Alumni, Faculty Raise Concerns About Spending and Diversity

Lane Barton

As articles and demonstrations question Whitman College’s financial aid and its effect on socioeconomic diversity, concern about the issues has been raised by alumni and faculty members. Although their perspectives vary with their different relations with the college, members of both groups are looking for answers about the direction of the college.

For faculty, a meeting with members of the administration on Oct. 16 will create a forum for have their questions answered. Meanwhile, alumni have begun dialogue with President Bridges via a letter distributed on Sept. 22 asking for a change to a need-blind admissions policy.

The Whitman faculty is scheduled to meet on Oct. 16 with Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Peter Harvey and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Tony Cabasco to discuss the issues of tuition, financial aid, access, affordability and sustainability. The meeting is intended to be an informative space for the faculty members to raise questions that they have for the college’s administrators and to gain a better sense of the larger socioeconomic picture.

“We have questions, as [students] do, about the financial priorities of the institution –– where the money is going and being spent?” said Professor of Politics Jeanne Morefield.

The faculty would like to hear more student input and support on this matter as well.

“We have a tendency at this institution to believe that Whitman is the end all and be all of the universe. I would encourage students to really ask the administration to do some serious work by comparing ourselves to schools that we aspire to be more like and to see how they have done it better,” said Morefield.

Chair of the Faculty David Schmitz suggests that as the campus move forward with this issue and that students should direct their energy towards becoming both more conscientious and well versed in the socioeconomic standings of the college.

” I think [students] should try to get as much information as they can on the issue [and to] follow-up on the issues identified at the ASWC forum,” said Schmitz.

Meanwhile, some alumni have already taken action. A “petition committee” of 15 alumni ranging from the class of 1966 to the class of 2005 delivered a written petition (September 22 Letter to Whitman Trustees) to Whitman’s Board of Executives and President George Bridges on Sept. 22 asking for the return to a “need-blind” admissions policy.

“Our letter was really trying to say ‘go need blind,’ to think about value that each student could bring back to campus,” said Derek Jentzsch ‘93, one of the organizers of the letter, in a phone conversation with The Pioneer.

The letter was accompanied by a Facebook group functioning as a petition for other alumni to sign or write out support for the values explored in the letter. The group gathered support from over 700 individuals in a single week, with many more alumni adding on in the following weeks.

President Bridges provided a response on Sept. 26, thanking alumni for concern.

“If [Whitman] returned to a need-blind policy, the campus leaders and I firmly believe that we do not yet have enough scholarship dollars to meet adequately the financial need of the poorest students we would admit,” he said.

This position and other points in the response left Jentzsch and others looking for more.

“Alumni across multiple generations and classes [signed the petition] … This might not be representative [of the entire alumni base], but we would expect some recognition that the choice to go to need-aware (link to policy and explanation of what it means) changes the character of the student body and the school,” said Jentzsch.

This lack of recognition is also problematic for some alumni because the response follows a pattern of the administration highlighting Whitman’s strengths and promising to continue discussing the issue without taking any action.

“When I hear ‘We hear your concerns, but it’s not that bad’ from the administration, I have very little faith that there will be substantial necessary positive change,” said Nathan Neff-Mallon ‘11, in an email to The Pioneer. “Bridges also released some stats (and I’m very happy he did), but again, they tell a very incomplete picture that is designed to make the college look very good and certainly do not tell the whole story.”

Prior to publication of this article, Jentzsch and other members of the petition committee released their reaction to President Bridges’ response, stating in it that they are “deeply disappointed that the leadership of the school fails to acknowledge the depth of our frustration, articulate any real solutions or even provide a clear vision for what benchmarks and milestones to which Whitman should be accountable.”

Although agreeing with administration’s points about the narrow scope of data from recent articles in the New York Times and The Awl, the group contends that “These articles do highlight the active exclusion of many students on the basis of their families’ wealth.”

The committee also raises concerns about the provision of approximately 33 percent of all scholarship funds, mostly in merit-based aid, to the students from households of $120,000 incomes or greater. Noted as the cutoff for “the top 15% of all American Households,” the committee cites this large portion of all scholarship funds as another major example of the college’s lack of attention to lower and middle income students. The reply concludes by asking for a return to a need-blind admission policy, for an explanation of what “[vision] of a diverse student body does the leadership of Whitman College see” for the college, and how alumni can “work with the leadership of Whitman to help shape and achieve this vision.”