As the economy has declined rapidly this fall, experts on liberal arts colleges have warned many times that it doesn't take more than a few dozen students not showing up to upset an institution's economic assumptions -- with serious consequences for students and professors. On Friday, Beloit College provided a perfect example of this reality:
The college announced that it will eliminate 40 positions (with faculty jobs included in the mix) -- about 10 percent of the college's total employees. The reason is that this year's total student enrollment is smaller, by 36 students, than the college had planned. (Total enrollment ended up at 1,289.) At Ohio State, 36 students would be a rounding error. But at Beloit -- and at many liberal arts colleges -- that's enough to create real problems and force real change, including layoffs.
Beloit is not among the colleges that need to explore mergers to survive -- and is by most measures highly successful, known for the strength of its liberal arts programs and as a Wisconsin alternative to the large public universities that thrive in the Midwest. But at a time that even institutions the likes of Williams College -- with an endowment more than 10 times the size of Beloit's -- are talking about economizing, it's no surprise that the choices aren't easy.
Leading the effort to cut is Dick Niemiec, an alumnus who, after 33 years at Blue Cross Blue Shield, left his role as a trustee of the college to become interim president while a search goes on for a permanent president to replace John Burris, who left to become head of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Niemiec -- who makes no attempt to hide his non-academic perspective, but who has been praised by many on the campus for keeping students and faculty in the loop on budget problems -- is not a candidate for the job on a permanent basis.
In an interview Saturday, Niemiec described the limitations on how the college can respond to the $1 million deficit it faces because of the students who didn't arrive this fall. About three-quarters of the college's $55 million budget comes from tuition, and other sources -- including endowment income -- aren't going to be much help this year, he said. At the end of the college's last fiscal year -- May 31 -- the endowment was valued at $135 million. Now the value is less than $100 million.
There was no one reason for the enrollment decline. Some students who had been expected to start decided not to. Others who were expected back didn't return. In boch cases, some students cited the economy, opting either to delay their educations or to seek one elsewhere. And part of what Niemiec said he's trying to do is position the college to be able to thrive if there is another such evaporation of students next year. "What if there are 50 fewer next year?" he asked, adding quickly that he is hopeful that won't be the case.
Total costs at Beloit are about $38,000, but the college's discount rate -- the percentage that the college doesn't end up receiving in tuition revenue, because of aid awarded -- is 42 percent, a figure Niemiec said he's comfortable with but doesn't want to see go up.
While the college has looked for various ways to save money, Niemiec said that cutting positions needed to be part of the solution. He said he has been analyzing comparative data from other colleges and believes that the college can function with a smaller employee base. As a first step, the college has asked all employees who think they may retire this year to come forward and identify themselves to supervisors so Beloit can get a handle on how many may leave naturally. Niemiec said he hoped that would make up a chunk of the 40 slots, although some of those who come forward may need to be replaced, in which case another job would have to go. Tenured professors will be protected, he said, but some of the faculty jobs that could be eliminated may be lines that are used when professors are on sabbatical, or adjunct positions that fill out a department.
"Any time you do a layoff it's not an easy situation," he said. "But we have to do this for the long-term view."
As part of that perspective, Niemiec also has asked a panel of faculty members -- who already were working on a curricular review -- to also consider how the college can remain competitive for faculty talent and adjust to tighter economic times. He has delayed -- pending this review -- the approval of tenure-track faculty lines (a process that typically happens when a tenured faculty member retires), and asked that this year's and next year's consideration of such slots take place together, rather than on a department-by-department basis.
Niemiec said he is not trying to push any one model on the faculty, and wants professors' ideas. But he suggested that at least some of the questions must involve numbers of jobs. "You have to look at how you fill slots in a department," he said. "Do you need six chemistry teachers as opposed to five?"
On Friday, Niemiec held an open meeting where he announced the decision to eliminate 40 positions, and took questions.
Diane Lichtenstein, a professor of English and chair of the faculty panel reviewing the college's options, said that professors are "very positive" about the president's "honesty and transparency." While people don't want to see positions eliminated, she said that Niemiec has been talking openly about the financial problems throughout the fall, and has been receptive to input from all.
The faculty members reviewing the curriculum have been talking about these issues for some time, well before this fall's financial concerns, she stressed. So the idea that it's time to think about how and what students are taught is generally accepted. What will be more difficult, she said, will be to consider these issues in light of the economic constraints that weren't present when professors first planned the review. The goal, with the review and job eliminations, she said, is a good one: "Get the place in a position where a new president can come in and build, and not have to deal with crises."
But the faculty is just starting the conversation, she stressed. At a meeting last week, Lichtenstein said she was trying to get a sense from colleagues about "how much change they are interested in," and she's not sure of the answer.
Mitchell Young, student body president, also praised the way the administration has kept everyone informed. "He's not sugar-coating things," Young said of the interim president, and that's good. He said some students realized that, and were appreciative, while others were stunned Friday by the news that jobs would be eliminated, and were angry.
Young said he views the cuts as "highly unfortunate but necessary." He said it is more difficult than people realize for students and faculty members to talk about which positions could be eliminated. The classics department has two full-time faculty members, he said, and some worry that smaller departments like that could disappear. To students outside the department, that might seem OK, but what about the college's overall offerings as a liberal arts institution, he asked?
And the value of individuals, he added, isn't apparent in a job title or even official responsibilities. Young said that Beloit is a college where every student thinks about some professors or others who have personally connected with them, even if not part of their official jobs. That makes it more difficult, he said, to say any position is expendable. "People seem to be asking us what programs keep us here," he said. "But at Beloit it's who keeps them here, not what."