March 3, 2021 - Final Working Group Reports
Dear members of the Whitman community,
Attached to this email you will find the final reports from each of our three financial sustainability working groups. I hope you will read this entire message before turning to those reports. Please keep in mind that these reports include recommendations, not decisions. The Cabinet will spend the next week reviewing all three reports in order to make a coordinated set of recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The Board will be the final decision makers, and they will share their decisions with the entire Whitman community in the coming weeks.
I want to start by acknowledging how difficult this work is, and offer my appreciation for everyone on campus who has fully engaged in a good-faith effort to steer this process toward the best possible outcomes. Any time the things we hold dear are held up to the light for examination and face possible change or even elimination is cause for anxiety and fear of loss. I want to honor that many of you have been simultaneously feeling that anxiety and loss while still fully participating in the FSR process, working toward our shared goals. Even when we have come to different conclusions, so many of you have worked to find compromise and have shown empathy for other viewpoints. It is these instincts that have served us well, and will continue to demonstrate the strengths of the Whitman community. Thank you.
At the risk of repeating myself, I want to take just a few minutes to review how we arrived at this point. This is challenging work; we face difficult decisions. There is someone who loves every single thing we do at this college; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it anymore. And yet, we cannot just continue down the same path at a time when the world is changing all around us.
The financial sustainability working groups, which included students, faculty, staff and trustees, have done their work focused on Whitman’s mission of student learning. Six of the working group members are also alumni of the college. They have proposed the particular changes included in their reports hoping to have the smallest negative impact on the fewest students. I sat in each meeting of all three groups and can assure you they have done their work in a deliberative manner with the best interests of the institution top of mind.
As you know, even before the arrival of the COVID pandemic, Whitman was facing significant challenges, along with most of the colleges in our sector. We have a declining population of 18-year-olds nationally (which we’ve all been reading about for years), a drop in interest in the type of education offered in liberal arts colleges, an applicant pool with greater financial need (the number of applicants to Whitman with an expected family contribution below $10,000 per year has doubled since 2016), and increasing price sensitivity among those most able to pay for this education. Add COVID to the mix, and we have to expect even greater financial need along with a reluctance to go to college very far from home. The much smaller first-year class that enrolled this fall will be with us for at least the next four years, and at the end of that four-year period, we will be at the precipice of a demographic cliff in terms of 18-year-olds in the population.
The college is well-positioned to pivot through these challenges, largely because of the careful management of the college over the years and our ability to plan thoughtfully for the future. Still, faculty and staff are appropriately concerned about when the retirement contributions and pay cut from this year’s budget will be restored. We need to be concerned about restoring our non-personnel budget cuts, as well. And we need to be able to support a robust financial aid budget so that this education remains accessible to our students from a variety of backgrounds. Our budget model for fiscal 2022 includes sustaining investments in financial aid and restoring salary cuts and retirement contributions, along with some of our non-personnel cuts, but it comes with at least a $3.5 million deficit at this time. Our first charge is to find enough savings to build a balanced budget for next year. I think it is important to note that the savings we are working to identify in order to balance next year’s budget constitutes about 4% of the college’s total operating budget.
This financial sustainability review was necessary to help us determine which programs that we currently have might require additional investments to continue to be successful, which will be fine just as they are, and might which need to be transformed to be more meaningful to today’s students. At the same time, we need to better understand the needs and wants of the current generation of prospective students and consider creating new programs that will help us achieve our enrollment goals. The work of planning for and building out new programs will be ongoing, so our second goal in this current work is to identify additional funding that will help us fund those new and innovative programs.
Following the release of draft reports from the working groups on February 2, the groups accepted feedback through February 15, via campus community open forums and written responses. They listened to and read every word of that feedback and made substantive changes to their final reports. In particular, you will see a commitment to retaining current staffing levels for Classics and Environmental Humanities while those two programs engage in an internal program review. You will also note a call for annual review of Cabinet discretionary budgets and language about additional staffing for the Student Engagement Center.
Unfortunately, much of the feedback we received was based on misinformation, so I think it is important to clarify what is based on misunderstandings and what is based on facts.
Misunderstanding: We are gutting the humanities, or more broadly, the liberal arts.
Right now, the total faculty FTE in the humanities division is 75, with 61.2 FTE in the social science division and 52.7 FTE in the natural sciences and math. The humanities division is by far the largest and will remain the largest even if all of the reductions proposed in the working group report are implemented. The largest number of proposed cuts are in the largest division, which is also the division with the smallest number of graduates.
When I arrived at Whitman, our student/faculty ratio was 8.2/1, one of the richest anywhere in the country. Not only is that very expensive, but there is no pedagogical evidence that 8/1 is better than 10/1. I was charged by the Board with returning us to a 10/1 student/faculty ratio, and we have made progress on that goal up to this point primarily through attrition. But it has taken us 6 years to move the needle to just above 9/1, and we don’t have the luxury of continuing to move at this pace. With our lower enrollment this year due to COVID, we’re actually back at 8.2/1. So, if we make all the reductions proposed through the 2023-24 academic year AND manage to grow our enrollment back to 1500 students (a big challenge in this moment), our student/faculty ratio will be 9.9/1, still a very positive number. There is simply no way to justify the rhetoric that we are gutting the humanities or the liberal arts more broadly.
Misunderstanding: We are killing the Environmental Humanities program.
Most of the student and alumni feedback on this issue focused on their transformative learning experiences in Don Snow’s classes. It has been wonderful to read about the impact Don has had on so many students’ lives. But Don is going to retire; we won’t have Don Snow’s classes anymore. This fact has nothing to do with the FSR and would be happening anyway. Environmental Humanities is, by its nature, an interdisciplinary program, and we have many faculty across the campus who contribute to that program. Its enrollments are strong, and faculty are dedicated to the program. The final report of the academic working group recommends maintaining current levels of staffing while the faculty in EH conduct an internal review of the program. Environmental Humanities will continue to be a distinctive program for the college.
Misunderstanding: Many humanities programs are being eliminated.
The faculty on the academic program working group have been clear from the start of this work that they did not want to eliminate any departments or any tenured/tenure-track faculty positions. The committee worked to develop a plan that accomplished both of those things. We will continue to have programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Classics, and faculty will determine whether they want to support a major, a minor or a track within a broader major or some other structure. Overall enrollments in these programs have been very small, and it does not make sense to dedicate more resources there than enrollments warrant.
Misunderstanding: This work was done too quickly, and not enough people had a voice in the process.
I announced the formation of the financial sustainability working groups in mid-October, and each group included students, staff, faculty and trustees and was co-chaired by a member of the Cabinet and a Trustee. The groups met at least weekly throughout the rest of October, and all of November, December and January, including over the holiday break. The process continued throughout all of February before final recommendations were submitted this week. As I said earlier, the Cabinet will spend the first two weeks of March studying all three reports and developing a coordinated set of recommendations to present to the Board. The Board will meet during the latter half of March to make its decisions. The work must be concluded at that point in order to inform the preparation of the fiscal 2022 budget, which the Board will approve in May. The work to imagine and develop new programs to drive enrollment and revenue will be ongoing, with many more opportunities for input from the community.
I want to reiterate that it is because we are in a strong financial position that we have the opportunity to make choices, albeit difficult choices, about our path forward. It is our responsibility, our duty, to make those choices in order to maintain and sustain the transformational liberal arts educational experience that all of you so deeply appreciate.