COVID-19 prompts staffing changes, early retirements

A total of 19 faculty members will not be returning to Augustana on a full-time basis, as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed financial and economic pressure on institutions across the higher education landscape.

Sixteen faculty members eligible for voluntary early retirement agreed to take it, and three continuing-term faculty positions were eliminated, according to Colin Irvine, provost and executive vice president, and Deanna Versteeg, vice president of human resources.

“I think all universities almost without exception, regardless of size, regardless of their financial situation going into it had to make similarly difficult decisions that were systematic and systemic,” said Irvine. “So, we went about ours in ways that we believe are in keeping with our core values and our commitment, mostly to community and excellence.”

Versteeg said that the decisions were made through a combination of many factors, including attrition, budget considerations, lower enrollment numbers, cost reductions, a chance to improve efficiencies and position program reviews. Furloughs and layoffs were discussed, but were not carried out.

“We did not furlough any employees. We didn’t lay any employees off and we didn’t reduce any benefits. I think that’s a strong message on how much we value our employees.”

Deanna Versteeg, vice president for human resources

“We did not furlough any employees,” Versteeg said. “We didn’t lay any employees off and we didn’t reduce any benefits. I think that’s a strong message on how much we value our employees.”

According to Shannan Nelson, the chief financial officer and executive vice president of Augustana, the university will save about $1 million this year through early retirements.

“We think that overall that will cause a savings of a little over $2 million over the next two years,” Nelson said. “And then we’re doing an attrition plan, basically not backfilling those positions.”

Early retirement was offered to 25 professors, all of whom were 62 years of age or older by Dec. 31, 2020, and who had a minimum of 15 years of service to Augustana University. 

The early retirees were offered two packages. The first allowed them to retire immediately, be paid 40% of their most recent full-time base salary and keep their health plan through the end of the year. It offered them retirement benefits and life insurance continuation as well as their office space and lab or studio access and the opportunity to teach up to four courses for two academic years at the same rate of a full adjunct professor.

The second was a phased retirement plan. The retirees were offered a four-sevenths reduced teaching load for a maximum of two years or for an approved period of time with a salary based on workload. Along with receiving health benefits, retirement benefits and life insurance continuation, faculty on this plan are allowed to keep their earned rank, office space and lab or studio access until they have finished their reduced load. 

“We wanted the legacy of that commitment to be recognized in the type of incentivized retirement program we developed,” Irvine said. “That’s why, as an example, we made sure that they had the option of teaching. We made sure that they have the option of keeping their office, keeping access to their labs, to the different areas where they do their creative and academic work.”

The full list of retirees has not been announced and the Mirror is withholding the names of retirees who were not interviewed for this article. All of the retirees, however, will be honored at an event that is to be held on September 24. 

Jaciel Keltgen, who taught marketing and business administration classes, was one of the professors who decided to take early retirement. She had been at Augustana for 22 years, had just received her tenure last year and had originally planned to retire at 65. She decided to take the immediate retirement package, making the decision for two reasons.

The first reason was that she knew that Augustana needed to make a “right-sized” decision.

“They needed to adapt to the changing business environment,” she said. “If I didn’t take this retirement package, there might be some painful layoffs, and those layoffs might include my colleagues in my department, in my division and obviously across campus.”

The second factor was her family. She said that she needed to be home to help with her four-year-old grandson and her new granddaughter who was born on March 11. She also has another set of grandchildren who are being homeschooled in St. Paul.

“It felt to me like the overwhelming needs of my family should trump a decision that I would make to work a few more years,” she said.

She is currently teaching classes as an adjunct, and she said that she’s trying to think about her options for the future. She said that there are benefits for both her and for the University because she chose to take early retirement. But also said that this was a tough decision because there are financial, emotional and social factors involved.

“When you have faculty who have been there for a long time and who are respected in their fields and learn it from great teachers, you lose that institutional knowledge. And it’s not that I don’t have faith in younger faculty. It’s just — that’s a loss.”

Jaciel Keltgen, Retired marketing professor

“When you have faculty who have been there for a long time and who are respected in their fields and learn it from great teachers, you lose that institutional knowledge,” she said. “And it’s not that I don’t have faith in younger faculty. It’s just — that’s a loss. The benefits to me though, are that I can be there for my family right now. And I don’t take that lightly.”

Sam Ogdie, a Spanish professor, is another of the faculty who volunteered to take early retirement. He spent 35 years working at Augustana but started working as a full-time professor in 2003. He is currently 70 years old and he said that he’d been thinking about retirement for the last four or five years. He was originally planning to teach for at least two more school years.

Ogdie said that the university’s offer was a good one. He accepted the full retirement package.

“They asked me if I would like to retire and, and they made it profitable,” he said. “I mean, what they do is they give you a little bit of stipend upfront and then let us keep our insurance until the end of the year, so they made it real easy to say yes.”

Ogdie said that he was concerned with the idea of teaching foreign language classes online.

“To me, it’s not effective,” he said.

Ogdie has other means of income. For the past 30 years, he has worked a side job as a real estate agent catering to the Hispanic population in Sioux Falls. He’s going to continue with that job while teaching courses as an adjunct at Augustana.

“Once everything gets going again, I’m going to stop and spend a little time in my office,” he said. “I’ve got to rearrange things anyway. So, I’ll be on campus and I’ll be at chapel. I’m going to stay in touch with what’s going on there. But I’m going to miss the students.”

Craig Spencer taught biology at Augustana for about 30 years. He wasn’t expecting to retire this year, but he decided to take the offer anyway.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Spencer said. “I mean, that’s not the way I wanted to end my career after almost 30 years. But COVID has thrown a curve ball at a lot of different things in our country, and I feel like it just was the right thing for me to do for lots of reasons, for me personally and also for Augustana.”

Spencer said that he believes that Augustana was trying to “do right by” its retirees through the early retirement plans. He said that he still has both his office and his lab and he is planning to continue teaching his J-Term course in Guatemala and Belize in upcoming years.

Part of Spencer’s decision also rested in his comfort with adapting to teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. He typically is able to provide students with hands-on opportunities for learning about biology, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do that during the pandemic.

“I’m a field biologist and my teaching, my courses revolve around loading Augie students in the biology van and heading out to an ecosystem and studying it,” he said. “I knew that that was not going to be possible with COVID, and so, the thought of reinventing my classes, kind of starting from scratch, at this point in my career was not something that I was very enthusiastic for.”

Spencer said that he is going to use his retirement to spend time teaching his five grandchildren how to fish, hike, pick huckleberries and drive. He will also continue his involvement on the board of Sharing the Dream, a non-profit organization that makes and sells sustainably harvested wood jewelry from Guatemala.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “It feels like it was the right thing to do.”

Cheryl Jackson-Nelson decided that she would take the early retirement offer after teaching English at Augustana for 27 years. She said making the decision was difficult.

“My husband and I talked about it for a long time, and I finally had to decide, ‘OK, where are my priorities?’” she said. “Neither of us is young, so I thought ‘Well, if you’re going to retire, now is the time.’ Doesn’t mean there weren’t a few tears shed over that.”

Jackson-Nelson said that she felt a lot of pressure when making the decision. She knew that taking early retirement could help lower the chances for staff cuts and she had been toying with the idea of retirement before. But that didn’t make the decision any easier.

“It was like, OK, the decision is mine, but not really, because we knew staff would be cut,” she said.

Ultimately, however, she said that the university made the right decisions in the current environment of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jackson-Nelson said that adapting to retired life, especially during COVID-19 when people are encouraged not to leave the house, has been a challenge. But she has been teaching online classes, gardening, doing crossword puzzles, reading and spending time with her husband. She hopes that she can do some volunteering in schools once the pandemic ends.

“I do find that actually when I do things like cook or if I want to answer emails or whatever, I can take as much time as I want because there’s no pressure,” she said. “It is a different life, and it takes some getting used to.”

She said she misses being in the classroom and having in-person interaction with her students, as well as being at the various events around campus. But she’s still glad to be able to continue teaching and to be in contact with students.

Susan Bunger has taught sociology at Augustana since 2004, but she feels like she’s been a part of the community for longer. She grew up in the neighborhood, and she decided to become a student here in 1997, when she was in her 40s.

She said that she was “on the cusp” of deciding to retire before receiving the offer. Her husband retired last fall, and they had downsized to a new house. The offer from Augustana just sped up her decision.

“It seemed, at the time, just the right thing to do,” Bunger said. “I had the opportunity to still come back as an adjunct if I wanted to, and that appealed to me.”

Bunger also wanted to spend more time with her family. In March, her son died of an illness related to his service in the military. That event made her rethink the time she spent with loved ones.

“That kind of prompted me to kind of take a second look at what I was doing and wanting to spend more time with my family,” she said. “So, all of this combined to make it feel like the right fit.”

Bunger is going to spend some of her time on a book she is writing about “unfair” sacrifices that members of the military make, particularly in war time. It is partially based on her son’s experience, but she has also talked to other veterans who are from low-income groups. She also plans to teach as an adjunct at Augustana.

She said that she will miss the Augustana community, especially because she has been a part of it for so long. But she said that she will still remain connected with the university and fill the missing parts of her old life through writing and becoming more involved with issues surrounding veterans.  

“You become like a family with Augustana,” she said. “So it’s hard for me not to be there day-to-day and converse with people and talk to people in the hallway. […] There’s a little bit of a melancholic feeling, that you’re going to miss all of that, and there is some kind of void that is going to have to be filled.”

The three continuing-term positions that were eliminated were all in the chemistry department. The faculty in these positions were not tenured, or granted permanent employment and protection from being fired without cause. Instead, they had one-year contracts, which were not renewed for the 2020-2021 school year.

“These three positions were one-year contracts, and we have a statement on there that, you know, renewal of the contract rests solely with the university,” Versteeg said.

Andrew Strandjord, who started teaching chemistry at Augustana in 2014, was in one of the positions that was eliminated.

“I know there are people who did not accept the early retirement, but that was an acceptable call. They were given an option. The three of us from the chemistry department were not given that option.”

Andrew Strandjord, former chemistry professor

“I know there are people who did not accept the early retirement, but that was an acceptable call,” Strandjord said.  “They were given an option. The three of us from the chemistry department were not given that option. And we were the only three faculty in the whole university that were let go.”

He said that he first heard the news in a personal Zoom call with President Herseth Sandlin on June 15.

“This was probably one of the worst days in my professional career, getting let go from the job that I not only loved, but sort of felt like I was very good at,” Strandjord said. “I took pride in the job. So, when I heard that, it was devastating for a while.”

While three positions were eliminated, one new position in the chemistry department was offered, and the professors were encouraged to submit applications with letters of recommendation and go through an interviewing process. Strandjord said that he reached out to some of his colleagues and former students asking them to send in letters of recommendation.

Not long after, Aanna Okerlund, a nursing student who graduated this spring, started a petition on, which was signed by 748 individuals. Strandjord said he did not receive an interview for the position and he accepted a job at the University of Alaska Anchorage later that month.

“I was all over the campus because I liked doing it. I’m going to miss having that interaction,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll have that here at the University of Alaska.”

Though it is certain that the early retirements and eliminated positions will impact departments, the appearance of that impact will vary widely. Some of the retirees are filling in the gaps by continuing to teach classes as adjuncts. Some current faculty members will have to take on new responsibilities. The structure of some departments may be shuffled, at least temporarily.

“We are taking this on a department by department case by case basis, depending on the loads in each department and the numbers and in some instances over the next year, two years, three years, we will hire back,” Irvine said. “And in other instances, we won’t. It just depends on the numbers of majors and the numbers of students in each of the programs.”

However, Irvine said that Augustana remains committed to providing students with an excellent education. They are planning to absorb the losses through existing faculty members and with the addition of adjunctive courses.

“We are not pursuing accepting losses in the faculty, in departments, in ways that would compromise the experience of the students,” he said.

The staffing changes should not have a large impact on the university’s plan for 2030, Irvine said. The university is still planning to develop and strengthen its programs in music, education, business, health professions and other areas. Irvine said that he is “pleased” by the fact that no academic programs have been eliminated through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This was unexpected, as you suggested, with the adjustments to COVID,” he said. “But we will continue to look at opportunities to build on and build out our existing programs.”

Dawn Geertsema contributed to this report.

2 responses to “COVID-19 prompts staffing changes, early retirements”

  1. A member of ELCA-affiliated higher education Avatar
    A member of ELCA-affiliated higher education

    “So, we went about ours in ways that we believe are in keeping with our core values and our commitment, mostly to community and excellence.” This is absolute BS and you know it, Deanna Versteeg. Professor Strandjord embodied the core values of Augustana and you let him go anyway. He was not let go because of COVID-19, but because of age discrimination and an envious chemistry department head. This will be a stain on the reputation of Augustana University forever.

  2. I agree with the other comment about professor Strandjord and Augustana’s poor judgment. I am an alumni from Augustana and I am horrified to see professors being treated this way. I am also upset to see that the Mirror take a story and manipulate it to cover the truth. If people really want to see what kind of professors Augustana is “letting go” please go to
    This professor was amazing and deserved to be treated better. Shame on the Chemistry Head and on Augustana’s President.

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