Faculty and staff weigh early exit

UW-Eau Claire extends buyout package to senior employees ahead of expected state budget cuts

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Photo by Nate Beck

For the last few years James Oberly has worked to compile a history of his workplace: UW-Eau Claire.

Oberly, a tenured Eau Claire history professor, expects to complete a book detailing the story of a school once dubbed Eau Claire State Normal School, in time for its 100-year anniversary in 2016.

But Oberly may become a casualty of the largest cut in the UW System’s history after the university offered buyouts to professors nearing retirement.

In March, Chancellor James C. Schmidt extended a buyout package to 324 employees. The plan includes half-a-year’s pay and an agreement not to return to Eau Claire for two years and forfeit tenure.

“In my case that’s forever,” Oberley said. He’s four years short of retirement.

“There’s two parts: can I afford to retire before my normal retirement age?” He said. “The other question is health insurance. If I don’t have an employer anymore, where do I get health insurance? That’s a pretty long gap.”

Of the 324 eligible employees, 114 submitted applications for consideration in late March and early April. Those 114 employees received draft separation agreements on April 21, Martin Hanifin, vice chancellor for administration and finance, said.

Hanifin said officials expect half of eligible employees to accept the offer, “for planning purposes.”

Instructional employees like Oberly will have the option of teaching through Fall 2016 under the buyout agreement, Hanifin said. Non-instructional employees will leave Eau Claire August 28 at the latest.

Buyout candidates have until June 5 to make a final decision, and seven days to rescind after.

And that’s where Oberly is: deciding.

“It’s not a generous offer compared to our peers,” Oberly said. Other schools have offered a year or more’s salary for departing employees, he said. And the package doesn’t compensate for his tenure status.

But the decision is about more than money, Oberly said. It’s about quitting a job he loves. And protecting his co-workers. If more senior faculty and staff accept buyouts, Eau Claire won’t be forced to let go as many employees.

“If I knew my signing would save a person on this floor I’d be much more inclined to, but there’s no guarantee,” he said. “I might be saving someone in the college of nursing … I could take this (buyout) and several of my very fine colleagues might get laid off.”

 

Budget woes

Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal includes a $300 million cut to the UW System. Eau Claire’s share of that cut is expected to total $9.1 million. That’s on top of Eau Claire’s existing $4.5 million budget deficit.

In all, Eau Claire expects to face a $13.6 million deficit. That means the university will need to shrink it’s operating budget to about $81 million from about $95 million, if state cuts are approved in full.

Chancellor Schmidt wrote in a blog post May 5 that Eau Claire plans to:

­— Cut 25 percent of all senior administrative staff

— Shave 20 percent from the facilities management budget

— Create a “Student Services One-Stop Center” which combines programs to save 20 percent across departments

— Create an “Administrative Service Center,” or a single office to filter faculty and staff paperwork to save 20 percent in back-office functions

— Cut 20 percent of support staff across campus

Despite the looming deficit, Eau Claire anticipates an enrollment increase next fall.

Total student enrollment has fallen in each of the last five academic years, from 11,409 in 2010-2011 to 10,689 this year, according to the Eau Claire Office of Institutional Research.

Lower enrollment means less revenue and a smaller budget. Student Senate has increased student segregated fees — which fund campus organizations and other program — in each of the last two years to compensate for declining enrollment.

The university maintains that despite the upcoming cuts, Eau Claire will provide “high-impact” experiences — like job training and study abroad trips — to each student, and graduate half of all students in four years, among other benchmarks.

Joe Holzhausen, junior computer science major, said he has heard rumors about his favorite professor preparing to accept the buyout offer. He said the professor teaches in a way he can really relate to, and his potential absence will definitely hurt the department.

“It feels like we’re being cheated,” Holzhausen said. “I’m not stoked by any means to continue my studies here if and when he leaves.”

He said if other departments lose key members of their staff, he can’t imagine prospective students will see Eau Claire the same way he did when he first enrolled.

“I came here for a quality education and the beautiful scenery,” Holzhausen said. “If I was looking for a school now, the view wouldn’t be enough to cut it.”