Wells Faculty Cry Foul

May 11, 2010

A budget cutting proposal that would eliminate faculty and staff positions at Wells College has rankled faculty, who say they were sidelined from discussions as the plan took shape.

Faculty approved a resolution last week, expressing opposition to a plan that could use layoffs, pay cuts and program eliminations to reduce next year’s budget by $1.5 million.

“The Faculty of Wells College opposes the present lack of substantive shared decision-making and transparency, and demands participation in meaningful discussion concerning the budget and the impact of proposed faculty and departmental cuts on the health and sustainability of Wells College,” the resolution states.

The proposal marks another of several efforts in recent years to financially stabilize the small college of about 550 students in Aurora, N.Y. Founded as a women's college, Wells began admitting men in 2005 amid protest, couching the decision as a way to boost faltering enrollment.

While the decision to admit men led to enrollment gains, which college leaders boasted as a sign of recovery, the budget cutting proposal suggests tougher measures are still in order.

The college has struggled publicly for years, but administrators say the latest cuts are the result of steep endowment losses that happened during the economic downturn. The endowment is now valued around $32 million, down from about $50 million a few years ago, officials said.

Ann Rollo, a spokeswoman for the college, said the endowment contributes about $5 million annually in operating funds, covering about 17 percent of operations. It's relatively rare for a college with an endowment of Wells's size to cover such a large percentage of operations through endowment funds, and Rollo said the plan represents an effort to devote more of that money to one-time expenses.

“We took a really hard look at what would it take for Wells College to be a more self-sufficient, financially sustainable college by bringing our operating expenses and revenues in line with one another,” Rollo said.

At the same time, however, Wells will maintain its commitment to new initiatives like a new center for business and entrepreneurship. That means the college could be eliminating faculty positions while hiring others.

“It is true we will be simultaneously doing those things,” Rollo said.

Faculty say they’ve heard of as many as 20 to 25 faculty and staff positions being eliminated, but Rollo said Monday that figure was “way high.” She didn’t indicate what a more accurate number would be, but emphasized that a number of positions would be the result of attrition – not layoffs.

About five non-instructional staff positions have already been eliminated.

There has also been discussion of pay cuts between 11 and 13.5 percent, according to faculty, but Rollo said such reductions were being considered as an alternative to layoffs -- not in addition to layoffs.

At the heart of complaints made by faculty are concerns about a lack of communication regarding the college’s financial health and plans to address it. According to the faculty resolution, President Lisa Marsh Ryerson first stated April 8 that the college was in a state of “financial exigency,” only to later suggest the college had been in that state “for years.”

Rollo said Monday that she wasn't sure of the history of Ryerson's statements on "financial exigency."

Faculty say there has never been a formal declaration of financial exigency at the college, and certainly not “years” ago. The term is significant, because it suggests an “imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole,” according to guidelines established by the American Association of University Professors.

A declaration of financial exigency is recognized by the AAUP as grounds for dismissing tenured faculty, but the organization places a significant burden of proof on institutions to demonstrate financial exigency truly exists. In the event of such an emergency, the AAUP says faculty should be involved in developing criteria to determine which professors will not be re-appointed.

“I think it’s fair to say faculty should be and will be involved in that process,” Rollo said.

In addition to talk of layoffs, Wells is doing some restructuring. Changes to alumni relations have been met with resistance from some alumni, and the college’s dean of students recently resigned. Under the plan, the dean of students will report to a newly established provost instead of the president.

Alumni Disapproval

News of budget cuts at Wells quickly spread among a tight-knit group of alumni, who have been discussing the issue on Facebook and a blog.

Andrea Westerfeld, a 2000 Wells graduate, said the unveiling of the plan marks a continuation of poor communication on Ryerson’s part. Westerfeld said the president’s style has made difficult decisions – like making the college co-ed – even more controversial.

“I do not like her,” said Westerfeld, now a lawyer in Texas. “I know we were very proud when she first became president, because she was the first alum president. But I don’t think she’s qualified. I don’t think she’s doing a good job at all.”

After a pause, Westerfeld added “She’s a nice person.”

Amid criticism, Ryerson recently sent an e-mail to faculty suggesting the plan is “absolutely critical to the college’s viability.”

“Given that our largest annual expenditure is in personnel, in addition to departmental budget reductions, Wells will have to reduce the size of our faculty and staff in order to achieve the necessary decrease in expenses,” she wrote. “This has not been an easy process as Wells has always been fortunate to have the service of a talented and caring faculty and staff.”

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