Students and alumni frustrated by President Murray’s characterization of FSR backlash as “misunderstandings”

President Kathy Murray’s response to pervasive narratives about the FSR — which she deemed “misunderstandings” — has provoked annoyance and frustration from many students and alumni.

Following the release of draft FSR recommendations on Feb. 2, students, faculty and alumni shared feedback through written feedback forms, op-eds, petitions and protests. The FSR work groups accepted feedback through Feb. 15 — two weeks after the initial release.

Murray sent out an email to the Whitman community on March 3 that included the FSR working groups final recommendations and further information about the FSR process. She also directly addressed the feedback that was given by the community.

“Unfortunately,” Murray wrote in her community-wide email, “much of the feedback we received was based on misinformation, so I think it is important to clarify what is based on misunderstandings and what is based on facts.”

Many students and alumni took issue with the listed misunderstandings.

“We fundamentally disagree that this is a mere misunderstanding,” responded BecauseWeLoveWhitman, a campaign organized by concerned alumni. “The students, faculty and alumni have stated how we feel —  if anything, President Murray misunderstood us.”

The first misunderstanding that Murray listed read, “Misunderstanding: We are gutting the humanities, or more broadly, the liberal arts.”

Murray argued that the humanities division (75 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions) is larger than social sciences (61 FTE) and natural sciences and math (53 FTE), and would continue to be the largest even if all of the proposed reductions were adopted. 

“The largest number of proposed cuts are in the largest division, which is also the division with the smallest number of graduates,” Murray wrote.

Lauren Yumibe, a junior Japanese major who spoke at a FSR protest last month, called this statement “deceptive.”

“Even if humanities would remain the largest division, it is still receiving the largest proportion of cuts per faculty,” Yumibe said in an email to The Wire. “Humanities may be large overall but it is stretched thin. It has far more departments than other divisions and much less faculty per department.”

Chloe Daikh, a senior classics and history double major, responded similarly. 

“All of the conclusions that we’ve come to throughout this process are based on the information that we have been given and are not fabrications,” Daikh said. “The humanities needs to remain a large division given the wide breadth of programs that it encompasses.”

BecauseWeLoveWhitman, the campaign that organized the Feb. 26 protest and has become the most prominent opponent to the FSR’s recommended cuts to humanities and arts, responded to President Murray in an email to The Wire

The group said that Murray’s argument assumes that divisions could be compared by size as a measure of their importance or effectiveness, and completely ignores the ways different disciplines structure their classes.

“It is possible, for instance, to provide top-notch teaching in organic chemistry or computer science with larger class sizes. Given the amount of writing and discussion formats of many humanities classes, it would be expected that these departments require more faculty per student. The pedagogical nature of the arts and humanities necessitate smaller class sizes.” 

The second and third misunderstandings that Murray listed read, “Misunderstanding: Many humanities programs are being eliminated… We are killing the environmental humanities program.”

In her email, Murray said that environmental humanities and classics programs would continue, and each would undergo a faculty-led internal review. BecauseWeLoveWhitman saw this as an acknowledgement of the overwhelming community feedback to sustain the programs.

“We were heard, and this is a major win,” BecauseWeLoveWhitman said. 

Sophomore Fielding Shaefer, an environmental humanities major who helped organize the Feb. 26 protest, concurred: “I certainly see the countless responses and media from an array of students, alumni, families and faculty — along with two protests — playing a critical role in the admin’s decision to have faculty conduct internal reviews of both EH and classics.”

The FSR might not have formally eliminated programs, Yumibe countered, but would have “downsized the [Japanese] department to the point [that] upper level Japanese courses could not be taught. As upper level courses are required for the Japanese major these cuts would make majoring in Japanese impossible.”

“Characterizing the natural belief Whitman wants to eliminate these departments as a ‘misunderstanding’ is insulting — their actions would have ensured the death of these majors,” Yumibe said. “Allowing the faculty the ‘agency’ to continue offering the major while withholding the financial support necessary to teach it is an overt denial of responsibility.”

The Wire reached out to Alzada Tipton, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, for a response to student concerns over the possible dissolution of majors. 

In an email to The Wire, Tipton said, “Throughout this entire financial sustainability review process, the goal of the academic committee was to avoid cuts that would eliminate the ability of Whitman to continue to offer existing programs. The recommendations of the cabinet were also made with this goal in mind. For example, committee and cabinet recommendations surrounding staffing in Chinese and Japanese were designed specifically to preserve academic programs in those areas based on the feedback from the faculty teaching in those areas.” 

Tipton added, “While the cabinet believes that none of these cuts necessitate the elimination of a major or minor, ultimately it is the decision of the faculty what programs and courses they offer with any given level of staffing.”

The last misunderstanding that Murray listed read, “Misunderstanding: This work was done too quickly, and not enough people had a voice in the process.”

Murray said that work groups met at least weekly the past four months since the FSR was created in October 2020, and “each group included students, staff, faculty and trustees and was co-chaired by a member of the Cabinet and a Trustee.”

The BecauseWeLoveWhitman organizers said the FSR “deserved a far greater level of care, transparency, and time to ensure it wasn’t a rushed and siloed process.”

“We’ve heard that faculty were immensely disappointed in the process, and felt like they had little say and representation.”

Daikh, who created a petition that called for a lengthier window of time to submit feedback and received over 500 signatures, said that she was disappointed that only three students were involved in the work groups.

“The biggest problem that I saw,” Daikh continued, “with the 2-week response period was that there was not enough opportunity for students to submit non-written feedback. President Murray only hosted one live feedback session. I had to work and was not able to attend.”

Daikh added, “We have brought up time and again that there was not enough student involvement in the decision-making process and President Murray’s response was that there were students involved.” 

BecauseWeLoveWhitman also noted that Murray’s statement that alumni worked on each committee, though factually accurate, was misleading because each alumnus sits on the Board of Trustees. The Alumni Board was entirely excluded, they said.

“None of these individuals are able to represent the Whitman alumni without significant conflicts of interest. Whitman College also has an Alumni Board – they were not told this process was happening and were not consulted.”