AAUP review raises questions about Whitman’s finances and values

Rosa Woolsey and Grace Jackson

This is the second article in The Wire’s ongoing coverage of the WCAAUP external financial analysis. 

The 2020-21 Financial Sustainability Review (FSR) was intended to prepare Whitman for financial success in an uncertain future. However, some in the community feel that it was not financially necessary and undermines Whitman’s true purpose as a small liberal arts college.

Art History and Visual Culture Professor Matthew Reynolds is an active member of the Whitman College American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and spearheaded their efforts to raise funds for the external financial review. He explained the group’s motivations to raise funds for the external report as skepticism around the purpose and execution of the FSR compounded. 

“It came from a really deep skepticism about the Financial Sustainability Review in the first place. There were many concerns raised in many, many different venues and forums about why the college needed to do that, why it needed to do it so quickly in this compressed time frame and why it needed to do it in the midst of a global pandemic,” Reynolds said. “From the beginning of the Financial Sustainability Review there was concern about the rationale for it and frankly a lot of shifting reasons on the part of the administration and the Board of Trustees about why this needed to happen.”

Crisis in Higher Education?

In 2008, the financial crisis caused a significant decrease in the number of children born that year. The US birth rate dropped two percent from 2007 and despite the economy recovering after 2008, the birth rate has not. The children born that year will be college-aged in 2026 and the higher education sector anticipates that it will begin a significant decline in the number of college eligible 18-year-olds. Some predictions suggest that the number of college students will decrease by as much as 15 percent after 2025. 

For several years, Whitman was below its enrollment goals. In 2017, President Murray told the Whitman community that under-enrollment and growth in the faculty forced the college to dip into contingency funds to fill gaps in the operating budget. 

When Murray sent the FSR draft reports to the Whitman community in February 2021, she laid out how it was partially in response to enrollment trends.

“Even before the arrival of the COVID pandemic, Whitman was facing significant challenges, along with most of the colleges in our sector. We have a declining population of 18-year-olds nationally (which we’ve all been reading about for years), a drop in interest in the type of education offered in liberal arts colleges, an applicant pool with greater financial need (the number of applicants to Whitman with an expected family contribution below $10,000 per year has doubled since 2016), and increasing price sensitivity among those most able to pay for this education,” Murray wrote.  

“Good Crisis”

To junior Fielding Schaefer, one of the reasons he decided to come to Whitman was the unique liberal arts education opportunities available, particularly in his environmental humanities major. He felt that the FSR cuts targeted the humanities and fine arts in favor of majors that often lead to higher paying jobs. 

Schaefer was a student organizer in the FSR protests last year and said that if academic and student support cuts needed to be made, students and faculty should be the ones to decide how to do so fairly. He felt the college’s administration and the Board of Trustees ignored the concerns of the community. 

“There’s no reason why a Board of Trustees member who hasn’t gone to college for 30 years and lives across the country should be making decisions for the day-to-day lives of those who are here every day,” Schaefer said. “The concept that, since they are successful, wealthy and largely alumni, that they have a better idea of our needs is faulty, classist and anti-democratic.”

While the subcommittees that recommended the FSR cuts were composed of students, staff and faculty, community members complained that the process lacked transparency. 

Changes to Whitman’s academic programs are the purview of the faculty, per the College’s constitution. The Board of Trustees are responsible for overseeing the College’s financial health.

In accordance with Article III of the Whitman College Constitution, the Board of Trustees oversees the “corporate concerns” of the College. The Board is to be comprised of up to 24 members who, at the end of their one to four year term, elect their successors. The Article does not state any explicit requirements for who can become a Trustee, but Reynolds made note of a distinct pattern in the makeup of the Board.

“Trustees…come from business, they’re people with money and there’s a certain corporate mentality to this Financial Sustainability Review,” Reynolds said. 

A key component of the national AAUP’s mission and one of the reasons Reynolds cited as a part of his initial interest in joining the Whitman AAUP six years ago is to uphold “academic freedom and shared governance.” This piece on shared governance is key to the concerns many faculty and alumni have with the FSR.

Alumnus Jens-Erik Lund Snee ‘09 explained how the importance of this shared structure. 

“It is very important that a college board has an appropriate level of humility regarding topics like the curriculum, and that they respect the principle of shared governance with the faculty.

Reynolds articulated a misalignment between the corporate mentality of the FSR and the stated goals of the College. 

“Some of the changes that were made as a result of the FSR felt vindictive, frankly. In cutting the salaries of faculty and staff and cutting money particular to the instructional budget—which took the biggest hit—for people who teach and for people who support our teaching and for students too, that doesn’t make sense because we’re a non-profit,” Reynolds said. “Whitman is 501c3, we are a non-profit and that means the education that is the mission of Whitman College is for the greater good of society…That sounds idealistic but that’s really what it’s for.” 

Alumna Emily Hanscam ’12 felt that throughout the FSR process, the Board was not interested in engaging in dialogue with the community. She noted the irony of the choices the College has made contradicting the mission that Whitman is said to stand for and the values that students pick up in the classroom. 

“What are we taught as Whitman students? We’re taught to think critically, listen respectfully, be inclusive, be willing to take a step back and challenge our own assumptions, broaden our perspectives and understand other people’s perspectives,” Hanscam said. “We were seeing almost none of that from the people who make decisions about Whitman College.”

Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey reiterated the need for the FSR to Whitman’s future financial health. He argued that while Whitman is not currently in a financial crisis, the FSR was necessary to continue investing in the future of the college. This includes cutting some academic programs to add new ones. 

“Instructional costs that affect the curriculum make up the largest part of Whitman College’s operating budget. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to make budgetary changes in this area from time to time. If we want to add new programs and curricular offerings for our students, we have to make the difficult decisions about what to cut as well based on the needs of the current generation of students.”

Reynolds reiterated the scope of these issues and their real impacts in faculty, staff and students feeling overwhelmed and the dwindling capacities and morale of the Whitman community. 

“This issue is not only about the endowment, but it’s also about feeling undervalued by the administration and the Board of Trustees,” Reynolds said.