March 18, 2021 - Board of Trustees FSR Decisions
To Whitman community members:
Like it did everywhere else, Covid turned a spotlight on Whitman College. The pandemic illuminated what is important and enduring about the college: the students’ love for the complete residential liberal arts experience, the faculty’s dedication to every student’s intellectual growth and well-being, the staff’s ingenuity in solving new problems, and the alumni’s care for the college they cherish. As a community, we rose to the challenge, kept everyone safe, and now owe a deep appreciation to one another. Thank you.
The college’s core strengths remain relevant and more valuable than ever as we face an unusually challenging future. The pandemic resulted in a much smaller than usual first year class — thus lower tuition revenue that will be with the college for at least three years. Opening the college this spring with appropriate safety protocols and testing added significant expenses.
Beginning in 2026 the number of 18 year olds drops meaningfully and remains depressed well into the 2030s. The number of families who can afford Whitman’s high touch / high impact education is shrinking while the number of applicants who qualify for the highest levels of financial aid has doubled in five years. And, residential liberal arts education is trending out of favor with many potential students. Altogether, Whitman is strong, yet faces real headwinds moving forward.
Our college never stands still — it is always evolving to meet the needs of current and future students. That is one of the main reasons alumni through the ages speak similarly about their Whitman experiences; times change, yet the underlying value and benefit of the experience remains the same. It’s the “continuity and change” that Tom Edwards so aptly referenced in his second volume of his history of the college.
The Board endorses the cabinet’s recommendations and rationales from the Financial Sustainability review, with an amendment and implementation requests (attached). The process was initiated to meet the immediate need to match our expenses with the new reality of our revenues. It was rooted in the understanding that the college must remain true to its core values and be willing to change to meet future challenges. Committees composed of faculty, staff, students and trustees worked for months posing challenging questions about every program. It was not an easy process. Everything the college does is important to someone. We recognize that some of the decisions hurt members of our community, along with their friends, families and supporters. The committees, cabinet, President Murray and board of trustees approached these decisions seriously and with compassion. We carefully read and considered every piece of feedback you shared through email, Zoom forums, and other mechanisms. This is the first step of an ongoing commitment to identify savings, efficiencies and new revenue streams needed to take our college forward.
The college’s future depends on how effectively we invest in people and programs. Thriving requires smart investments in innovative curriculum, generous financial aid, robust support for students’ career aspirations after graduation and becoming the diverse and inclusive campus we aspire to. Resources for these investments come from implementing the current recommendations and those to follow; generous support from alumni, parents and friends; and endowment returns.
I am often asked why we don’t use our endowment to meet our current revenue shortfall. Whitman College is fortunate to have a robust endowment that currently contributes 37% of the annual budget. Of that contribution, 68% of the funds are used for specific purposes identified by donors while the remainder is used to support financial aid. That is why using the endowment to fill the current budget shortfall is shortsighted and unwise; the long term effect would be to undermine our ability to fund the college, and specifically to increase financial aid for future students.
The next chapter of our work is exciting: identifying areas to invest in to make the college even more appealing to future students. The board looks forward to working with all campus constituencies to envision the Whitman of the future, true to its liberal arts mission and triumphant in overcoming the challenges we face.
I have asked the cabinet to provide information about the implementation of these decisions — timelines and processes — as part of their work to prepare the 2021-2022 academic year budget for board approval in May.
Thank you for helping Whitman thrive, now and into the future.
Chair, Board of Trustees