Breaking Down the Financial Sustainability Review
The Board of Trustees has endorsed a plan to steer the college through the financial headwinds we face. The Board’s announcement on March 18 that it would authorize the recommendations made in the Financial Sustainability Review (FSR) was the culmination of many months of deliberations by working groups comprising students, faculty, staff and trustees, including six Whitman alumni.
Now that we have reached these conclusions, this is an opportunity to explore what the more detailed implications of implementing the FSR actually are, in what ways Whitman will look different next year and a glimpse of the direction we will go in the future. This overview summarizes the main points and most significant changes headed our way. A full accounting can be found in the FSR and the Board’s amendment.
What were the goals of the FSR?
The FSR was created to improve the long-term sustainability of Whitman College. It is a first step toward ensuring that we are investing our resources in ways that will not only help Whitman weather the fiscal challenges of the next decade and beyond, but emerge even stronger.
The FSR identified programs that may require additional investments, those that are thriving as they are, and others that may need to change to appeal to the next generation of students. Following the release of the working groups’ draft reports, the Whitman community shared feedback through open forums and other responses, which shaped the final reports.
What factors necessitated the FSR?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in lower tuition dollars and higher operating costs, Whitman was facing financial challenges of keeping our education accessible to today’s students. Looking forward, colleges and universities nationwide are bracing for a looming demographic cliff that will mean a sharp decrease in the available applicant pool, a drop that is projected to last well into the next decade.
Despite our enduring confidence in the value of a Whitman education, the fact remains that families’ financial needs are greater than ever. Whitman has increased investments in financial aid by more than 50% since 2015. The challenge of keeping a Whitman education accessible to current and future students cannot be underestimated.
What programs will be affected?
The FSR reflects the best efforts of everyone involved to maintain programs, while allowing for future innovation within the academic program and bringing Whitman closer to our goal of a 10:1 student-faculty ratio.
The FSR does not eliminate entire programs or the positions of any current tenured or tenure-track faculty. While changes were made to avoid changes in our major and minor offerings, the faculty may decide to reconfigure some programs to match student interest and the department’s available resources.
- In both Classics and Environmental Humanities, faculty will evaluate and recommend a way forward for staffing these programs to both meet their programmatic goals and efficiently match the level of staffing needed to student demand.
- In both Chinese and Japanese, one non-tenured position will move from full-time to 0.8 FTE, reducing the courses taught each year by one in each area.
- Other reductions in non-tenure track staffing or tenure-track retirements leading to fewer faculty will occur across all of the academic divisions.
- Crossroads, our short-term study abroad program, has been suspended until a new funding model can be identified.
What about the First Year Seminar program?
The trustees decided that there should be no more than 10 sections of our First Year Seminar program taught by non-tenure track faculty, a slight increase from the original proposal of no more than eight sections. By comparison, this year we have 14 sections of the program being taught by non-tenure track faculty, and in the past as many as half or more of the usual 54 sections were taught by non-tenure track faculty.
Our tenured and tenure-track faculty play an integral role in the long-term educational experience of our students, and we believe they should be an active part of the first year seminar. This move will achieve savings while maintaining the important contributions of non-tenure track faculty to raising the quality and consistency of teaching, especially writing proficiency.
What about sabbaticals?
A sabbatical is a period of one to two academic semesters during which faculty do not teach but instead are paid a portion of their salary to focus on doing research, developing pedagogy and publishing, often away from Walla Walla. In the past, Whitman’s sabbatical policy was extremely generous when compared to either other liberal arts colleges, or to large research universities. Faculty became eligible for sabbatical after only two years of teaching, which guaranteed that at any given time during a students’ four years at Whitman, a high percentage of faculty would be unavailable.
At most colleges, by contrast, faculty are not eligible to take sabbaticals until they have taught for at least six years. Under Whitman’s revised sabbatical policy, faculty will become eligible for sabbaticals after five years. This will keep faculty on campus more often for greater continuity in teaching, advising and thesis advising, and will reduce costs associated with hiring sabbatical replacements. Funding will be lowered to 90 percent of annual salary for a one-semester sabbatical (down from 100 percent after four years of teaching or 91 percent after two years) or 70 percent of annual salary for a full-year leave (from 82 percent after four years of teaching).
While there may be a small number of faculty for whom this change causes them to look farther afield than Whitman—and we certainly hope this is not the case—it is worth noting that even with these changes, we will still be able to focus on recruiting faculty with strong teaching and research interests.
What changes can students expect?
There will be some differences in how financial aid is calculated for students living off-campus. Financial aid funding for room and board will now be matched to state recommendations for housing and food costs, rather than the price of living on-campus. This is standard practice among some of our peer institutions and will provide a more accurate picture of juniors’ and seniors’ financial needs (right now, students are given the same financial aid budget for all four years).
The number of RAs will be lowered by five from the current number of 39. There is a discrepancy in the number of students served by different RA positions (with the smallest RA-student ratio at 1:4 and the largest at 1:26, depending on residence hall), so this change will actually create better equity across those positions while reducing costs.
For varsity athletics, we will work to share costs with non-conference teams at other schools to travel to Walla Walla so we can have more home games. This will reduce travel cost as well as missed class for our student athletes. We will also work with a single vendor to purchase athletic uniforms and equipment, lowering costs and streamlining ordering and apparel design.
What do the changes to lifecycle and facilities mean?
The lifecycle fund is where money is set aside in a reserve account to fund the replacement of building components (roofs, windows, carpet, etc.) when they reach the end of their useful lives. The College is lowering the contribution rate to a new level where funds will be available to meet the college’s needs for the next 17 years compared to the previous funding level in which funds would meet needs for 23 years. This leaves plenty of time to make future adjustments if needed.
Whitman will also replace older light fixtures with LEDs beginning in Fouts Center for Visual Arts, which will lead to long-term savings as well as align with our environmental sustainability goals.
Adapting to the demands of the pandemic caused considerable financial strain for the college. But it is not the whole story. There are real challenges ahead, and the future of the college depends on how effectively we invest in our people and programs, innovate our curriculum and meet our students where they are with financial aid.
These are always hard conversations, especially in a tight-knit community like Whitman—there is no avoiding that. While we believe the tradeoffs outlined above will not dramatically alter the makeup of the college, that does not mean they are not painful.
The next phase of this process is to envision the new and exciting things we can achieve, the new traditions we can create. As we continue to be more cost-conscious and thoughtful about how we use our resources and become more efficient over time, Whitman will be well-positioned not only to succeed in our mission, but to thrive.