College Must Engage Community on Cuts

Editorial Board

Administrators constantly state that the College’s current financial model is unsustainable. Expenses exceed revenue, mostly generated from an increasing tuition, and the situation will likely continue to worsen without concrete steps on both sides of the balance sheet. In part, structural reasons beyond the College’s control have worsened the financial situation. Health care costs continue to rise, and the endowment — smaller than many of our peer schools — took a big hit during the 2008 recession, a setback from which it only recently recovered.

But this financial crunch is not just the result of bad luck. The College has spent and borrowed millions on projects such as The Hotel at Oberlin, a project seemingly tangential to the mission of the College. In a time of fiscal constraint, it is concerning that so much money has gone toward shiny new buildings over more pressing items like financial aid or faculty and staff compensation. Though capital planning often garners funds for specific projects, hence external donations for the hotel, this project still pushed us into further debt.

Administrators also seemingly believed that raising tuition by approximately 3 to 4 percent every year would sustain a precarious financial situation, but that approach fails when tuition reaches absurd prices one year, only to become more ridiculous the next. While the administration has emphasized that tuition hikes and accompanying staff cuts are made in an attempt to maintain the College’s commitment to providing more financial aid, it remains abundantly unclear to most how budget priorities, like building a new hotel, are decided upon.

Institutions of higher education commonly operate according to a Strategic Plan, a loosely defined set of guidelines created by their Board of Trustees that guide administrative decisions. But how effective are these plans in actually setting financial priorities?

The College’s most recent plan was released nearly one year ago last March, announcing an updated set of objectives for the College and Conservatory from 2016 to 2021. The board will reconvene on campus from March 2–4 to assess progress in achieving this plan’s objectives. In doing so, it will find that the implementation committees designated for carrying out the missions outlined in the plan have struggled with their tasks. Furthermore, many of the goals stated in the Strategic Plan seem to be in direct conflict with each other, leading to confusion about how exactly the College plans to deal with its fiscal challenges.

“The 2005 Strategic Plan called for the College to reduce this rate [of tuition increase] in order to achieve greater financial stability,” the plan reads. “We have gradually done so, putting our finances on a more sustainable foundation, while simultaneously maintaining our strong commitment to meeting 100 percent of the demonstrated need of all admitted students. … These two important goals are pulling in opposite directions.”

When the Strategic Plan was drafted last year, those paying close attention to the process raised red flags about this very issue. Student Senate unanimously voted against the plan, ultimately threatening a vote of no confidence in the General Faculty Committee’s capacity to implement many of its lofty goals. And though trustees meet next month to reflect on the plan’s progress, it remains perpetually unclear how these assessments are made, and how the board determines “a set of indicators or means of measuring the overall health of the College and Conservatory” without meaningful or substantial student feedback channels.

This lack of communication between the board and students is the crux of the many students’ widespread frustration. In December, trustees declined to add a student representative to the board and failed to host the traditional student-trustee forum, which typically occurs twice per semester in accordance with their meetings. Since then, budget cuts have been widespread, from the curtailing of DeCafé’s hours to the sudden closing, or “re-envisioning,” of the Rathskeller, a historic campus staple. These decisions appear to have been made on an ad-hoc basis, without any clear basis in the Strategic Plan or engagement with the broader institution.

When it comes to making cuts, no decision will make the whole community happy, and virtually every cut will arouse opposition. Even the least-used, least-appreciated amenities, programs and facilities on campus will be bitterly missed by some if they are eliminated. In this respect, the administration has an unenviable job. But that doesn’t mean the administration should have carte blanche to cut without transparency and community engagement. Though weighing priorities may be difficult and highly charged, a community conversation is infinitely preferable to having cuts come out of administrative fiat. In October, the Editorial Board endorsed efforts by members of Student Senate and former students on the Steering Committee to add a student representative to the Board of Trustees. We feel it is pivotal to reiterate that this addition would be mutually beneficial to the board and students as cuts and downsizing continues across campus.