Oberlin College is looking at a $5 million deficit heading into the 2017–18 academic year due to an unexpected drop in admissions. This not only strains budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, but also points toward a much larger budgetary issue that has been brewing under the surface for years.
Newly-elected Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, announced the news in an email to faculty and staff June 14. The email, given to the Review by anonymous sources, was sent just a few weeks before Canavan officially took office, replacing six-year board member Clyde McGregor, OC ’74.
“Although we had already reduced budgets across the institution for next year, this shortfall in student charges will generate a deficit of about $5 million,” said Canavan in the email.
Because of the deficit, the board chose to hold all non-union salaries at their previous level unless otherwise stipulated by a contract, including faculty member salaries, for the second year in a row.
“It’s something that we never want to do,” Dean of the College of Arts and Science Tim Elgren said about the salary freeze. “When we look at a short-term expense issue, there’s almost no way to recover, because we’re fixed in contracts with the unions, and with non-union continuing faculty members and visitors. Holding salaries at zero for a year, which is what happened this last year, is a dramatic step. But it’s the one thing that we can do immediately to have an impact on the budget without people losing their jobs. We hope to not have to go back to that.”
The email also requested that administrators and staff begin looking for ways to cut spending and increase revenue, as the board hopes to reduce college spending by at least five percent over the next decade unless it can find additional sources of income.
“This is intended to give the Oberlin community the breathing room needed to think carefully and purposefully about Oberlin’s long-term financial model, and to avoid making future decisions under financial duress, which almost never leads to healthy decisions,” Canavan wrote.
Elgren noted that the College would do its best to distribute the cuts from falling onto one department or sector by distributing them campus-wide.
“Cuts will be shared over the entire campus,” Elgren said. “Everybody’s in the game. When I talk about departments or divisions, I’m talking about the Conservatory, the College, athletics, student life, and advancement in admissions.”
Within the last few years, Oberlin has seen budget cut initiatives like the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program, which offered incentives for early retirement with the goal of decreasing long-term costs; decreased DeCafé hours; and the suspension of most faculty Research Status grants last year. There have also been an increasing number of faculty, custodial staff, and administrative assistant positions left unfilled as some tenured and experienced employees have retired or left the school.
“These are daunting challenges,” Elgren said. “I think we’ve known since the start of strategic planning when I arrived that we live very close to the margin, and the margin is where our revenues meet our expenses. Our projections are that our spending is far outreaching our revenue. Part of the reason President Ambar came here wasn’t to kick the can down the road, but to go at that.
We’ve been thinking about this for a while and coming up with a plan for how to do that.”
Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo said she hopes that these cuts can come in a way that won’t directly affect Oberlin students.
“I think there are some things we will stop doing or cut, but I’m hoping that those are things that are sort of inefficient and unhelpful, so students either won’t feel them or actually will be glad they’re gone,” Raimondo said.
As over 80 percent of Oberlin’s operating budget comes directly from admissions and student charges, this year’s lower admissions rate, in both the returning number of students and incoming new students, is the primary reason for this year’s deficit.
This academic year’s target number for incoming first-year students was 805; the number met was 742. This semester’s total enrollment was 2,815 students, while the conservative target was set at 2,895 students.
Newly appointed Vice President and Dean of Admissions Manuel Carballo says that his office is working closely with students and offices across campus to try to increase Oberlin’s admission and retention rates.
“A lot of these questions came before I showed up, but certainly I think one of my important roles will be looking back to see where numbers have been versus how those project looking forward,” Carballo said. “When we talk about issues of numbers, we are looking at the numbers of students coming into the freshman class and transfers, but also in terms of retention, and numbers of returning students. That can be students studying abroad, students transferring, and students not returning to Oberlin.”
A copy of Canavan’s June email is printed in the Opinions section of this paper.