Administration Disputes College Budget Woes

Drew Kaplan ’20, Editor in Chief

Dickinson College administrators have denied allegations regarding the poor financial health of the college. “The tremendous planning and budgeting [that] has been going on at Dickinson” has allowed the college to retain “stable” finances despite higher education on the whole appearing “negative and unstable,” according to President Margee Ensign. According to Vice President of Finance & Administration Bronté Burleigh Jones, The All College Committee on Planning & Budget (P&B) has drafted three budget models, outlining budgetary plans for the college based on projected enrollment numbers, and, according to Provost Neil Weissman, academic departments have been asked via a questionnaire to identify how any budget cuts may affect them. Several faculty members, however, have expressed discontent at this.

In an email, Jones explained that the three budget models developed by P&B are designed to account for scenarios of incoming first year classes of 575 students, 500 students, with the third budget plan accounting for an incoming class of fewer than 500 incoming students. “This is a campus-wide planning exercise,” Jones added, “in which all divisions of the college will be asked to participate.” However, Jones noted that these budgetary plans are intended as “proactive, multi-year budgeting for several years” and that the “decision to pursue a three-pronged budget process is the responsible and prudent thing to do during a tumultuous time in higher education,” and that any cuts to the budget will occur over several years, with modest cuts being made in 2021 if necessary, followed by “a more robust and planned effort” in 2022. The determination as to whether budget cuts are necessary, and the extent of those cuts, will be made following review of enrolment figures for the class of 2024. 

Part of the budget planning process involved the distribution of a questionnaire to department chairs, asking them to identify costs and revenue associated with their departments, as well as trends in enrolment within that department, both the number of majors as well as classes offered, and questions regarding the impact the non-replacement of faculty would have on the department, both regarding the department curriculum, and whether the position is necessary when contrasted with student demand for offered classes. Weissman explained in an email that, “for contingency planning only,” academic departments have been asked these questions to judge “how a reduction in budget or size of the college might affect them,” and that the questions asked were developed by P&B. 

Some of the questions asked by the questionnaire are “What are the 5-year trends in terms of number of graduates, number of majors, and course enrollments?” However, several dealt directly with the financial impact of the departments, asking “What are the overall costs of the program in personnel, materials, and equipment? […] What would be the best strategies for reducing costs if this were necessary,” and then asking for specific examples of how this would be achieved, and “what opportunities exist for the program in terms of revenue generation if any?” 

Several faculty members raised concerns regarding this questionnaire, especially regarding the questions which ask about departmental revenue. Associate Professor of Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and WGSS department chair Megan Yost said “there was a lot of discussion among different faculty about how the questions are being perceived by faculty. It seems the way they are being perceived is not how they were intended, which has caused some friction.” Yost noted that, during a psychology department meeting, significant concern had been raised regarding the question asking about departmental revenue. “In the psychology department, none of us had thought of ourselves as trying to generate revenue. This question made us feel like we were being asked to say we were doing something that nobody had previously thought of as being part of our job.” Yost also noted that, while there may be expectations of faculty to bring in revenue at large research universities, “this has never been an expectation at a liberal arts school.”

“I think faculty are still trying to get some clarity as to what will happen with this information, and that still isn’t clear,” Yost added “our main concern is that we just don’t know what this will go towards. Could you imagine what would happen if we really cut everything by 25 percent? That’s huge.”

Associate Professor of Biology and department chair Scott Boback added “The questions themselves are a little problematic, because the ask about entities that are not appropriate for all departments.” Boback noted that “to a lot of departments,” fundraising for them is “just moot. It’s not even a possibility.”

Boback explained that, while the sciences do sometimes get external funding, “which ultimately helps the college, […] that’s part of what we do.” He continued that he does not believe the external generation of funds, or the potential to do so, should “give the sciences any advantage over other departments.”

“The questions are good ones, to force us to assess if we need to curtail, where would we curtail,” Boback noted. However, “this has gotten a lot of people upset, if we were to go forward and say, this is what we would cut, it’s almost like we’re delivering that.”

“I was hearing a lot of my colleagues […] that were voicing concerns that those departments which do generate funds […] would be better off, compared to the arts, for example.” Boback added.

“I think we all have concerns, but I do think that it’s an important exercise to go through. Does it make us uncomfortable? Hell yes. We had conversations already in our department, and it was […] extremely uncomfortable.” 

Professor of English Carol Ann Johnston said “The academic program should be the thing that gets cut last, and my concern with that questionnaire is that, once departments envision how they can be cut, and write that down, its just a proscription for cutting.”

Johnston explained that, while “I think the college is a very serious budgetary crunch,” in her view, it is better “to begin cutting in places other than the academic program, because the academic program and the faculty are what the college is all about.”

“The time frame for determining how we would scale our departments back is very compressed. If we’re really going to cut our program back, we would need to reconceive our major, and that would require a lot more than twelve weeks of thought.”

“Academic articles that we publish don’t bring in revenue,” Johnston said, “if there is a revenue requirement, we in English are not going to be able to make it.” Johnston described the idea of departmental revenue requirements as being “untenable,” as “I certainly don’t think we would want to cut the whole arts program, as arts programs are very expensive to run.” 

Some professors also raised concerns over the timeframe of the questionnaire, which has a printed deadline of Dec. 16 for responses to be submitted. “I don’t necessarily have concerns we’re going through the process, I have concerns that I’m going to be able to finish that project,” Boback added, explaining that, from his department, each question required significant amounts of data to be gathered in order to create a proper answer. “Lots of data needs to come together to make a cohesive plan for each one of those questions,” Boback added.

“The time frame for determining how we would scale our departments back is very compressed. If we’re really going to cut our program back, we would need to reconceive our major, and that would require a lot more than twelve weeks of thought,” noted Johnston.

However, others expressed their beliefs that the questions regarding departmental income do not signal anything negative. “I think that there is some concern about the budget,” said Associate Professor of English and department chair Siobhan Phillips, “there’s also a lot of reason to believe […] that Dickinson is in a really good place. In some senses, the thinking about planning is perpetual.”

“Academic departments go through what is known as a ten year review, with the review then performed by an external agency,” explained Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and department chair Catrina Hamilton-Drager, “[the questionnaire] was asking to look over the department, and assess it, especially in terms of where you might be able to save money.” Hamilton-Drager continued “I think administration is just asking the question” regarding whether academic departments have external sources of revenue, and whether this is possible. “I think the college is doing whatever it can to stay afloat.”

“We just don’t know how many students we’re going to get,” Hamilton-Drager added, “if we don’t have the right number of students, that impacts our bottom line.”

Associate Professor of History and department chair Christopher Bilodeau said “because we have a smaller class this go around, and because demographics are indicating that there are less college aged students who are coming in the north east, that its simply prudent to try to project in the future what smaller classes might be. […] The vibes I’m getting is that it’s simply precautionary.” 

Bilodeau continued that “I think administration is trying to figure out what is the best way to proceed,” and described the questionnaire as “an unpleasant necessity.” 

“There has to be some way of trying to acquire [the information asked],” Bilodeau noted. However, “there has been some question amongst the chairs, and amongst the faculty in general, is this the best way of doing it? […] Any way is going to be an unpleasant way.” 

Bilodeau noted that, in past, there had existed at the college “traditional norms of relying on funding come from the Methodist Church,” and that the end of this relationship left the college in poor standing for fund raising.

“There were moments when, if there were any budgetary shortfalls, then the college could ask the Methodist Church to fill out the budget. We haven’t had that for a very long time, but that model, in some ways, the college didn’t do due diligence in figuring out other ways of fundraising,” Bilodeau stated, “we’re now put in the awkward position of playing catch up to other colleges and universities which have been doing this for a much longer time.”

“Our advancement program has taken a long time to really solidify, but we’re behind the curve.” 

Weissman explained that the college currently has no intention of requiring departments to be self-funding. “While our faculty are productive scholars and we encourage student research, teaching is central to us,” Weissman added, “all departments are funded from the college’s operating budget,” and that decisions of professorial tenure are not influenced by budgetary concerns. 

Weissman noted that, while the college has “made some budgetary cuts across the board of the college these last couple of years, […] the bulk of these cuts are outside academic programs, so we made some modest changes. I don’t expect to do more than that.” Weissman noted that, if academic departments are targeted during any future budget cuts, “the first place we would look at is VAPS (visiting assistant professors).”

“If there will be reductions, we will focus on contingent faculty as opposed to tenured lines,” Weissman added, “we may need to reduce some of the tenure lines we may need to post pone hiring, that depends on the budget, so we’ll see.” Weissman noted that, currently, 58 percent of faculty is tenured, and that the majority of current budget cuts have been to staff, rather than faculty.

However, some members of the community made note of the poor state of campus infrastructure. “There are a lot of things on campus that we wish were in better shape,” added Bilodeau, “there’s a lot of places where we could use some money to shore things up.” Bilodeau described some buildings on campus, namely the HUB and ATS as “functional, but I wouldn’t say they’re thriving buildings.” 

“We’ve been able to make do, but the funding does limit us in the types of offerings we can have, and the buildings we have.” 

“I can’t imagine my students coming to a college that is focused on one division.,” added Boback, “we get the liberal arts idea, and I cannot even imagine my students not taking art classes, taking language classes, taking history classes, taking classics. […] We’re in this together, and my students are better because of that.” 

Weissman further noted that the college is “committed to deepening current strengths of the academic program, including global perspective, sustainability education, active learning, and interdisciplinary approach,” and that classes are filled to a satisfactory level. Weissman added that the current budgetary issues faced by the college are the result of “national trends, such as demographics, cost, and questioning of the value of the liberal arts,” and that the “current challenges in budget and enrollment are shared across higher education, and liberal arts colleges particularly.”

Jones echoed this sentiment, noting “many of our peer institutions are also facing challenges in meeting their net student fee targets.”

“This is not a doom and gloom situation,” added Bilodeau, “it’s more of a prudent way of approaching our planning in the next, say, three years, just to figure out what’s going on.”

“We don’t begrudge” any of the departments which are not self-funding, added Johnston, “we’re all together in the same enterprise of offering a strong liberal arts education.” 

“As far as I can tell the tremendous planning and budgeting has been going on at Dickinson certainly precedes me, sets us apart from our competitors,” added Ensign, “I’m not denying that this is a challenging time for everyone in higher education, but our planning and foresight and vision really sets us apart.”

Weissman added “while we are planning for all possibilities, we remain confident that we will not need to make dramatic cuts to our program.”