Strike at Youngstown State would jeopardize its future

Dr. John Russo, president of the faculty union at Youngstown State University, contends that the administration's contract offer is "ridiculous [and] unprofessional" and "an insult" to his membership. We would use those same words to characterize Russo's suggestion that tuition be increased by 10 percent -- over and above the 8.9 percent increase students are absorbing for the fall semester.
And we would apply the words to his suggestion that YSU President David Sweet look to the YSU Foundation, which holds the university's $132 million endowment fund, for financial relief.
The idea that students -- in many cases their parents -- should shell out more money just so faculty and staff can receive comparatively large pay raises is ridiculous, unprofessional and an insult. Why? Because the economy of YSU's five-county mission district is worse than the economy of the state of Ohio and of the nation.
In the university's own back yard, the city of Youngstown is laying off 60 employees (in addition to the 46 who have taken buyouts), Mahoning County commissioners are bracing for the loss of $12 million if voters reject a 0.5 percent sales tax renewal in November, and hundreds of area workers are coming to grips with the reality of Phar-Mor's demise.
Enrollment woes
Yet, Dr. Russo and Christine Domhoff, chief negotiator for YSU's classified employees union, talk about raising tuition as if the residents of the Mahoning and Shenango valleys have money to spare. As for the YSU Foundation, it uses interest from the endowment mostly to provide student scholarships. Without this financial support, many of the students would be unable to attend YSU, thus exacerbating the institution's enrollment woes.
Enrollment is at the heart of the university's financial troubles because the formula used by the Ohio Board of Regents to distribute taxpayer dollars to public colleges and universities is based on the number of full-time students.
Earlier this year, the board of regents announced that YSU would be getting $3 million less than it had anticipated as a result of the Republican controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bob Taft slashing funding for higher education. Then two weeks ago, the board of regents notified YSU that its allocation would be cut an additional $2.7 million because of its enrollment.
Dr. Sweet, who has been president for two years, has launched an aggressive campaign to increase the number of full-time students, and one of the key selling points is the relatively low tuition. But, considering that over the past five years students have seen increases of about 40 percent, adding 10 percent just doesn't make sense.
Self-defeating action
What is also senseless is the use of the word strike by the leaders of the faculty and classified unions. A strike would be self-defeating because it would undermine the marketing campaign that has been launched by the university.
So, what should be done to break the impasse in the labor negotiations between the university and the 377-member classified union, whose contract expires Aug. 15, and the 350-member faculty union, whose contract is up Aug. 21?
In light of the uncertain economic times and YSU's financial difficulties, we believe a one-year contract is in order. The employees should agree to a small pay raise -- it would be a public relations coup for the university if they accepted a wage freeze -- with the understanding that bargaining would resume after the year.
The administration, faculty and staff could spend the next 12 months lobbying the governor, legislators and the board of regents for a new funding formula for open admission universities located in urban areas. The problems confronting YSU are expensive to solve, yet the state does not make any provisions for the extraordinary costs associated with addressing the special academic needs of many students. YSU should be reimbursed for the remediation programs it is forced to offer because so many of the incoming freshmen are not academically prepared for college-level courses.
The one-year contract would also eliminate the need for a federal mediator, which the classified union wants in light of the impasse in the contract talks, and the fact-finder, who will be reviewing the faculty contract.
Now is not the time for labor unrest on campus, and it certainly isn't the time for a strike.
Youngstown State University's future is at stake.

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