of the fall semester, 68 eligible employees will have left, and a total of 30 positions will be permanently eliminated. The remaining 38 positions will likely remain unfilled for anywhere between 12 to 18 months. While no determinations have been announced about which positions will be cut, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union has stated that it will challenge all permanent job eliminations or downgrades.
The program, titled the Voluntary Retirement Incentive Offer, was announced to eligible employees in June, with employees receiving 60 days to determine whether they wanted to opt into the program. The task of determining eligibility, while highly regulated by the state and federal government to prevent any preferential treatment, fell to Vassar’s Office of Human Resources. Walton explained in an emailed statement, “The Human Resources office established a threshold of ’75’ which was [to] be the combined value of the years of services at Vassar and the age of the employee. The offer was made to all employees who met the threshold of 75.” Associate Vice President for Human Resources Ruth Spencer stated that another eligibility requirement was that employees must have worked at least five continuous years for the College.
According to Walton, 230 employees were eligible for the voluntary program, of which 68, or roughly 30 percent, took incentive offers. The senior offices to experience the largest reductions will be Office of the Dean of the College and the Finance and Administration Office, which have seen 21 and 23 employees opt in to the program, respectively.
Walton noted that all employees were informed of the program on the same day and provided identical information packages. He also asserted that workers were not granted different packages on the basis of experience. “The College did not provide any special incentives to some employees and not others as this would have been a violation of the law…[N]o encouragement or discouragement efforts were made and would not be permitted under the program,” Walton explained. “The program was completely voluntary and the College, after making to offer to all eligible employees, was completely neutral as to who took the offer, as required by law.”
This is not the first time that the College has utilized a buyout program. Spencer wrote in an emailed statement, “There have been buyouts before at Vassar. They have been structured differently depending on how broad or how narrow the population is to be impacted. When offered, they are many years apart.”
The program will reduce the College’s annual operating budget and align it with the financial goals of the Board of Trustees-mandated Integrated Financial Model.
The program was also enacted based on a desire to better align with peer institutions. Walton explained that previous employment figures for non-faculty employees notably exceeded those of other colleges. He said, “The staffing of Vassar College varies slightly, even after the buyout, from those of peer institutions, but the reduction in staffing as a result of the program will result in a closer alignment.”
The College asserts that it opted for a buyout program—which is voluntary—instead of firing employees in order to maintain a healthy relationship between the administration and employees. Walton explained in a separate emailed statement, “Without the program, it would have been necessary to achieve the reduced staffing levels by a forced reduction in force (terminations) which the administration believed would be an out of character and corporate technique less suitable to the higher education culture, would have a very negative and lasting toxic effect on the Vassar community, and would hurt employee morale.”
Walton also stated that this method of staff reductions also preserved other critical aspects of the College’s finances. He noted, “Once the Program has been fully implemented, the College will have achieved the financial goals set by the Board of Trustees without a layoff and without changes to the extremely important need-blind admissions and financial aid priority of Vassar College.”
Walton has received positive responses to the buyout program. He remarked, “The Program is completely voluntary, offered to all eligible employees (as required by state and federal regulations), and was very positively received by the participating employees.”
Spencer echoed this sentiment. She explained, “Those who took the buyout seemed to be very satisfied with their decisions and acknowledge that the buyout package was very generous.”
Despite Walton’s assertions that this program marks the best option for all parties involved and is emblematic of a respectful relationship between the College and its employees, this opinion is not shared by all.
While Science Support Technician and CWA Business Agent Carl Bertsche acknowledged the support of the program by some, he noted that the program’s positive reception may have been driven by factors beyond the financial incentives of the program. He wrote in an emailed statement, “For those members who are 64 years of age and up the response has been favorable. For the last few years most [workers’] opinion of the employer have dropped off. This College was once a community where all thrived now only those on top can live comfortably. The environment no longer supports or wants…an experienced staff.”
Bertsche also challenged the College’s motives with regards to the buyout program. He said, “The ‘Program’ has certainly put a strain on the relationship between CWA and the College. CWA wants what is right for our members and the College wants what is good for them financially. The College can spin it anyway that want but they are balancing the Operating Expenses budget on the backs of the employees. The Endowment is doing very well at nearly 1 billion. The [drain] on the endowment is the issue and the 2.5 million per year is said to be [too] much.”
The CWA worker also criticized the motives of mirroring peer institutions. Bertsche explained, “The part that is often overlooked is the thought process of the Trustees when they dictate to the senior officers that Vassar College should be [in line] with other Colleges in staffing requirements. One should not look at the number of carpenters working at another college and use that as a staffing requirement.”
He continued, “The Vassar I came to work for in 1989 didn’t care about other schools we only cared about what we could do to better serve the student body. The Vassar [I] came to work for in 1989 cared about its workers and the relationship being built with CWA. None of these things matter anymore, just the bottom line on a ledger sheet. That is wrong.”
According to Bertsche, whose union currently knows of 23 union employees taking retirement packages, another point of contention is the lack of discussion about the program between the College and the union before it was offered to employees. He said, “From CWA position the College should have sat down with us prior to implementing the ‘Program’. We used to be partners and now that has changed. The College has disrespected CWA and all their members.”
Members of the Student-Labor Dialogue (SLD), which seeks to join Vassar students and employees in solidarity for workers’ rights, also asserted that they believe this is an attempt to hinder unions on campus. Students of SLD wrote in a joint emailed statement, “The SLD sees the buyouts as part of a concerted effort by the administration to downsize Vassar’s workforce, systematically understaff the campus, and weaken the collective bargaining units on campus.”
They also cast doubt on the positive presentation made by the College. They said, “The SLD believes that the administration’s lack of communication and consideration for workers at Vassar not only speaks to a culture of disrespect, but also points to a larger strategy of problematizing working conditions on campus. The compounded workload that is an inevitable consequence of the buyouts serves to push too much work on too few people.”
As contracts have already been signed and resignations began as early as July, the College and the CWA alike face new challenges related to the voluntary retirement program. Spencer explained, “The design, offering and implementation of the buyout is the easiest part of the plan. Re-engineering, reviewing, resetting priorities in some cases, deciding what may not be done in the future or how to do it differently takes much longer.”
Among the first actions the College will take is to finish determining which vacant positions will be filled and which will be eliminated. According to Walton, “To plan for and meet these staffing change challenges, the senior officers participated in a mini-retreat in early August following the final enrollment deadline of the Program and have prepared an initial tactical plan for how the 68 positions will be evaluated and re-engineered to meet the financial goals established for the Program.”
He continued, “Understanding that planning work is not yet complete, approximately 12 positions for example have been identified, to date, for reassignment to a new or adjusted set of duties or service responsibilities including the possible merger of some service units designed to yield a lower cost basis and/or an expanded service value.”
Walton also emphasized that while the College had known about the voluntary retirement program for several months, it could not begin making specific staffing decisions until after August 1 and that such staffing decisions require careful consideration.
However, Bertsche asserted his belief that the College already knows which positions they want to eliminate. He noted, “At this time, the College has yet to discuss any positions that are to be eliminated. They keep telling us they have yet to decide what positions will be eliminated. We all know that is untrue.”
Another critical area of focus for the College will be adjusting to a reduced workforce, acknowledging that it places added strain on remaining workers. Walton remarked, “Until [all positions are filled], staffing in a few areas will be under pressure and the College will need to adjust and respond as best as possible within the rules and guidelines of the bargaining unit agreements and policies and procedures of the College.”
In an attempt to ensure the quality of services are not significantly reduced, Walton also noted a series of alterations to the procedure will occur. “As positions are vacated, there will be reassignment of tasks and reporting lines and some department reorganizations due to the changes in personnel. In some cases, service levels will be altered, or services will be provided using a different technique,” he said. “Some positions will be reclassified (usually to a higher level) as tasks are shifted. Some duties may be completed by offering more overtime pay to selected employees.”
Due to the reductions, the College may not return to its old standards in some areas. “In other cases, work is simply being eliminated and some services may be reduced to reflect the smaller employee resource,” said Walton.
Walton also expressly stated that student employment will not change amidst the staffing reductions. He asserted, “No student labor will be used to back fill for any of the positions as this would be a violation of the bargaining unit agreements with CWA and SEIU.”
Meanwhile, the CWA has vowed to combat any permanent reductions in the workforce. “CWA will challenge each and every position that is to be downgraded or eliminated. CWA believes that we are already short staffed. The CWA members are here to support the education of each and every student,” Bertsche asserted. “We are in the service business as we provide a service to the students education. You lessen the quality of the service and you lessen the quality of the education.”
Meanwhile, students of the SLD fear the larger implications of the program. They said, “We are concerned that the ultimate goal of the administration is to weaken labor on campus to the point that they attempt to bring in sub-contracted labor from outside contractors. We’re concerned that the buyouts are only one facet of a larger strategy to overload and undermine workers, and we’re concerned about what strategies may come next.”
The students of the SLD also called on students to prepare themselves to stand behind unions like CWA. They said, “The top-level officials of Vassar are counting on the fact that students will not notice or care about the injustices that are occurring on campus. It is imperative that we show administration that students care about the kind of culture that is being created on Vassar’s campus.”
Even when the positions are filled, some within the administration believe that this program will have lasting and potentially unforeseen consequences. Spencer said, “We may not see the full impact of these decisions for the next two to three years.”