Nancy Serrurier– On The Record

Rachel Needham, News Reporter

On February 7th, Wire reporter Rachel Needham sat down with Chair-Elect of the Board of Trustees Nancy Serrurier to chat about her ambitions for Whitman. Serrurier has been on the Board for eight years, beginning when her son was a Sophomore at Whitman. She will take over from incumbent Brad McMurchie beginning in July of 2018. Before serving on Whitman’s Board, she was on the Board at Colgate. What follows is a partial transcript of their conversation, though edits have been made for clarity and concision.

Wire: Can you give me a sense of what motivated you to join the Board of Trustees?

Nancy Serrurier: I joined the board when [our] son Ben … was a sophomore [at Whitman]. He graduated in 2011. … I’ve been on the board for eight years. You can serve twelve years, so I have four more. I have a strange and wonderful interest in educational institutions and helping them be the best that they can be, from the vantage point of the board of directors. I have served as an elected public school board member in the town where we used to live when our kids were in the public school system. They went to an independent high school. I also served on the board of that. I was the vice chair of that as well.
When Ben went to Whitman, it was a time when [the College] was trying very intentionally to expand the membership on the board of trustees to non-alums. There have always been non-alums on the board, so this wasn’t entirely new, but it was an intentional effort to diversify that way. Whitman knew that I was on the Colgate board and they asked me to be on the Whitman board. I stayed with Whitman because I just love this school and I love this community.

Wire: You have talked about how one of your goals is making College’s and other institutions the best that they can be from a Board perspective. What does that look like?

Nancy Serrurier: That is a wonderful hydra-headed question because there isn’t a single answer to it. In its ideal form, it is the board’s job is to think about the future of the college. Not to get involved in day to day decisions, unless they have a heavy weight on the future. So, we are thinking about the health of the organization going forward. My feeling about the board is that we lead by example, and that in the way we talk and ask questions and inquire and listen, we are thinking ahead of time about changes the college should consider in order to be attractive to future students and to make sure that the quality of what we offer is as best as it can be for us. We all want Whitman to thrive and to be attractive to students and to be the kind of place that alumni care about in order to support. There’s a balance here between today’s students and the ones in the past and their families. And we want to make sure that the value of Whitman remains healthy.

Wire: People on campus have been talking a lot about the student-to-faculty ratio, and I would love to hear from you about how you intend to tackle the challenge of returning Whitman to a 10-1 ratio.

Nancy Serrurier: I just had a meeting with a professor an hour ago where I said, and I’m going to say it again, “I would love it to wake up one morning and find us to be able to sustainably afford and 8:1 student-faculty ratio.” Oh! That would be wonderful. But the reality is that we don’t. We’re not in that kind of financial position. on a sustainable basis we can afford a 10:1 ratio, which is what we were for many many years. It slid to 8:1. Unfortunately we can’t have our cake and eat it too, at the moment. We’re not simply thinking ‘let’s get rid of faculty positions in order to spend more on financial aid. It’s not that simple. In order to move forward on lots of initiatives you need to have the resources. This is the challenge. The board is committed to moving, over time with Kathy and Alzada and hopefully faculty. I would love faculty to be supportive, toward a sustainable place where we can afford to invest in a robust faculty and our other priorities. It’s hard.

Wire: It is hard, and I don’t envy your [position]. My counter to that might be that we have added a computer science major, and in allocating resources for faculty and in allocating tenure positions, how is the board anticipating balancing the sciences — which has seemed like more of a priority in recent years — and humanities?

Nancy Serrurier: First of all, the computer science positions are endowed. Yes, there are more positions, but they are not taking away money from the rest of the faculty budget for other positions. It’s a nuance, but it’s kind of an important one.

The decisions about where positions get replaced is a complex one. Part of it is driven by student demand, and the demand has been in the sciences for a number of years now. I haven’t seen the latest numbers, but because our enrollment is down, the overall demand percentages are down. And students vote with their feet.

Wire: It’s possible you may not be able to answer this, but I also wonder from an admissions standpoint whether the college does have control over that, in some sense.

Nancy Serrurier: Yes and no. Students say one thing and do another, and that’s great! I love that. I love that idea that a student can say “You know, I’m really interested in being a doctor.” Then they get here and they take a class in environmental politics and they go, “Holy cow, I want to do that instead.” I want that to be the case. So we really can’t use people’s interest as a guide to staffing. But one factor that we do use, is: what’s the enrollment?

The faculty has way of figuring out load factors which has to do with credit hours per faculty member, and the differences are staggering. However, we are a liberal arts college. We are committed to a range of topics, whether they’re popular today or not. Again, the tension is between making sure those biology majors aren’t just having a terribly stressed time with their education and the Chinese major has enough courses for that major. We have got to have enough staffing to give everyone a good experience. In a small college that kind of staffing is, again, a challenge.

But there isn’t some policy in Memorial or on the board to favor one over the other. It’s really a commitment to the student experience. Sometimes it seems pretty imbalanced. As you know, from the tenure system there are a certain number of ongoing tenure lines in each department, until somebody leaves, the policy of college right now is not to take away those positions. Unless students are seeking out those courses, those faculty member have less and less workload compared to others where there’s more.

Wire: What would you say to a student who said, “I would really love to study 20th Century American History,” but we don’t have a faculty member for it.

Nancy Serrurier: That’s who I was talking with. I love David, don’t get me wrong. I’m sad, just on a personal level, I’m sad that we’re in this position. But we have prioritized making the positions available by retirement. And that is a very humane way to do it, it’s not a very good way to do in terms of academic planning.

Wire: When you say that you mean in terms of tenure tracks?

Nancy Serrurier: Obviously we’re not in a position, nor will we ever be in a position, to fire a tenured professor because we don’t think there are enough people taking history. That’s never going to happen, I want to make that clear, n-e-v-e-r. But, there are layers of faculty members who don’t have that kind of tenure protection, and their jobs can be removed in order to reduce to faculty-student ratio, increase it to 10:1. As yet, we haven’t gone there. We’re trying, the administration, is trying to manage this ratio to a 10:1 place through means other than eliminating positions where there isn’t another reason to eliminate it.

Wire: Let me phrase back to you what I think you said, and correct me if I’m wrong. A possibility would be for the board and for the administration to say “ok, we’re going to cut non-tenured track positions as a way of doing the same thing that we are doing by not replacing tenured track.

Nancy Serrurier: So tenure track positions when someone retires or leaves don’t automatically get replaced. The position goes back to the college as a whole and then recommendations are made by the departments to the college for positions to be filled. Then the college has a process for those to be reviewed. Then the recommendations come to the board about what should be replaced and what shouldn’t, but those are based on vacancies that become available.

There have always been changes in the number of non-tenure track positions because they are filling in, they are due to maternity leave, there are due to all sorts of different reasons why. Some of them are stable positions and some of them are very variable positions. The kind of wholesale reduction of them has not happened — that’s another way to do it. But the strategy so far has been a very humane one — recognizing these people’s lives and families’ lives that we’re dealing with here. It makes it slower in achieving the goal, and it also leads to some really awkward academic issues like the one you mentioned.
I would love if the College found a robust, young, David Schmitz. But I also think that we can’t simply replace him because we believe in 20th century history. Someone else can say, “Scottish poetry, you have to teach Scottish poetry. We’ve always taught Scottish poetry.” The board isn’t the one to be making those distinctions at this stage of saying yes to history and no to this.

Wire: The board deals with a lot of complicated issues, clearly. From the student perspective it seems as though a lot of these discussions aren’t transparent. I realize the board, and the Strategic Planning Committee, extends invitations to students to contribute to those processes being transparent.

Nancy Serrurier: What do you mean by transparent?

Wire: Some of the sentiment is that these decisions are happening behind closed doors. The priorities are happening behind closed doors. My question is why do you think there may be a negative perception of the board from students?

Nancy Serrurier: Well, is there?

Wire: Yes.

Nancy Serrurier: I wonder why. I really wonder why. It blows my mind. I will challenge someone on that, not you personally, you’re being a spokesperson for a point of view. But there have been students on every one of our committees that is relevant to have a student on. There is not a student on the executive committee, there is not a student on the nominative committee, or on the audit committee. But there are students everywhere else.

There is now a student representative sitting on the board meetings, she — Katie [Dong] — can talk to you about transparency. There are students on the Strategic Planning Committee. Brad, the current chair, and Kathy have had open office hours, nobody shows up. I kind of wonder if it feels in vogue to say, “oh, it’s not transparent!” If people want to take the time, we’re happy to be transparent. The on campus budget committee is probably the central place where the financial realities of the college are discussed and discussed and discussed. There’s faculty, there’s staff, there’s students. I would bet you there’s nobody on that committee that feels like it’s not transparent about the economics: here’s our priority, here’s our money, how are we going to fit the two together. I want to push back on this concept that somehow we’re not transparent, that somehow we’re not accessible. I’ll tell you what we’re not transparent about: it’s personnel issues, because no organization is. When it comes to faculty tenure decisions, we don’t make them, but it’s not something we talk about in public because that’s a personnel. When we talk about reviewing Kathy or the senior staff, that’s not done in public — we’re not going to be transparent on that.