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An Artistic Solution to a Deficit

March 27, 2006

For years, Rockford College, in Illinois, has accepted donated artwork, including pieces depicting its most famous alumna, humanitarian Jane Addams. The collection includes about 3,000 items, including paintings, sculptures and other relics, said Annie M. Krug, the college’s vice president for advancement. But soon it may be thinning.

In an effort to raise money, the liberal arts college is considering sales that include some of the artwork and pieces of land on the outer ring of campus. Many small private colleges without large endowments grapple with tough decisions about keeping their budgets balanced.

Krug said the college would be looking at a financial shortfall of about $400,000 this academic year if no action is taken. The college’s endowment is about $3.8 million, Krug said. Ninety percent of Rockford’s annual cash flow comes from tuition.

An expected budget surplus this year hasn’t come to fruition at the college of about 1,200 students. That’s primarily because Rockford enrolled 10 fewer full-time undergraduates than expected, coming off a record year of undergraduate enrollment.

The graduate head count is “high,” Krug said, but many of those students are not enrolled full time. Students at Rockford, on average, receive a 38 percent discount on tuition and fees.

College officials are making a special effort to seek financial help from alumni this year, but they are also mulling the alternative options, such as putting the artwork on the market.

“We aren’t a museum,” Krug said. “You look at your assets and you say, ‘Could somebody else value it?’”

Rockford, a campus that once spanned 300 acres, now takes up half that space. The land was sold for a variety of reasons.

Some blame dealings from two decades ago -- which included the acquisition of a campus in London, which the college no longer owns but still leases -- for some of the current financial problems.

“The college has done things like this before when they’ve found themselves in financial squeezes,” said Jules Gleicher, chairman of the political science department. “Selling land isn’t something one does lightly. It’s a one-shot deal.”

Gleicher said the university’s president, Paul Pribbenow, encountered a “chaotic” financial situation when he arrived four years ago, including a massive budget deficit. Pribbenow is leaving July 1 for Augsburg College in Minnesota.

Krug said if the proposed art sales go through, the college will keep pieces that “are the essence of the place,” such as some of the items that have Addams in the forefront. The college is still receiving appraisals for the land and for the artwork, and trustees are discussing the plans. Krug said nothing will be “hastily sold.”

“You don’t get into a financial situation overnight, and you don’t get out of it overnight either,” she said. “We don’t want to be making shortfall fire-sale decisions.”

A community meeting is scheduled for Tuesday on campus to discuss the plans. At some campuses, sales of art have been seen as necessary, while controversies have erupted at others. Fisk University, in Tennessee, is currently moving to sell some works by Georgia O'Keeffe.

“I’m willing to not second-guess whether it’s necessary to do this now,” said Gleicher, adding that the college will have many more answers when a new president is named and when next year’s enrollment totals are announced.

 

 

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