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Courtesy of Guilford College

As students and employees at Guilford College prepared for Thanksgiving break, administrators dropped some bad news: nearly a third of the college’s faculty members, a handful of staff members and half of the college’s majors would be cut, pending approval from the Board of Trustees in December.

More than two dozen faculty members received termination letters earlier this month, including 16 tenured professors and five visiting faculty members. Four faculty members will retire, and two plan to resign. The college also eliminated eight staff members. It had already terminated 47 employees in July.

In addition to employees, the college will ax majors in math, political science, history, philosophy, geology, economics, peace and conflict studies, chemistry, religious studies, physics, creative writing, sociology/anthropology, forensic biology, community and justice studies, and all modern languages.

The college with Quaker roots in Greensboro, N.C., faces a $7 million structural budget deficit, and the recent cuts will help patch the hole. But they won’t make up the entire deficit, Carol Moore, interim president at Guilford, said in an email.

Guilford’s financial challenges are similar to those of many of its peers: steady enrollment declines and mounting debt that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Our particular challenge primarily relates to the steep loss of adult students over the last decade,” Moore wrote in an email. “Additionally, the College needed to invest in facility enhancements and curricular advances to become more competitive. Thus, we’ve taken on more debt service. The pandemic exacerbated our financial challenges and accelerated the urgency for finding lasting solutions."

Enrollment of adult learners has fallen significantly at Guilford, from 284 students in the fall of 2018 to 110 students in fall 2020.

Faculty members were not surprised to learn the college was in a financial bind. For years, they’d heard about falling enrollment numbers and increasing debt. But they had no idea of the scale of the problem, according to Gail Webster and Lisa McLeod, professors at Guilford. Before the pandemic, the two heard much smaller estimates of the college's budget deficit.

“In February, we heard $2.5 million,” Webster said. “It seems like every time since then that there’s been an update, the number just keeps getting larger and larger and larger.”

Webster teaches chemistry, one of the majors that will disappear at the end of the year if the Board of Trustees approves the proposed cuts. Because the college maintained its health sciences degree, she will still teach some classes, she said.

McLeod received a termination letter earlier this month. She teaches philosophy, another major on the chopping block. While the college may still offer some philosophy courses, it doesn't need all of its philosophy faculty. Friday, Nov. 20, was the college’s appeal deadline, but McLeod worried she didn't have enough information to write a convincing appeal.

“We know that there’s a financial motivation, but with regards to exactly why I was targeted for termination, there’s no information,” McLeod said. “So, it’s very difficult to write an appeal based on ‘We’re firing you.’”

It’s likely that students and employees will receive more bad news in coming months. Further cuts are still on the table, Moore said.

“The current recommendations are just one part of the solution,” the interim president said in an email. “Other potential expense relieving measures have and will continue to be examined and evaluated over the coming weeks and months to ensure a balanced budget is achieved.”

McLeod and Webster said that Moore has made one thing clear: without these cuts, the college will close.

But some faculty members worry that cuts to stave off closure could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. With fewer programs, the college may appeal to fewer students.

“Even with these cuts, there’s no guarantee that the college won’t close, because we can’t be certain what will happen with enrollment,” McLeod said.

A year ago, Guilford overhauled its academic calendar and curriculum in an effort to curb enrollment declines. So far, the college has yet to see results from the curricular revamp: this fall, it enrolled only 1,171 full-time undergraduate students. That's down from 1,219 traditional undergraduates in 2016-17, according to documents the college filed with bondholders. Total head-count enrollment, including early college, graduate and other nontraditional students, fell from 1,809 in 2016-17 to 1,429 this fall.

Nonwealthy liberal arts colleges are well aware of the so-called demographic cliff -- a steep decline in the number of traditional college-aged, white, wealthy students looking to enroll on campus. Colleges without large endowments or national name recognition are already feeling financial pressure from the demographic changes.

Some institutions may turn to borrowing instead of cuts as they seek enough cash to survive pandemic-related business disruptions or retool their academic offerings. Because of past borrowing, Guilford may not have much access to additional credit.

"Credit lines remain tight at this time," Moore said.

Moore arrived at Guilford in August after former president Jane Fernandes stepped down in July -- weeks after announcing she would retire the following summer. The former president of Columbia College in South Carolina, Moore was placed at Guilford through The Registry, an interim professional matchmaking organization that helps college boards fill presidential and administrative vacancies.

Guilford faculty members know the college’s financial troubles began long before Moore arrived, but many have been wary of her since she started in August. In a press packet compiled by faculty members, they wrote that Moore announced potential cuts right out of the gate.

“In her first week on campus, interim president Carol Moore told the community she was hired to do an academic prioritization and cut faculty positions to save money,” the faculty document read.

Faculty members proposed several alternative cost-saving measures, including salary reductions. But they were never taken seriously, according to Webster and McLeod.

Moore was hired to help fix the college’s financial situation, said Ian Newbould, a senior consultant at The Registry who helped place Moore.

“The expectation was that the interim president would help them solve their financial problems and would come up with some ideas and answers,” Newbould said. “They didn’t bring in someone in ‘to make cuts,’ but they did bring someone in and asked that person to do what had to be done.”

The faculty voted no confidence in Moore and the Board of Trustees' leadership Nov. 11. It was the first no-confidence vote in the college’s 183-year history. The no-confidence vote holds additional weight at an institution with connections to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, where decision making by consensus is often extremely important. Guilford's website still discusses "decision-making by consensus at all levels." As of the middle of last week, faculty members hadn't heard from Moore or the board about the vote.

The vote followed two virtual town halls, described in a faculty document as “unmitigated disasters.” Haydyn Foulke, a junior at Guilford, said a town hall she attended was chaos.

“Personally, I did hop off mute because [Moore] was lying to us,” Foulke said. “Saying, ‘this is what students wanted’ and ‘we consulted students.’”

Foulke said she and other students knew the college was in financial trouble, but she wasn’t expecting such deep cuts. The program reductions hurt the college’s liberal arts reputation, she said.

“I came here because I wanted a liberal arts education,” Foulke said. “Now our school can barely be called a liberal arts college.”

Foulke’s major, community and justice studies, is marked for elimination. The college will offer substitute courses for students to complete remaining major requirements, and students will be able to take classes through the Greater Greensboro consortium of local colleges and universities, which includes Bennett College, Elon University, Greensboro College, Guilford Technical Community College, High Point University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Foulke isn’t sure yet if she’ll transfer or find a way to complete her degree at Guilford. Either way, she’s angry that she has to make that choice.

“My mentor, my major and everything that I care about is being cut, is being taken away,” Foulke said. “As a junior, what do I do? I love this place. I don’t want to transfer.”

Students can’t protest on campus without approval, Foulke said, so they’ve been holding demonstrations across the street. The student newspaper, the Guilfordian, published a scathing op-ed opposing the cuts. Alumni have also organized in opposition to cuts through the newly formed group Save Guilford College.

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