On May 2, Ohio University announced layoffs of at least 140 unionized workers, as well as the elimination of a number of non-tenure track and probationary tenure-track positions. These actions were taken as part of a strategy for dealing with a $30 million shortfall in the university’s budget that preceded the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the $110 million cut to higher education first announced on Twitter on May 5 by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, more cuts are virtually certain to take place.
Ohio University faculty and staff members are in an uproar over events surrounding what some have labeled the “May Day Massacre,” and have taken to the streets in protest. Blame has been laid squarely at the doorstep of university administrators, who are viewed by employees as having chronically mismanaged the budget. In reaction, a vote of no-confidence against Ohio University president Duane Nellis (along with his senior vice president for finance) passed overwhelmingly during a faculty senate meeting on May 5. Announcements regarding hiring freezes, the suspension of new capital projects, and the anticipated restructuring of departments and colleges will do little to increase the popularity of administrators in the weeks and months ahead.
Athens is a municipality of approximately 23,000 citizens, which more than doubles in size when over … [+]
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As troubling as these events might seem to individuals who are worried about the health of the university, they pale in comparison to the impact that the layoffs and budget cuts will have on Athens, Ohio, the town that hosts this institution of higher learning. Athens is a municipality of approximately 23,000 citizens, which more than doubles in size when over 35,000 college students are added to the mix. Hence, when Ohio University sneezes, Athens is at risk of catching pneumonia.
The mayor of Athens is Steve Patterson, a former professor of psychology at Ohio University. He stepped out of his faculty role when he was elected mayor in 2016. Fortunately for both the university and the town, especially at this particular juncture in time, Mayor Patterson is well-versed in issues on both sides of the campus-community relationship.
Unlike most other locations hosting large institutions of higher learning in Ohio, Athens is one of the few municipalities whose largest employer is the university itself. For comparison purposes, the University of Akron also announced rather significant cuts on May 6 in order to deal with it own $65 million shortfall, yet the city of Akron likely will not feel the loss to the same extent. Health care, tire manufacturing, and government (Akron is a county seat) make up the top 5 major employers in that Ohio city.
Mayor Patterson notes that the Ohio University employees who have lost their jobs are mostly residents of Athens County, owing to the relative seclusion of their geographic location. Athens is over a hour’s drive from Columbus, and almost 3 hours from Cincinnati. These residents will not easily find other employment in the immediate vicinity.
The job losses hurt these sorts of college towns in multiple ways. There is the immediate loss of income tax revenue, as well as the loss of the residents’ purchasing power in the local economy. Coupled with the exodus of students this past spring semester, there are foreboding signs of worse things yet to come.
When asked what keeps him up at night, Mayor Patterson points to two main issues. First, he talks about the local businesses that have closed as the result of the extended stay at home order issued by the Ohio Department of Health. “I look down Center Street, and I wonder how many of these restaurants, bars, and shops will be able to afford to open again,” he said. Second, he is concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of college towns to a set of more chronic issues surrounding demographic shifts in traditional student populations. “I worry that this public health issue has ripped the bandage off some warning signs about declining enrollment figures that should have been demanding more of our collective attention all along.”
While reeling, the arrival of more springlike weather has coincided with sprigs of hope for Athens and its inhabitants. Mayor Patterson has assembled his “COVID-19 virtual round table” to deal with the pandemic’s impact on his town and the local economy. Attended by nearly everyone who has anything to do with the fiscal well-being of the region, these meetings are designed to serve as a “rapid response team” to local issues and concerns as they arise.
In addition, and even more hopefully, Mayor Patterson and Ohio University President Nellis continue to meet on a monthly basis, just as they have done since the time the two of them have taken office. In addition, the mayor has been meeting with the university senior leadership team twice a week since March due to the pandemic. It may very well be the case that these intensified interpersonal relationships, the kind that can and should develop between municipal and university leaders, may do more to solidify a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic than something any other outside entity could offer.