Board of Trustees votes on fiscal 2023 budget

Sara Marshall and Allison Cohen

On Nov. 12, 2021, President Kathy Murray and Board of Trustees Chair Joe Davis sent an email to the Whitman community outlining the proposals voted on by the Board of Trustees for the 2023 fiscal budget.

In the spring of 2021, The Wire reported on the Whitman community’s protests over the FSR in a series of articles titled “Students mobilize to protest the FSR,” “Budgets are statements of values”: Whitman community continues to protest the FSR” and “Students and alumni frustrated by President Murray’s characterization of FSR backlash as ‘misunderstandings’.”

These articles highlighted student, faculty and alumni concerns over the cuts made by the spring 2021 Financial Sustainability Review (FSR) with relation to budgetary reductions and the impact of COVID-19 on financial aid. 

President Murray addressed some of these anxieties earlier this week.

“The Financial Sustainability Review really cut only about 5 percent out of the operating budget of Whitman College and, considering the kind of systemic budget issues we were looking at, they were not huge or damaging cuts to the college, and so I feel like we’re in a good spot,” Murray said. “We now have some money we can reinvest in new programs, new areas that we know students are interested in and the faculty are hard at work on those right now, and so that excites me that we can actually think about doing some new things that we’ve just not had any money to do. So, it was partly about cutting some things, it was also partly about freeing up some money to reinvest.”

President Murray said the FSR was not a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The salary and retirement contribution decisions we made a year ago were about COVID-19. The FSR was not. Those were decisions that we were going to have to make and I thought we would make them over the course of three more years that I had originally planned to stay. COVID just accelerated all of that,” Murray said. 

The email stated that the Board voted for a 3-5 percent tuition increase. The current tuition rate for Whitman students sits at $71,182. A 3-5 percent increase would mean an increase of around $3,000 per year.

The Board also introduced a new planned student discount rate of between 50 percent and 52 percent for the incoming class of 2023. A new student discount rate refers to the average student financial aid package divided by full fees for tuition, room and board. 

This 2023 figure stands slightly higher than the overall discount rate of current Whitman students. According to President Murray, the student discount rate has gone up with each entering class.

“It’s only there for the new class because we promised with the returning students that unless your financial situation, your family situation changes, we’re going to continue your aid and so that’s a more predictable number than the incoming class,” Murray said, referencing Whitman’s Early Financial Aid Guarantee.

The Board of Trustees also discussed adjusting faculty and staff compensation to match current and projected economic conditions.

“Our original proposal that we took to the on-campus budget advisory committee was to [the increase] be between 3 percent and 6 percent, and the Board said that’s not enough, and I was thrilled. I never imagined I was going to hear those words out of the Board, but they said 5 percent has to be the absolute bottom because that’s where inflation is sitting right now,” Murray said. 

Two decisions from the FSR were adjusted after concerns were raised by faculty. These concerns were detailed in another Wire article, titled “Missing the forest for the trees”: FSR incites faculty anger over Humanities cuts.

The Whitman Chapter of the American Association of University Professors—an advocacy chapter—released a “Call to Action” letter in Nov. 2020. 

An excerpt from the letter shared on the group’s Instagram stated that “the WCAAUP is concerned that our model of shared governance is being eroded by the recent pattern of major decisions (cuts to retirement contributions, elimination of multi-year contracts for contingent faculty and suspension of sabbatical leaves for tenured faculty, for example),” they wrote on their Instagram account.  

In response, the Board approved recommendations to allow faculty who choose to teach for six years the ability to apply for a one-semester sabbatical at full pay. Additionally, the Board changed eligibility for senior non-tenure-track faculty to two-year rolling appointments, as opposed to one-year appointments.

The Board’s recent decisions shape the future of the college’s funding priorities as it moves forward into the next fiscal years.