Employee educational benefits face potential cuts

Derek Thurber

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This article was co-authored by Molly Smith.

Dressed in T-shirts made specially for the occasion, Whitman faculty and staff gathered in Olin 130 last Tuesday, April 19 to present their concerns over the proposed termination of the college’s tuition exchange program to President George Bridges.

The tuition exchange program is one of three educational benefits available to children of Whitman faculty and staff. Whitman participates in an exchange with Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, Willamette University and the University of Puget Sound, in which children of employees of these five schools are eligible to attend any one of these five institutions at no tuition cost.

Based on a report from the Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) of the member schools and the combined recommendation of the schools’ presidents, President Bridges announced in November 2010 that the tuition exchange program was no longer working and that it would be gradually phased out. Under the current proposal, children who will be high school freshmen in the fall of 2012 would be the last students eligible for the benefit.

“We are trying to balance a lot of competing interests. As important as it is to give as much as we can to our employees, we also have to recognize that it’s our students and families paying for it and trying to find that balance is difficult,” said Peter Harvey, treasurer and chief financial officer, in regards to the proposed benefits cuts.

“This is a collective decision, not a decision by the President or CFO of Whitman College,” Bridges added.

According to Harvey, five children of Whitman employees are currently participating in the program, while 16 children from the other member schools are enrolled at Whitman at an estimated annual cost of 615,000 dollars to Whitman.

However, according to an anonymous faculty member, the estimated 615,000 dollars is not coming out of Whitman’s budget, but is instead an assumed loss of income based off the assumption that the 16 students on tuition exchange would otherwise be paying full Whitman tuition.

“A child who comes to Whitman from Reed or Lewis and Clark has to be accounted for somehow,” said Assistant Director of Alumni Relations and member of the Staff Fringe Benefits Committee Jason Arp in regards to this figure. “That is how the CFOs see it: as lost income.”

Regardless, Harvey emphasized that problems arise from the fact that there are limits on how many children may participate from each school.

“There is a balancing mechanism [to the program],” Harvey said. “If somebody sends too many [children] to another school, they have to stop [participating] until it comes back into balance.”

“[The program] is working very poorly for Whitman in part because more people want to come here than go to the other schools,” said Bridges.

Children of Lewis and Clark College employees, for example, are currently unable to participate in the exchange with several of the member schools, including Whitman, because Lewis and Clark has historically sent out more students on the program than it receives.

“Right now, every school except for Whitman has at least one and often two … schools they can’t send to, making it a frustrating program for the employees because they don’t know if they can count on the benefit or not,” Harvey said.

Harvey and Bridges emphasized that the other educational benefits like tuition remission : a cash-grant program in which Whitman will support up to half of Whitman’s tuition towards a child’s tuition costs at any other accredited college or university : are more reliable.

“It may not pay 100 percent [of tuition] at every school, but you know that you can get up to 50 percent [of the cost of Whitman’s tuition] at whatever school you are going to,” Harvey said.

Currently, 53 children of Whitman employees benefit from the cash-grant program, making it the most used of the three tuition benefits currently available to staff and faculty.

In addition to tuition exchange and tuition remission, Whitman also provides tuition abatement to the faculty and staff. Tuition abatement allows children of Whitman faculty and staff members to attend Whitman tuition-free.

Some staff and faculty, however, see problems with tuition remission and abatement as alternatives to the tuition exchange.

“The [tuition] exchange and abatement program allows a custodian who is making a little over 10.75 an hour (which works out to a little over 22,000 dollars a year before taxes) [to give] their children the same access to a prestigious liberal arts education, whether it be Reed, Lewis and Clark or Whitman,” said Arp. “Without this, one more option is gone and possibly the second option is gone as well because when your budget doesn’t allow for much savings, tuition remission doesn’t do a whole lot of good.”

“It is true that there is always the option to come to school at Whitman and just pay room and board, but I think you can put yourself in the shoes of our kids who grew up living in our community and in and around our campus a lot,” Assistant Professor of Geology Kirsten Nicolaysen added in regards to the tuition abatement program.

Senior Emily Jackson, a dependent of a faculty member at the University of Puget Sound who currently attends Whitman through the tuition exchange program, felt similar pressures when deciding to come to Whitman. Although she could have attended UPS tuition free like children of Whitman faculty attending Whitman, she chose to take part in the tuition exchange program to get away from where she grew up.

“For me personally, tuition exchange allowed me to attend a school similar to UPS without having to go to school so close to home,” Jackson said.

According to Arp, elimination of the tuition exchange program could also create more pressure on the abatement program, limiting the number of spots available for children of Whitman faculty and staff to attend Whitman tuition-free.

“A student that comes to Whitman who is the child of a staff or faculty member at Whitman has to be accounted for [as lost income], so if we lose the ability to send our children elsewhere and thus take in the children of Whitman faculty who might otherwise attend other institutions, then there is going to be more pressure on that tuition abatement program,” Arp said. “If Whitman says there are five spots for our children to come here and there are six that would like to come … one of them is going to get left out.”

“You can imagine what it would do to the good will of our community if there are only five spots at Whitman and six families applied to those spots. We do not want to be in that position,” Nicolaysen added.

Yet, according to Harvey, since personnel expenses represent 60 percent of Whitman’s operating budget, the school can only squeeze the budget so much without affecting staff and faculty salaries or benefits.

“The reality is that we cut two million dollars elsewhere trying not to impact [the staff and faculty] with the first wave of [cuts] and we all saw some of the controversy from that with the ski team and the other cuts we made,” Harvey said. “We are trying to find ways that hit some of the other parts [of the budget] with the least impact.”

Bob Withycombe, professor of rhetoric and film studies, does not think this is a discussion that should be driven by finances.

“This is a moral argument. This is not a bottom-line argument. The college has an obligation to maintain a commitment with the children of our community to provide them with an education which is at least as good as the education we are giving to [Whitman students]. If we can’t do that, then somehow we are failing,” said Withycombe.

“Whitman runs on two things: money and good will. Sometimes you have to spend money to build the good will and that good will is what keeps a faculty member or staff member staying later [than normal business hours], inviting extra students into their homes, working with them on independent research projects, teaching overloads, things like this,” Arp added.

Nicolaysen agreed.

“I think Whitman has always been a very fine college and regionally recognized for excellence, but now we have a prestigious role on a more national scene and that has come about in great part through the dedication of all its employees, especially recruitment of new faculty. Faculty have created signature programs like [Semester] in the West. Faculty have placed more and more emphasis on doing student and faculty research. We have written successful grant proposals to bring in both instructional and research equipment to benefit the students. A lot of that is over and above our normal mission of providing a fine education to students and to maintaining our own scholarship,” she said. “These benefits are very important to us as a way of saying, ‘Hey, we are all working together to create this,’ and Whitman is taking care of our families well.”

Harvey contends with this argument, however, saying that with the other two educational benefits unaffected, Whitman remains competitive and supportive of its faculty and staff.

“This doesn’t mean that we value our employees less,” he said. “We still know how important they are. This institution doesn’t function without great faculty and great staff. Having to make cuts in that area doesn’t mean we don’t value them.”

“The faculty and staff and students are the heart and soul of this institution,” Bridges added. “We care about them deeply. We just are in a jam in terms of finances of the college and adapting to the economic downturn.”

According to Jim Russo, professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology and chair of the Faculty Fringe Benefits Committee, the committee has requested that Bridges postpone a decision regarding the elimination of the exchange program until other options for restructuring or reformatting the program can be sufficiently explored.

“We recognize that there are challenges in the nature of the program that are not making it work well for all of the schools in the exchange, but we’re hoping that instead of an elimination of the program there would be a way to restructure the program to maintain the opportunity for children of Whitman employees,” Russo said.

“You will find that there are three groups on campus: those of us who have children who have graduated, those who don’t have children, and those who do. Across that entire spectrum there is enormous support for some kind of thoughtful, systematic discussion and resolution of this that benefits everybody. It may hurt the bottom line, but it benefits everybody,” said Withycombe.

Bridges says he is open to participating in an alternative exchange program or trying to fix the current exchange program if it can become beneficial to Whitman.

“There is no lack of desire on our part,” he said. “We are trying to think of ways in which we can modify our program. If we can’t find a way to continue some version of the existing program on our own dollar, then we’ll have to work with staff and faculty [on other options].”

Despite uncertainty, Withycombe remains hopeful for a good resolution.

“I don’t think the institutional system is broken. I have great confidence that this place is full of bright people who can figure this out,” he said.

According to Bridges, a final decision is expected to be made in June.

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