Broken Covenant

Some professors want to know why a religious college in Georgia is preparing for faculty cuts while adding significantly to athletics spending.
April 15, 2009

At Covenant College, a Presbyterian institution in Georgia, a strategic planning process has triggered discussions of whether an institution should build up athletics at the same time it cuts academics.

The three-year strategic plan approved by the Board of Trustees in March is wide-ranging, with 17 goals and about 75 action items. Savings recouped by “right-sizing” the college -- a process that involves eliminating some faculty slots -- are identified in the plan, which also calls for increased investments in the athletics program.

“We’re basically financing an athletics program by whacking an academic program,” one professor said.

That is a common sentiment at Covenant – although not everyone would agree the connection is fair. “The conclusions that went into the right-sizing plan are conclusions that came out of a very careful process of evaluating every program. That savings -- call it a savings, the efficiencies, the better use of dollars -- that came out of that process, is something that would be going forward regardless of any new investment in any other program. Those are decisions we made to bring the college to a place where it’s more sustainable in the long term,” said Niel Nielson, Covenant's president.

"Generally, what we’re doing is we’re trying to appropriately resource all of our programs. We are committed to adjusting, and we had to use the word, ‘right-sizing,’ programs to fit the resources and the student population we have, and we’re doing that in all areas of the college as we try to respond to the economic challenges and enrollment challenges that everyone else is feeling.”

He added, of planned investments in athletics, that they're seeking to match resources with student interest there, too. “The investment in coaches is entirely contingent on our actually enrolling the students and filling out the rosters, which we believe -- which I believe with all my heart -- actually serves the overall college well because it brings us the students that we need to meet the enrollment objectives."

Such enrollment strategies are common at tuition-driven private colleges like Covenant. Especially in this economy, colleges are looking to athletics to attract students and strengthen the institution as a whole. At the same time, many other colleges are cutting sports for economic reasons. To take a couple of examples, in March, Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, and Colorado College each cut three sports, citing financial considerations.

A Christian liberal arts college with about 1,000 traditional undergraduates, and located on top of Lookout Mountain, outside Chattanooga, Covenant calls itself "the college of the Presbyterian Church in America." College stakeholders originally entered into a 15-year strategic planning process, but shortened the horizon to three due to the uncertainty of the financial climate, Nielson said.

Covenant’s new strategic plan includes four “trajectories” – relating to the academic program, the learning environment (a subhead that encompasses athletics), “connections and communications” with external stakeholders, and the stewardship and growth of operations and resources (a subhead that includes the planned “right-sizing”). A draft version of the plan obtained by Inside Higher Ed identifies about $1.5 million in savings from the right-sizing, and investments of about $500,000 each in athletics and in a new Center for Vocation, to focus on career development and internships.

On athletics, Nielson repeatedly stressed that planned investments in new coaches are contingent upon the filling of rosters. No new sports are planned. Covenant, which is now affiliated with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), is in its "exploratory year" in terms of pursuing National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III membership. "We'll make that decision [on whether to apply] in May; the application would be due May 15," Nielson said.

Formal announcements on faculty cuts are also expected in May. Covenant faculty work on one-, three- and five-year contracts and do not have tenure. While names have already been named, and seem to be no secret on campus, faculty members are now awaiting final word. Reports are circulating of several faculty with 15, 20, even 30+ years of experience who expect to lose their jobs.

In short, uncertainty is in the air. Faculty critical of the plan declined to be identified by name in news coverage. Multiple Covenant professors, meanwhile, declined or did not respond to requests for interviews.

In terms of gauging a broad cross-section of faculty sentiment, faculty did narrowly approve the strategic plan, 28 to 24 with 11 abstentions, prior to the board vote in March. “I view it also as a non-affirmative vote,” said one professor who expressed a fundamental inability to get on board with a plan involving a redirection of funds from academics to athletics. “In my mind, while the number ultimately is larger in the affirmative it seems to me that one also could look at that vote and say there were more faculty that had hesitation about it.

"Everybody realizes we’re in some difficult economic times and all sorts of companies and organizations are cutting back, taking away benefits, doing various kinds of things to deal with losses. Schools are no exception… I understand that and I accept that. In terms of the outcomes and scenarios… I think there are other things that possibly could have been done rather than what was decided."

Asked about concerns regarding redirection of funds from academics to athletics, Scott Quatro, a management professor who chaired the strategic planning working committee said, “That is a logical conclusion that folks could reach. And let me also acknowledge that any time an organization goes through a strategic planning process, the inherent nature of strategic planning is that it involves tradeoffs."

Yet, Quatro continued, where the argument falls apart for him is in the link between curricular and co-curricular life at the college. "The increased investment in athletics largely has to do with professionalization of our coaching staff, so that the athletic program can be a more truly co-curricular component of a student’s experience at the college," he said. "If we want to do all things really well as an institution, especially co-curricular activities that come alongside or exist alongside our core academic programs, then we need to have as professional and well-engaged and as equipped a coaching staff as we do faculty. Otherwise we run the risk of our athletics programs really being too disconnected from what we’re doing as a larger institution.”

Quatro cited two other components of the strategic plan that he believes will well-position the college moving forward -- the investment in a new Center for Vocation and the development of an integrated marketing and communications campaign. "We have a rich heritage, we have a widespread recognition within academia for being an institution of high standards, of really bright and engaged and well-equipped students. We’ve got a unique perspective on higher education. Where we haven’t done a good job once again is connecting all of that to the broader world."

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