Looking Back and Moving Forward: A Turning Point for Whitman

September 8, 2011

Dear Colleagues:

As we commence the activities of this new academic year, I write to welcome our new faculty and staff members, to review the accomplishments of the last year, and to outline priorities, opportunities, and challenges for 2011-2012. In the spirit of providing each of you with more information on the state of the college and the year ahead, I have written this letter with more detail than some of my previous communications.

Welcome new faculty and staff! On behalf of the governing boards and the budget officers, I express delight with the talent and energy you bring to Whitman. We are very pleased that you have joined our campus community and will be sharing our collective commitment to challenging and supporting our students’ intellectual and personal development.

Looking Back: The 2010-11 Academic Year

Last year, we realized major achievements in advancing our academic programs and the experiences of our students. We filled critical faculty and staff positions that strengthen various aspects of our academic program and the faculty made significant changes that improve its governance and oversight of the curriculum. Additionally, through substantial fundraising, we experienced a 46% increase in gifts to the endowment over the last year. In myriad ways, we expanded new opportunities and venues for student learning.

While far from comprehensive, the following list reflects highlights of both our individual and collective accomplishments:

  • Received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to convert 8 contingent faculty positions to permanent lines,
  • Filled 10 permanent faculty positions,
  • Recruited our new Associate Dean of Faculty,
  • Recruited our new Chief Information Officer,
  • Established the Curriculum Committee and new curriculum planning tools,
  • Launched Whitman’s Cross-Disciplinary Initiative in Teaching and Learning,
  • Received gifts from donors that established Deshler Chair supporting Professor Pat Keef and the Ball Chair supporting Professor Jonathan Walters. In addition, a gift established the Neilen-Anderson professorship that will support the teaching of rhetoric and oral communication,
  • Completed the Harper Joy Theatre Renovation,
  • Raised over $15.2 million in gifts, a new Whitman fundraising record and a 21% increase over last year,
  • Developed and successfully implemented a new arena registration system for first-year students,
  • Developed and successfully implemented an admissions and financial aid strategy that gives the College more flexibility in its budgets,
  • Advanced the Center for Student Engagement, and
  • Celebrated the prestigious post-baccalaureate scholarships and fellowships awarded to many Whitman students and graduates.

Last week, our students and the College reaped the benefit of arduous work undertaken during the past 18 months as we completed a very successful registration period for first-year students. The challenges presented by a slightly larger-than-expected entering class, higher than anticipated retention and lower than anticipated off-campus study make this achievement—which represents the combined and persistent efforts of many staff and faculty members—particularly impressive. Last year and over the summer, a small team made significant revisions in the arena registration system and its supporting technology. Then, many faculty members worked Friday and throughout the weekend, assisting new students to identify and enroll in courses. Finally, a substantial number of faculty members generously opened their courses to first year students by reserving seats for them, by increasing class enrollment levels, and/or by teaching extra sections.

One of our trustees who was present at registration wrote to Peter van Oppen, Chair of our Board of Trustees, and me in praise of the registration process: “I was proud to see so much attention paid to a time that is such an important transition for new students and their families…students seemed just as happy [at registration] as they did at every other event I attended.”

On behalf of our students, trustees, and overseers, I extend my sincere gratitude and thanks to each of you for the excellent work that contributed to this success.

Despite these many achievements, we also experienced obvious difficulties last year. The continuing impact of instability in the global markets and economic conditions has affected Whitman, though to a lesser extent than many other schools, and our situation was also affected by other specific factors. The number of students entering in 2010 and the overall level of financial aid needed by Whitman students (as a result of economic conditions) far exceeded projected and budgeted levels. We faced uncertainty over 2011-2012 enrollments in addition to the debt service associated with our major construction projects. Additional budgetary concerns included our commitment to hold the annual tuition increase down and the high employee benefit costs covered by Whitman. The combination of these factors imposed significant constraints on our budgets. As a result, the salary increases we had hoped to award faculty and staff were much smaller than we wished. I hope and anticipate that this year we will experience greater flexibility in our budgets and that we will make progress in areas that have remained stagnant since the market crash of 2008. I describe specific details and my priorities below.

The Year Ahead: 2011-2012

The forthcoming academic year presents many opportunities. As we formally launch our capital campaign, we will turn to alumni, families and friends of the college to reinforce and strengthen our academic programs and initiatives, to solidify (via specific endowments) financial support for our students, and to significantly augment our general endowment. In short, we will devote most of our fundraising efforts to enhancing support for Whitman’s people and our shared educational mission. Events in Seattle (November 18), Walla Walla (December 2), and in five other locations across the country will commence the public phase of major fundraising. This effort represents the first capital campaign for Whitman since the 1980s, and a significant portion of my time in 2011-12 will be dedicated to this endeavor. John Bogley, Vice President for Development and College Relations, will keep you apprised of the details of the campaign and funds raised. Please let us know if you have questions.

This year we will also recruit faculty for 11 permanent faculty positions1, 4 positions this year are conversions of contingent faculty lines supported by the Mellon Foundation (another 4 conversions will be added next year). Additionally, we will conduct searches for a new director of human resources to replace Cindy Matern, who is moving to the University of Puget Sound, and a new director of the counseling center, to fill the position held by Rich Jacks, who will retire in June.

The combined Faculty and Staff Fringe Benefits Committee will continue its work on issues involving medical benefits (see memorandum from Jim Russo and Keith Farrington dated 9/1). A subgroup of the committee (including a trustee and overseer) will be examining alternatives to the NW tuition exchange program (which will come to an end four years from now). I have requested that the Committee and the subgroup afford staff and faculty opportunities to review and discuss their work and final recommendations before any final decisions are made or recommendations taken to the Whitman trustees. We are committed to transparency and collaboration in the process of health and tuition benefits decision-making.

We will begin preparing the 2012-2013 budget with the campus Budget Advisory Committee in September. While we must continue to balance investments in the academic and co-curricular programs with the challenge of keeping Whitman affordable to our students through the awarding of sufficient financial aid, next year’s budget should afford us greater flexibility and opportunity than we have experienced in recent years.

My priorities in this budget cycle include making much-needed progress on increasing faculty and staff salaries, filling critical faculty and staff lines, restoring important needs of campus operating budgets, and continuing to assess the space needs of overcrowded departments and administrative units. The challenge, of course, is balancing these priorities against one another, against our level of payout from the endowment, and against the level of tuition increase that we impose on students and their families. We will be able to do some things, but not everything.

Summary

With an already strong academic foundation and Whitman’s growing national recognition, the academic experiences of our students have remained intellectually challenging and expansive despite this very difficult economy and the resulting period of tight financial resources. I credit and am grateful for your dedicated commitment to our students’ education for the significant success we have achieved.

In every respect, the themes of our capital campaign and the timing of its public launch align well with our pressing current and future needs. Endowed faculty professorships and chairs, internships and research assistantships, and program support for both traditional and innovative approaches to teaching will enrich faculty experiences and expand student learning. Endowed support for the financial aid that our students require will not only guarantee scholarships in perpetuity and access to Whitman for those with limited resources, but also will free up funds for the operating budgets of our programs and personnel costs. Finally, a much larger overall endowment and increase in support from our Annual Fund will augment the financial base of the College for many future years.

Whitman stands at a critical turning point with this campaign. Its primary focus is providing support for the mission of the College: to advance the learning and development of our students. Clearly, a necessary and primary component of this mission is to ensure that the faculty, staff, and all people who work with and support our students are respected, fulfilled, valued, and able to meet personal and professional goals. As we work together this year, I will strive to create a mutually inclusive, constructive and respectful partnership linking faculty, staff, governing board members, and administrators. We must support one another in the job of serving our students and each other well, as our success and our strength comes from the impressive interdependent network of people committed to Whitman and its mission.

I am genuinely looking forward to forging this partnership with you as we work collaboratively with students and as our trustees, development officers and I more actively pursue the funding that will secure Whitman’s financial strength for the future.

Sincerely,

George Bridges
President

_________________

1 The Board of Trustees must approve the eleventh position at its November meeting.