The Vista asked to leave from invitation-only Q&A meeting between president and senate to discuss budget concerns

Last Friday, UCO President Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar hosted a meeting with faculty senators to answer various questions they had about the university. The meeting was “invitation only,” consisting of about 20 faculty members, but The Vista reporters attended to cover the meeting, attempting to abide by the Open Meetings Act. Many attendees wanted to know the “strategic plan” for the ongoing $15 million budget deficit crisis. 

“My number one goal with addressing the budget is to get to a place where we can spread that money out for people,” Neuhold-Ravikumar said in response to one question. “So we don’t have extra money to be able to increase faculty or staff salaries. Whether we want it to, or whether they’re deserved, is beside the point until we resolve the deficit.”

Neuhold-Ravikumar asked faculty senators “to go back and find natural efficiencies.”

“I’m leaving it up to you all and the unit heads to decide what natural efficiencies mean for you, and how those units operate effectively,” Neuhold-Ravikumar said. 

However, some were not satisfied with this answer, which suggested substantial faculty layoffs for the benefit of renewed faculty lines. Nikki Seagraves, a faculty senator representing the UCO College of Mathematics and Science, said this “survival of the fittest” approach is “killing morale.” 

“It’s basically, ‘Who’s going to be around?’” Seagraves said. “‘Which colleague should I befriend and play politics with so that I can stay?’ and ‘Is my job staying or not?’

“In talking to faculty directly, they’re applying for jobs. They are worried about feeding their family, their children. Some of them put in 25 years here, and are saying, ‘I don’t work for UCO anymore. I’m not proud of this institution. I work for my students,’” Seagraves said. “And I personally feel the same way.”

However, in the midst of concerns about the budget, issues of “transparency and communication” arose. Seagraves mentioned that “another theme” of these concerns related to particular meetings, such as these, being excluded from the public and staff. 

She was then interrupted by Faculty Senator Kristi Archuleta, who said she did “not expect the press to be here.” 

Neuhold-Ravikumar replied swiftly. 

“We did not expect them to be here either, but they refused to leave,” she said.

The Vista reporters were told about five minutes prior to the meeting, by Faculty Senate President Jennifer Barger Johnson, that this was a “closed meeting” and we needed to leave per Neuhold-Ravikumar. Citing the Open Meetings Act, which bars state-funded institutions from holding closed meetings, with specific exceptions, Johnson asked us to wait while she asked for a reason. A moment later, she turned around and shrugged — an inconclusive message that this reporter took as a reason to stay. The door shut, and we were still in the room. 

“We are not trying to step on anybody’s toes. I’m very sorry,” UCentral Social Media Coordinator Michaela Todd said. “We were just waiting for a reason to leave. That’s all we asked because we mentioned the Open Meetings Act, and we weren’t given an answer as to why we should leave.”

One faculty senator responded that since it was not “anything formalized” or “anything that’s going to necessarily result in legislation” it did not fall under the Open Meetings Act. We left immediately after. 

“There’s no such thing as an informal meeting if there’s a quorum present—it doesn’t matter if you’re in a coffee shop,” Ted Streuli, president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma said. “Whether you’re voting has no relevance or not if it’s an open meeting.” 

The Vista reached out to Freedom of Information Oklahoma and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to clarify the legal aspects of the meeting. Kathryn Gardner, a local legal initiative attorney, in an email stated she would need more facts to make a definite answer because “the law specifically exempts ‘the administrative staffs of public bodies, including, but not limited to, faculty meetings . . . of institutions of higher education when those staff are not meeting with the public-body,’ but that “you can and should try to attend the meeting.”

However, Streuli, a former editor of the Journal Record, said this exception did not apply to this situation because they are an “elected body.”

“What that exception is for is if the dean wants to have a meeting with all of the professors in the English department. Those don’t have to be open to the public,” Streuli said. “The difference is those people are there on salary, they’re not elected positions. If the faculty senate is made up of people who are elected and they have some kind of support from public money, which would be any use of university money, or arguably, any use of university space… and that probably means they qualify as a public body.”

Gardner said it is important for members of the UCO community to know how it is being governed. 

“The appropriation of funds is one of the most critical functions of governance and the community has a right to be fully informed about the process,” Gardner said. 

American Association of University Professors President Marc Goulding agrees. In a list of grievances sent to the Faculty Senate Welfare Committee, the AAUP stated “the lack of transparency from the administration has been very concerning.”

“I was disappointed to hear that the voice of our students in the form of the VISTA were asked to leave a meeting of such importance to our students,” Goulding said. “Because, of course, ultimately, our students are why we’re here.”

Goulding did not attend the meeting, as his term as faculty senator expired last year. However, he said the work of the AAUP chapter at UCO tries to address these same issues about the budget and communication. He said the organization is open to “all of our faculty, both full time, part time, temp and graduate students.” 

“Our campus is a community, and I think that we need to be open and clear with each other. And that includes staff, faculty and students and all others,” Goulding said. “You know, we work together.  I find the choice to make discussions private very problematic, in a community such as ours.”

Notably, faculty senators said The Vista could attend the faculty senate meeting next Thursday, per the Open Meetings Act. As reporters were only able to record the first 10 minutes of the meeting, what was discussed after remains unknown to the public.

In an email obtained by The Vista, an individual familiar with the meeting said, “not surprisingly, the discussion largely focused around the matter of personnel issues and anticipated cuts.”

“The president was pressed on whether or not there will, in fact, be cuts. She acknowledged there will be. Specific numbers and timing is TBD, but… No decision on cuts can be made until after late January,” the email read. “The president explained that this is because they will not be able to determine the exact level of the deficit until certain ‘census’ information regarding students and enrollment becomes available at that time.”

This is a developing story and will be updated as we receive more information. 

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