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A Provost’s legacy: Jason Osborne’s three years in office

Miami University Provost Jason Osborne resigned after less than three years in his position.
Miami University Provost Jason Osborne resigned after less than three years in his position.

A pandemic. Unionization. Remote learning. A new Strategic Plan.

Provost Jason Osborne’s tenure has been one filled with challenge and conflict – perhaps more than any Miami University provost.

But all that has come to an end.

Osborne announced his resignation April 11. His last day will be June 30, just less than three years after he had his first official day on campus on Aug. 1, 2019.

Since then, the university Osborne entered has fundamentally changed and may be on the brink of further transformation.

Osborne resigned days before the All-University Faculty Committee for Evaluation of Administrators was set to publish its three-year review of his tenure. The review takes input from faculty members across the university to create its evaluation. 

As The Miami Student works to acquire records related to his review and resignation, the publication has decided to examine, over the course of multiple stories, his time at Miami, the impact he had and the university’s trajectory now.

COVID-19

Osborne was at Miami for less than eight months before the university had its first potential cases of COVID-19. For the next two years, he would be tasked with leading the university through the pandemic.

“There’s no place I’d rather have been during this time, and there’s no other team I would rather have met these challenges with than the folks at Miami,” Osborne said. “It’s just been an amazing team.”

Before coming to Miami, Osborne was dean of Graduate Studies at Clemson University and a department chair at the University of Louisville before that. When he came to Miami as Provost, the position was a new level of responsibility.

While Osborne said the job is unimaginably large, he’s surrounded himself with capable people who are allowed to disagree with him.

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“This is really a team sport,” Osborne said. “Any success we’ve had is due to the entire team.”

Several COVID-19-era policies under Osborne’s administration have proved controversial to students and faculty. 

In Jan. 2021, the university reverted to its pre-COVID-19 credit/no credit policy, shortening the window for students to change to just two and a half weeks after classes begin. After backlash and a student petition, the university extended the deadline to three months.

For the 2021 spring semester, Osborne announced Miami would not have a spring break in order to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Instead, the university spread the five days off throughout the semester as “wellness days,” which debuted with mixed receptions.

At the start of the fall 2021 semester, Osborne emailed professors, saying they would not be required to wear masks during instruction, as long as they maintained social distance. Although some students didn’t mind, others disliked that students still had to wear masks if professors didn’t.

On Aug. 30, 2021, the university mandated mandating COVID-19 vaccines for students and employees. Unless they got an exemption, students had to receive the vaccine to register for classes. By the end of the fall semester, 92% of students had received a vaccine, and the university planned to cancel eight non-compliant students’ classes for the spring semester.

Harvey Thurmer, a faculty member in the department of music and University Senator, has worked at Miami under five provosts. Thurmer said any provost would have faced the same pushback from COVID-19 policies that Osborne received.

“Regardless of whoever was provost in the last three years, they would be known as the pandemic-provost, and that is not a title anybody would want,” Thurmer said. “He’s been in an incredibly thankless position, as would have anybody who would have had this position.”

A faculty member in the College of Creative Arts (CCA), who wished to remain anonymous, said it was difficult to distinguish which policies were in response to the pandemic and which were to accomplish Osborne’s goals. 

“COVID looms large,” the faculty member said. “It’s hard to separate what was COVID and what was not.” 

Daniel Hall, professor of justice and community studies, said Osborne created too many committees and had too many items working at once, but it wasn’t detrimental to the university. Most of Miami administrators’ COVID-19-related decisions largely mirrored national trends, he said. 

Most isn’t all, though.

“Most – with one big exception – of his decisions were fine,” Hall said. “ … The one criticism I have of [Osborne] and I presume the President and the Board of Trustees was how quick they were to eliminate positions.”

Visiting Assistant Professors

Soon after students were sent home in 2020, administrators decided not to renew the contracts of up to 50% of its Visiting Assistant Professors (VAPs). The decision was made to account for expected budgetary shortfalls caused by the pandemic and refunds to students.

Hall said the decision was hasty and ultimately unnecessary.

“The university has … a large cash reserve,” Hall said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t use the cash reserve to say, ‘We’re gonna keep everybody for a year, we’re gonna see how this pandemic plays itself out, and we’re gonna keep an eye on the situation.’ But their immediate reaction was to reduce expenses. They did that by cutting positions, and as it turned out, it was unnecessary.”

Despite the refunds to students and other expenses brought on by the pandemic, David Creamer, senior vice president of finance and business services, told The Student in Aug. 2021 that the university had one of its “strongest financial market performances” in 30 years in the 2020-2021 school year. As a result, President Greg Crawford announced a 2% salary increase pool for faculty for the 2021-2022 school year.

Osborne said the decision to not renew VAPs’ contracts took several factors into account and was not made lightly. 

The freshman class in 2020 was smaller than normal, and fewer faculty went on sabbatical to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. Osborne said the university was also working to increase teaching faculty positions with more job security at the time.

“There was far less need for temporary faculty than typical,” Osborne wrote in an email to The Student. “Our departments correspondingly requested fewer temporary faculty. I do not recall our office saying no to any request where there was clear need.”

Osborne also froze departments’ abilities to make hiring decisions without permission from him or Creamer.

Robert Applebaum, professor of gerontology, said the decision to cut VAPs wasn’t necessarily a bad one, but how it was implemented fell short of the university’s goals of shared governance and avoiding top-down decision-making.

“It was a decision that even deans and department chairs – and certainly faculty – felt like they had absolutely no voice in,” Applebaum said. “That, to me, created a problem. It wasn’t that the decision was bad, it was that nobody along the line felt like they had a voice in it.”

The decision to cut VAPs led to increased expectations for remaining faculty, including teaching more and larger classes and completing more service.

In the current academic year, the Board of Trustees allocated $24.6 million to VAP positions, allowing departments to bring on new temporary faculty members and go back to less demanding workloads. In 2019, Miami employed 252 VAPs. That number decreased to 107 in 2020 before rising to 151 in 2021.

Strategic Plan

Much of Osborne’s time at Miami has been defined by decisions made in response to the pandemic, but he also inherited a comprehensive plan to transform education at Miami.

Miami’s Strategic Plan was officially published June 28, 2019, and laid out 30 recommendations for the university to implement in the coming years.

When Osborne arrived, he took over implementation of several Strategic Plan recommendations, including the creation of an Honors College and transforming the Global Miami Plan to the Miami Global Plan.

Osborne said he’s proud of the progress his office has made on the academic Strategic Plan recommendations, though some will take years to be fully realized. 

In particular, he highlighted the success of the Honors College, which welcomed its first cohort last year and is more diverse than the university as a whole. He also said he’s proud of the academic review process, which reviewed each program at Miami for efficiency, effectiveness and student outcomes.

“What I want Miami to be known for is every student can come here and find their place – they feel belonging, they feel included – and then they can find success however they define it,” Osborne said. “It’s not always getting a high-paying job at a bank. Sometimes it’s creating that work of art or finding a passion or finding a peer group or whatever that is.”

Applebaum, who served on the committee that drafted the Strategic Plan, said the academic review process led to his department cutting the undergraduate gerontology major. While it was a tough decision personally, he said it aligned with the committee’s goals and will benefit students.

“The world is changing, and Miami has to make sure that we have majors that are attractive to the students and can be sustainable,” Applebaum said. “We made the decision that gerontology … was just not as easily sustainable, and so we’re pivoting to trying to improve our minors because we think students should be exposed to aging.”

The review process also allowed the university to give new resources to growing programs and attract new students in the process.

In an email to The Student, Beena Sukumaran, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC), wrote that Osborne’s support helped the college thrive. In the past three years, CEC has added a Bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering and planned for several other new programs, Sukumaran wrote.

“Provost Osborne strengthened the College of Engineering and Computing by envisioning and supporting new degree programs in a rapidly evolving world, in which technology is as pervasive as it is constantly changing,” Sukumaran wrote.

The Farmer School of Business (FSB) has also grown under Osborne. FSB has developed a Master of Science (MS) in business analytics and an MS in management, as well as an undergraduate certificate in cybersecurity.

“[Osborne’s] work that has had a positive impact on the Farmer School and its future was his support of our boldly creative proposals,” FSB Dean Jenny Darroch wrote in an email to The Student, “ … I will always be grateful to Provost Osborne for hiring me and therefore providing me with this extraordinary opportunity to be the dean of the Farmer School of Business.”

Faculty Tensions

Despite the success of several Strategic Plan recommendations, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated tensions between faculty and administration.

On Feb. 3, Miami faculty members announced their intentions to unionize under the Faculty Alliance of Miami (FAM), citing the decision not to renew VAP contracts, a perceived decline in the teacher-scholar model and a lack of shared governance.

“Most of the people that I talked to … didn’t seem to think there was any actual listening,” the anonymous CCA faculty member said. “It was difficult to have a conversation without something coming back that was a scold or defensive.”

Thurmer said that talks of unionization had been present for many years, but the university’s policies over the past three years might have pushed faculty to take action.

“I think the beginnings of that … far outlived his tenure,” Thurmer said. “People were fighting for that for a long, long time. But maybe the pandemic and the ways that they got through financially helped give impetus to the faculty union idea.”

Applebaum has been at Miami since the ’80s. Early on in his time at Miami, faculty held a vote to unionize that failed to pass.

“Interest in a faculty union is not new,” Applebaum said. “It’s been going on for the whole 35 plus years I’ve been here, but I think the frustration in some of the top-down decision making certainly added fuel to the fire.”

The CCA faculty member said pushback from administration regarding talks of unionization may have strengthened faculty’s support for the union.

“I was told by a mentor … when I first got here, that job number one for any provost at any university was to prevent the formation of a union,” the faculty member said. “My guess is that a whole lot of people were pushed over the edge in the last three years. I think there’s a reason why that movement is pretty much unstoppable now.”

The faculty member also said that as long as the university excludes faculty members from making decisions to hire administrators, faculty members will continue to have problems with administration.

“Faculty are not really involved in search processes,” the faculty member said. “Until there’s a little more thorough and meaningful participation by the faculty, we’re going to keep hiring people like this.”

What’s Next?

On April 28, Crawford announced that Elizabeth Mullenix, dean of CCA, will serve as the university’s interim provost. 

While Osborne wasn’t involved in the decision, he offered his support.

“Dean Mullenix is a superior leader and wonderful human being,” Osborne wrote. “She will be great and I will do everything I can during this time to support her successful transition. My advice to any leader is to trust our systems and people.”

In addition to serving as Provost, Osborne is a professor in the statistics department at Miami. Osborne wrote that although he’s still unsure of what the future holds for him, he might continue teaching at the university.

“This is the first time in my career where I haven’t known exactly what’s next, and that’s kind of exciting,” Osborne said. “I’m exploring a lot of options, and I may remain part of the Miami family for a while.”

Additional reporting by Managing Editor Abby Bammerlin

macylj@miamioh.edu

scottsr2@miamioh.edu

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