Nearing the halfway point in his last year as Chair of the Board of Trustees, Brad McMurchie ‘84 sat down with The Wire News Editor Chris Hankin to chat about Whitman’s Strategic Priorities. What follows is a transcript of that conversation; small edits have been made for clarity and concision.
The Wire: I was hoping to begin by diving into what your legacy may be in regards to the strategic priorities document. I was hoping to focus on the first and third tenets, “Increasing Access and Affordability” and “Innovating the Curriculum.” [Starting with the first tenet,] I was chatting with President Murray this year about the discount rate; how it used to be around 37 percent, but the current freshman class is up 42 percent. Combined with under enrollment that has, from what I understand, … caused [Whitman] to use up the nearly the entire contingency fund.
Moving forward, is 42 percent the number that the Board is shooting for?
Brad McMurchie: What we are shooting for and what we have clearly enunciated is that our goal is to make Whitman more accessible and more affordable to families from a variety of economic backgrounds. [Whitman’s] is a very high cost model of education. [Students have] a lot of very intimate and extensive contact with faculty and staff, which means that it’s going to be difficult for it to be accessible to as many people as we want it to be. Our job is to figure out ways to overcome that. And one of the ways we do that is by increasing the amount of scholarship that we grant to students. We think about that in terms of long-term financial planning for the College to ensure that the institution is financially sustainable and that the promises we’re making to families are sustainable.
The Wire: You certainly have clearly enunciated that this is a priority. But what I feel has not been clear is how this goal is going to be met. What kinds of markers can students use to assess this progress? Should we look to indicators like the Pell Grant?
Brad McMurchie: [The Strategic Priorities Document] is a tome of information that spells out what’s important to us and how we’re going to achieve all those things. We were trying to undertake what I would call a values exercise. What are the things that we value and that we believe will be strategic in terms of advancing the institution?
[That project] is different than delineating what all the tactics are for achieving those goals. What’s happening now on the campus is a collaborative process, much like creating these goals was a collaborative process. They were approved by the Board but they were constructed by a committee of faculty, students, staff and governing board members. There’s a process going on now on campus to define tactics related to the priorities, which really isn’t a Board driven process. It’s a staff, faculty and student process of putting the meat on the bones [of the Strategic Priorities document] and determining how are we going to achieve accessibility and affordability among other things. So I am hesitant to give too many specifics right now. There are different strategies you can take to becoming more accessible and affordable.
The Wire: So I get the sense that inclusivity is not a new value. Whether or not we succeeded in achieving it, Whitman has valued inclusivity for a long time. So my question is, what about this document will change our ability to actually become an inclusive institution?
Brad McMurchie: I was in the class of 1984. I was admitted in 1980 and started that fall. Ninety percent of the students who applied for admission that year were admitted. If you could fog a mirror, you got in. The ability to even think about access and selectivity is relatively new.
The Wire: I guess the point I’m trying to make is that from the statistics about Pell Grants it seems that the school [in that period between ’92 and 2001] became less socioeconomically diverse. So my question is, why were [the specific markers to assess success] not fleshed out before they were released?
Brad McMurchie: Our strategy is to accomplish what we defined as the institution’s goals. I could take the “innovating the curriculum” [as an example]. That is the responsibility of the faculty, and the faculty owns development of and implementation of the curriculum. It would be completely inappropriate and sort of unconscionable to think that either the Board of Trustees or the Strategic Planning Committee would tell the faculty how to innovate the curriculum. I think about the other items in much the same way.
We want the College to be more accessible and more affordable. And I would argue that we’re aware of the statistics you’re talking about and find them problematic. I don’t want to focus too much on the Pell Grant number.
The Wire: While I agree that it would be inappropriate for the Board to start dictating how the curriculum is innovated, the “increasing access and affordability” seems different because [Whitman’s] Constitution makes clear that “corporate concerns” are the responsibility of the Board. Surely there are metrics you have for evaluating success towards that goal?
Brad McMurchie: A big part of what’s happening this year at the College [are conversations] about the tactics and how are we going to become more accessible and affordable. What the Board is going to be doing this year through our committee structure is thinking–these are the things we’ve said are important, how are we going to measure our progress over the course of the next five to seven years in achieving these things? What measures might we bring to judge our success? As an example, you’ve used the Pell, and that’s a somewhat commonly used metric, but there are lots of questions about whether or not it’s the right metric. There are there institutions in the country that score very well on that but are probably less socioeconomically diverse than other institutions because they may have students from great wealth and students from very limited means and not a lot people in between.
Part of the process we’re going through now is [thinking] about how we will know if we’re better five or six years from now than we are today. I think that’s going to take some time. We hope to have that sorted out by the end of this year from a Board perspective. That is a process that will involve students and faculty who are members of these committees. It would be crazy to think that we have those answers today.
The Wire: I’m curious about the wording of two things in the “approach” section [of the increasing access and affordability tenet]. Where are funds being reallocated from?
Brad McMurchie: All that is saying is that we should figure out as an institution whether or not there are things we’re doing now that we value less than things we might do differently. That’s what reallocation really comes down to.
The Wire: Ok, but let’s take an example like 20th Century American History.
Brad McMurchie: Yeah, Chris, I do not want to relitigate that.
The Wire: Fair enough. But that is certainly an example of reallocation.
Brad McMurchie: I think it would be really difficult for any educational institution, governmental institution or business institution to ever make the claim that everything we’re doing today is a thing that we need to do tomorrow. When this document says that we should think about where we could reallocate, that’s healthy.
The Wire: I wonder if perhaps there is some conflict [between the first and third tenet]. What I am getting at is in the reallocation language in the context of the move to return to a ten-to-one student to faculty ratio. In my opinion, it is significant that in the “innovating the curriculum” section, the faculty are not mentioned a single time. As funds are reallocated towards other tenets, is it possible for faculty to innovate the curriculum as tenure lines are ended without their consultation?
Brad McMurchie: Let’s start with a baseline understanding. The faculty’s most recent review of their own work on the campus … endorsed the ten-to-one ratio. As I may have said last year, it’s sort of a historical anomaly that we find ourselves closer to eight-to-one. Perhaps even more important, underlying this whole list of priorities is an understanding and commitment on the part of the institution to financial sustainability. It’s also an understanding that we have to make choices. And one of the choices we did not ever make was to have an eight-to-one ratio.
The Wire: I was reading through the “Now is the Time” Campaign, and it seemed to suggest otherwise.
Brad McMurchie: I challenge you to show me where it says we’re going to a eight-to-one ratio.
The Wire: It certainly doesn’t say that, but what it does say is that a big part of the campaign was to increase the number of tenure and tenure track faculty. If increasing the faculty was a stated goal, I guess it strikes me as a little bit misleading to call it an anomaly.
Brad McMurchie: What we did was increase the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty, but that didn’t necessitate increasing the size of the faculty as a whole. There are colleges and universities all over the country who are able to innovate their curriculum within the context of a ten-to-one student to faculty ratio, which is very low ratio to begin with. I have great confidence in our faculty, and we’re going to go out and try and raise money and resources to help them innovate the curriculum.
The Wire: But I guess for me the thing that potentially inhibits the ability of the faculty to innovate the curriculum in this context is the way we go from eight-to-one, to ten-to-one. When I talked with President Murray, her philosophy was that a lot of [these changes] are not really noticeable. [Sabbatical positions left vacant for a year, other lines consolidated, etc]. But she did also acknowledge that it’s quite possible that there will be painful moments, and perhaps last year with Professors Schmitz and Crockett, we felt those painful moments.
Brad McMurchie: No decisions have been made. There’s no chalk board somewhere with names on it. A lot of Whitman’s Professors are in tenured positions. That means they have that position as long as they choose to stay in it. But there’s also a clear understanding that when people leave a position, that position does not belong to the department, it does not belong to the individual, [it belongs to the College]. The College has to make an assessment of what resources it has and how sustainable it is to continue that [tenure line]. What changes have taken place within disciplines.
[There are also other ways to reduce FTE aside from retirements. Additionally, there will be tenure lines in which Professors retire and the line is refilled].
The Wire: Does that mean that this number is not set in stone?
[The document referenced here will be made publicly available Sunday, November 12th].
Brad McMurchie: What it means is that we’ve said that over the course of the next five years it is possible for the College to return to a ten-to-one student faculty ratio and we are going to seek ways to accomplish that, because we believe that the College’s mission can still be accomplished with a ten-to-one student faculty ratio. We have other institutional priorities and prerogatives that we want to pursue which include access, affordability, and enhancing diversity and inclusion.
The Wire: Right. So [these are the numbers] the document projects four years out. Will we meet these numbers by then?
Brad McMurchie: We don’t know who’s going to retire. We don’t know when they’re going to retire. We don’t know what changes the faculty are going to make in the curriculum that might influence what decisions are here. We know we have a goal and we’re going to work towards that goal.
The Wire: But I mean let’s just imagine in a hypothetical world in which there are not enough retirements to get ten-to-one within five years. What happens?
Brad McMurchie: Yeah, I’m not going to answer hypotheticals.
The Wire: The last thing I want to talk about is the College’s constitution. The curriculum is the realm of the Faculty, and corporate concerns are the realm of the Trustees. And I guess I’m just curious if in this move from eight-to-one to ten-to-one, does that line get blurred? Does the Board of Trustees begin to kind of make decisions about the curriculum just through the operation of the purse strings?
Brad McMurchie: No. I think those those lines are pretty well understood. Yeah. You know, I guess I just don’t see that as a risk.