Faculty and staff displeased with university for opening up Employee Fitness Center to students

Faculty and staff displeased with university for opening up Employee Fitness Center to students


Editor’s Note: Since publication, university President Dennis Assanis announced at a Faculty Senate meeting that the EFC decision will be reversed. The space will not be open to the full student body, though it will be open to students with disabilities.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the main entrance to the Carpenter Sports Building did not have handicap-accessible doors. The article has since been updated.

Larry Cogburn is often found in a small corner room at the Carpenter Sports Building. At 77 years old and six years removed from retirement, he considers the Employee Fitness Center (EFC) a critical contributor to his personal health.

A few years ago, Cogburn said the EFC helped him lose around 40 pounds. He has met friends and colleagues in the room tucked between the two main basketball courts in the Lil Bob.

But now, the EFC has lost its mark as a space exclusively for university staff and their spouses or partners to use. Students are permitted to use the EFC and its equipment, which includes two floors of weight and cardio machines. Fitness classes that were previously faculty-only are also now mixed.

“It’s sacred space to people who have devoted their lifetime to the University of Delaware,” Cogburn, a former university professor of functional genomics for 39 years, said.

Opening the area up to the entire student body is a change that has many faculty members upset with the university – not just for the new policy, but also for the way in which university leaders went about making the decision.

More than 90 faculty and staff members attended a Zoom town hall meeting on Sept. 22, where the university explained its stance.

The town hall was mainly run by Keith Fournier, assistant vice president of human resources, and Adam Jines, director of recreation services. Jines has overseen the EFC ever since Employee Health and Wellbeing moved under the umbrella of Campus Recreation last spring.

“As we went through our process in identifying how to best serve our entire UD community, we identified a couple of gaps in our service,” Jines said during the town hall.

He went on to pinpoint “self-conscious students” and students with disabilities as those “gaps of service.” Jines and Fournier emphasized that the decision was made partly due to a lack of resources and a tight budget.

Mixing the fitness classes together was done since resources and money are tight, Fournier has since told The Review.

Fournier said that the university’s focus is on providing an “equitable space” that suits those with adaptive needs and providing a “fitness as medicine” outlet.

However, employees were not satisfied with the provided explanations.

“There is something special about having a space where you know you’re not going to get on the StairMaster and look over and see somebody from your morning class,” Abby Donovan, an art and design professor, said during the town hall.

Many faculty members expressed no contention with opening up the EFC to students with disabilities but showed concern over opening it up to the full student population. Others took issue with how the university framed it as a space for students with disabilities to use when accessibility in the Lil Bob is already poor in the first place.

Accessibility of the Lil Bob was a point of emphasis during the town hall. Bianka Heather/THE REVIEW

 “No question that the disabled students on this campus are neglected; no one is arguing with that point,” one employee, who did not have a name displayed, said during the Zoom meeting.

Jines responded, asking, “How do we define disability? What does that look like?,” to which participants in the Zoom meeting suggested Campus Recreation collaborate with the university’s Disability Support Services (DSS).

“What we’re attempting to do is provide the best for the most,” Jines said. “Are we going to negatively impact individuals? I’m certain that that’s going to happen.”

Old and outdated equipment, along with a lack of space in the EFC to begin with, were also raised as concerns. Faculty members mentioned how university staff that work hourly, such as custodians, rely on the space for a quick workout during their lunch break.

How was the decision made?

“We’ve done a lot of surveying with our students,” Jines said when asked how the choice was made.

No specifics of those surveys or the results were discussed, and Fournier admitted during the town hall meeting that the decision-making process and alerting faculty were “not proactive.”

Numerous faculty members have told The Review that they had no knowledge of the EFC’s change, and had only found out about the town hall through hearsay or colleagues.

“It just feels like no one at the top is really listening,” a university employee who preferred to keep their identity private told The Review. “The communication is not forthcoming and not disseminated.”

Jines told The Review that the surveys and research were semester-long endeavors last spring. He said the results showed that there was room to better meet the needs of students with disabilities and the student population, in general.

Transition to Campus Rec

Last spring, Employee Health and Wellbeing moved out of the College of Health Sciences (CHS). This shift took away employee-only fitness and cooking classes. The CHS also used to host pop-ups around campus advocating for employee health and fitness.

“We actually were faced with the situation where the College of Health Sciences was no longer able to sustain several pieces of the employee wellness program,” Fournier said. “We had some departures of individuals as well as some budgetary constraints.”

With the move to the more student-focused Campus Recreation department, many feel the focus on employee health has been lost. 

Fournier referred to the EFC as a “perk” during the town hall. Some attendees disagreed, pointing out that the university has referred to the space as a benefit.

A university welcome brochure prepared by the HR department includes a section titled “Rich Benefits,” claiming that “all university employees, retirees and spouses have access to an employee-only fitness center.”

Persephone Braham, a Spanish and Latin American studies professor and a member of the university’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter, brought up concerns of unfair labor practice during the town hall.

“We’re looking into it with our attorney,” Braham said. “It just feels like this decision was made in a complete vacuum. We don’t know a single faculty or staff member who was consulted.

“To do this to us in a moment where we’ve been working without a contract for three months already, probably going into another couple of months, seems very shortsighted. It shows us the university really does not value employees.”

Fournier responded to Braham’s comments.

“We did look at the contract, and we’re aware of the language in the contract,” he said. “And augmenting the [EFC] space is simply not unfair labor practice. You can pursue that, absolutely.”

The university’s collective bargaining agreement with the AAUP chapter expired at the end of June this year.

Will there be a reversal of the decision?

By the end of the town hall, the tone had changed drastically from defending the controversial decision to opening up the possibility of a compromise.

“What we can do from here … we can take this position that you’ve put out here today to senior leadership,” Fournier said. “Perhaps there is a better compromise where maybe the classes are mixed but the EFC goes back to employee-only.

“We need to take your story and bring it to the powers that be, to explain to them how you feel about this and what you suggest the change be.”

Multiple faculty members presented the rarely-used rock wall room as an option to consider. Others have mentioned to The Review that the CrossFit room in the back of the gym is only used at certain times and days of the week and could be modified. One participant on the Zoom call suggested building a new facility on the university’s growing STAR Campus. 

To Cogburn, finding some solutions is crucial to the wellbeing of university employees as well as the university itself.

“If you don’t have a healthy and fit population of faculty and staff, the university is not going to function well,” Cogburn said.

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