“Missing the forest for the trees”: FSR incites faculty anger over Humanities cuts

Rosa Woolsey, Staff Reporter

The Financial Sustainability Review shared by President Kathy Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 2 sent ripples of concern throughout the Whitman community. Liberal arts colleges across the nation face a threatening decline in enrollment compounded by the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FSR is intended to sustain Whitman’s long-term financial footing.

The proposed financial cuts could have drastic effects on a number of Whitman’s academic departments, particularly in the Humanities division. 

The Whitman community was given until Monday, Feb. 15 — less than two weeks — to provide their feedback to the FSR working groups. Over 100 students attended the hour-long student feedback forum on Tuesday, Feb 9. Many students vocalized concern for their professors and departments and demanded more time to provide feedback on the review. 

Arielle Cooley, President of the Whitman chapter of the American Association of College Professors, explained that she agrees with the need to run a financial sustainability review, but that the FSR’s rushed pace could cause irreversible damage to some of the school’s greatest strengths. 

“Volunteers of the AAUP are working to extract basic comparative information from the report and so far that work has shown that about 80-90 percent of the specifically itemized proposed cuts are specifically in the academic programs,” Cooley said. “So, by far, the bulk of the cuts are in what we at the AAUP believe to be the heart and soul, really the core of what is most essential about Whitman.” 

The proposed cuts have the potential to end or threaten the existence of several academics departments, with the Humanities division facing some of the most drastic changes. These departments include Environmental Humanities, Classics, Studio Art, Art History and Visual Culture Studies, Biology, Chinese, French, Japanese, Music, Politics, Theater and Dance.

In an email to Environmental Studies students, Tim Parker, Co-Director of the Environmental Studies Program, wrote that the review “recommended [the] elimination of the position in Environmental Humanities currently held by Don Snow after he retires next year. This would result in the core Environmental Humanities courses being reduced by half.” 

Likewise, Sarah Davies, Associate Professor of History, wrote to Classics and History students detailing the dire implications the Classics department will face.

“These DRAFT recommendations included not replacing Prof. Burgess after his retirement at the end of this year and a ‘re-envisioning’ (in reality, the functional end) of the Classics program.”

The decision to not rehire recently vacated positions and let go of non-tenure track faculty has sobering implications for many dedicated professors and students.

Emily Sibley, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, teaches Beginning Arabic, which was offered for the first time in ten years this past fall. This is one of the many courses facing erasure from the curriculum. 

“The language I teach, Arabic, has been cut from the curriculum, and I will no longer teach at Whitman following this semester. I am very disappointed by this decision and consider it shortsighted,” Sibley said. “With full enrollment in the fall, strong retention into the spring semester… I believe that in its first year, Arabic has proven itself as a meaningful addition to the Whitman curriculum. I am devastated on behalf of my students, who petitioned for years for Arabic to be offered and who have shown tremendous dedication.”

A recently hired assistant professor who wished to remain anonymous found that many of their students didn’t know that the FSR was happening at all and agreed that the lack of information and time to process the proposals was frustrating. 

“[That is the part that] gives me a sense of uncertainty and fear,” they said

The professor empathized with how first year students may feel regarding the absence of context for the review. As a new hire, they are still being introduced to Whitman’s dynamics, and without the leisure of space to speak about it in passing, they feel as though they’re parsing through this difficult situation alone. Furthermore, they feel that there is a sense of apprehension for non-tenured faculty members to provide honest feedback and ask questions when there are concerns of possible reprisals due to the power dynamics at play.

Sibley also discussed the effect this review has on non-tenure track faculty members and their active role at the college. At larger universities, NTT faculty are offered short contracts and have a higher turnover rate, but at liberal arts colleges like Whitman, NTTs are usually able to become more integrated into the college community. 

“For those of us who are non-tenure track faculty members, it is easier to eliminate our positions,” Sibley said. “Students may not fully understand the distinction between TT [tenure track] and NTT faculty, but suffice to say, we are present in the college in nearly every department… As the administration resolves to cut NTT positions in order to increase the faculty to student ratio, there will be fewer classes offered across the board. Terminating NTT faculty sours our relationships to the college, and when Whitman needs to hire, as it inevitably will (e.g. sabbatical replacements, maternity leave), it will have burned its bridges by treating us as disposable.”

The AAUP, as well as ASWC, have provided anonymous feedback forms for the review to the Whitman community, since anonymity is not an option on the feedback forms provided by the administration. Cooley said that such measures were taken to “protect those who feel more vulnerable and therefore are less likely to participate,” including NTT faculty. 

Cooley voiced her main structural concerns with the review, including the abbreviated timeline, the non-integrated nature of the review (its three categories are pursued in isolation) and the absence of faculty autonomy in deciding their curriculum. 

“[The] AAUP is an organization that works to promote shared governance amongst stakeholders including the Trustees and the faculty. And a core principle of shared governance is that faculty have authority over the curriculum,” Cooley said. “Many of the cuts proposed here will effectively end or at least threaten major core programs at Whitman…these cuts have the potential to fundamentally alter the curriculum in a way that is outside the realm of the faculty’s ability to shape the outcome.”

This review has led many to consider what is unique about Whitman. The responses to these proposals indicate that the priorities established in the FSR do not accurately represent what the community believes to be an essential part of the college. 

“If we are proud of the education we provide, that education needs to be upheld, supported and clearly articulated,” Sibley said. “I fear that the FSR misses the forest for the trees, focusing on individual cuts at the expense of the broader mission.”