OBERLIN — A move by Oberlin College to offer buyouts to employees has some questioning whether the administration is actually trying to stifle free speech and public criticism.
The college is offering buyouts to 252 employees, including faculty, those in administrative and professional positions, and those represented by the Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees union.
However, the terms of the agreement contain a non-disparagement clause, which says anyone taking a buyout cannot publicly criticize the college.
According to college spokesman Scott Wargo, the clause was included at the advice of outside legal counsel, although he declined to elaborate on the intent.
College President Marvin Krislov didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday, but he told the Oberlin Review that elsewhere such agreements have “helped people retire in a way that preserves their dignity and gives them some extra money, and it helps the institution in that it allows for predictability.”
Those eligible for voluntary buyouts must be at least 52 years old and have at least 10 years of service and a combined age and service time of at least 75 years. Eligible employees now have 45 days to decide whether to sign the agreement and take a cash buyout for a year’s salary doled out over 12 months.
“For individuals, the program will offer an opportunity for those who are considering retirement, but are uncertain whether they can do so financially,” Wargo wrote in an email. “For the College, the primary purpose of the (voluntary severance incentive plan) is to expedite voluntary attrition with the goal of decreasing long-term operational costs.”
Wargo said how much the college will save is dependent on how many people accept buyouts and how much it costs to replace those who retire early. The college expects to save from $1.5 million to $3.5 million annually, he said.
But some are questioning whether the inclusion of a non-disparagement clause is actually just a way to silence those with controversial opinions or criticisms of the college.
Roger Copeland, professor of theater and dance at Oberlin College, has spent 41 years teaching at the college and when he first heard about the buyout, he thought he might take it.
At 67, Copeland is ready to retire and spend time with his grandchildren but not at the expense of publicly speaking his mind, he said.
Copeland said he could understand a non-disclosure clause, which asks those taking a buyout not to disclose financial particulars of the agreement.
But a non-disparagement clause could create a chilling effect in which those who retire might be afraid to say anything about the college for fear of losing severance payments, he said.
The clause says “the employee shall refrain from all conduct, verbal or otherwise, that disparages or damages the reputation, goodwill or standing in the community of the College.”
Copeland said this could discourage a number of forms of speech, whether it be a retired professor speaking their mind about a topic on campus or a former employee trying to look into what caused the college to get to a point of trying to buy out more than 200 employees.
The college gets to decide what disparagement means, Copeland said, and there is really no solid legal definition of the term.
Such a move is expected in corporate America where top-down governance is the norm, Copeland said, but it shouldn’t be accepted on a college campus where faculty governance is cherished.
It is also out of place on a college campus, where the open exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial, is supposed to be protected, Copeland said.
“Maybe this idea that the campus must be free from any type of controversy has gotten to the administration,” Copeland said. “Maybe they too think they are entitled to live in a space that is free from any type of criticism.”
The buyout would also likely hone in on faculty members with tenure who have been at the college the longest, Copeland said.
Removing tenured faculty and replacing them with adjunct professors at lower pay would make it much easier for Oberlin College in the future to get rid of those professors who pose questions the college administration finds undesirable.
At any rate, offering buyouts to 252 employees means major changes are in the works at Oberlin College, Copeland believes, and the changes are being kept quiet.
“Major decisions affecting the future of the college are supposed to be made by the general faculty,” Copeland said. “There was not a whisper of this plan at any general faculty meeting this year.”