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The Whittier College Board of Trustees was scheduled for a rare in-person meeting this Friday, after conducting most business virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the meeting has since been moved online due to unspecified threats allegedly aimed at Whittier’s president.
A state of the college address by President Linda Oubré will follow on Saturday, also to be delivered remotely—partly because of the alleged threats but also, she said, because it will allow her to reach and engage with an audience beyond Whittier’s campus in Southern California.
“It’s still an open investigation,” Oubré told Inside Higher Ed regarding the threats. “It’s not our practice to discuss open investigations.”
But detractors of Oubré and the board have questioned the authenticity of the concerns, alleging that the president and trustees are trying to stifle criticism of a leader they believe doesn’t have a plan to turn around slumping enrollment at the small liberal arts college. Many also take issues with her management style, which they describe as top-down.
Now, with her address looming, Oubré and her critics have radically different views of what the state of the college is. Among other things, tensions still linger over a decision to cut various athletic teams, a move Oubré described as necessary but that her critics say will have severe repercussions on enrollment given that numerous tuition-paying student athletes are likely to depart.
Emphasizing Security or Stifling Criticism?
Board chair Miguel Santana made the decision to move Friday’s meeting online. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Santana noted that Whittier’s board primarily met online during the pandemic, and it would continue to hold a mix of virtual and in-person meetings so out-of-state trustees had the option to attend online.
“I was made aware of some security concerns that were being prompted by folks who have been attacking the college, attacking the administration, attacking the board, and out of an abundance of caution, I made the decision to make the board meeting virtual,” Santana said. He added that he didn’t “feel comfortable talking about what those concerns are” that drove his decision.
But Santana did describe “an intensifying campaign” by “an anonymous group that has been sending a barrage of emails” to college officials and board members, including allegedly releasing the home addresses of various trustees.
As a result, law enforcement has advised the board “to minimize in-person activity,” Santana said.
Asked to identify the anonymous group, Santana pointed to Save Whittier College, a self-described group of “alumni, friends, donors, former trustees and family members,” some of whom signed their names to a public letter to the campus community. But multiple critics of Whittier’s administration, current as well as former employees who spoke to Inside Higher Ed, said that leaders have leveraged the college’s resources to intimidate and silence critics through legal channels, which has quelled some dissent. Multiple sources requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation from college officials, while others who discussed their concerns declined to go on the record due to fear of legal retribution.
Some critics have expressed doubt about the validity of the threats cited, dismissing them as a fabrication of leaders who fear facing protests.
“It’s pretty obvious to those of us on the inside that it’s bullshit,” one current employee said.
One cause for concern that Santana raised is anonymous criticism of the emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion as an enrollment goal and leadership strategy at Whittier. He said objecting to DEI as a business principle struck him as an ideological attack, adding that demographics are shifting across the U.S.—especially in California—which puts Whittier ahead of the curve in focusing on DEI.
“From a business standpoint, it is essential to our survival,” Santana said. “More colleges want to be like Whittier—they want to be responsive to demographic changes, they want to ensure that students of color are successful. We’re very proud of that. We’re certainly not going to hide or run away from it.”
Critics who spoke with Inside Higher Ed raised concerns largely unrelated to DEI. Instead they cited slumping enrollment and rudderless leadership, which they believe need to be addressed now before Whittier goes the way of other liberal arts colleges that have shut down in recent years due to shaky finances. Many also fear the erosion of shared governance and the potential elimination of jobs.
The Big Picture
When it comes to recent enrollment numbers, Oubré is tight-lipped. But she acknowledged the college hasn’t had the success it hoped for, though she expressed confidence in an enrollment rebound.
A look at the college’s Common Data Set shows a significant enrollment slump at Whittier. While the college counted 1,833 students in fall 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic, that number has fallen post-pandemic, which is true for many colleges across the U.S. By fall 2021, the last year for which Common Data Set numbers are available, enrollment stood at 1,387.
Recent application data also show a significant drop-off. A total of 5,301 students applied to Whittier for the fall 2020 class, but that number subsequently fell to 3,062 for fall 2022.
“I think less information is being shared about that area of the college,” said Anne Sebanc, president of the Whittier College chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
In addition, Sebanc suggested that the faculty doesn’t have a good sense of any plan to bring those numbers up. She also pointed to high turnover for staff members working in admissions.
Katy Murphy, a Whittier graduate who also worked in the admissions office in the 1990s and later served as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, sent a scathing open letter in the fall comparing Oubré’s alleged missteps at Whittier to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which many users have blasted as a disastrous boondoggle.
“Certainly the financial stability of Whittier has been at stake for the past six years, but those challenges are not substantially different than those faced by other mid-range liberal arts and sciences colleges. In fact, Whittier’s location and traditions give it more advantages than those faced by others in the Mid-West, New England and the Mid-Atlantic both in terms of population and state funding,” Murphy said in the letter, which also noted high turnover in the admissions office.
But Oubré and her critics differ on the cause for the enrollment slide, as well as the solutions. While critics are concerned about Whittier’s retreat from recruiting on a national scale, Oubré said the emphasis should be on local students, given the promising demographics in California compared to declining numbers of student prospects in areas like the Northeast.
“Whittier had disinvested in the bread and butter,” Oubré said. “The bread and butter for college admissions is local—85 percent of students pick a college near home. Whittier College, for at least the previous decade before I came, had been putting money into markets outside of Southern California that are in population decline. A big part of what we’re doing is doubling down on the local market.”
As for high turnover in admissions, Oubré cited “the Great Resignation,” noting that higher education and the corporate world alike have struggled to retain employees in recent months.
Enrollment concerns also linger over the decision made in November to cut athletics programs, with trustees voting at the time to ax football, men’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s golf. The decision to cut football at Whittier—where Richard Nixon once played for the Poets—remains especially contentious given the large roster of about 80 players. Likewise, the men’s lacrosse team also hovered around 40 players. Given that scholarships are not allowed at the Division III level, losing those players could mean losing students who pay tuition.
In addition to retention concerns, there are now broader recruitment issues.
“The whole athletic department is concerned, and rightly so,” said a current athletics department employee who requested anonymity to discuss this matter. “It’s had an effect on recruiting from the moment it happened. Parents and potential recruits are not quite sure what the direction of the college is in terms of athletics. In terms of sending their child here, there are real concerns.”
Faculty and staff members are also concerned about how the athletic cuts were carried out. While the administration has suggested faculty members were consulted, employees have sharply denied being included in the decision.
“We learned about it when the students did,” Sebanc said regarding the cuts.
The staffer who works in the athletic department expressed displeasure in stronger terms: “I don’t think anybody thinks there was any shared governance that went into this decision.”
Oubré has defended the move, noting that while some athletes may transfer out, the cost-cutting measure will pay off down the road. She also noted ongoing retention issues with the football team, meaning that some of those players would have inevitably left Whittier College anyway.
At the end of the day, Santana makes clear that the decision was made by the board and that it was unanimous. Ultimately, he said the move will preserve the educational mission of Whittier.
“We’re trying to protect what’s most important,” Santana said, emphasizing that although athletic programs were cut, the board spared faculty jobs and academic disciplines. Santana added that the college has not raised tuition in three years.
And in some cases, where critics of Oubré see missteps, she sees strategies. While Oubré was unable to verify claims circulating online that alumni giving rates have fallen by as much as 90 percent, she said the college has purposefully shifted away from an emphasis on alumni donations.
“The strategy, before I came, had been to focus on the rate of alumni giving. What we decided to focus on is the size of the gift and being very targeted,” she said. “A lot of that alumni rate giving was based on, let’s just be honest, Trotsky programs. I tease the staff and say, ‘No socks,’ but there were programs where if you give $10, you got a pair of socks, and then it cost $12 to buy and send out the socks. So we became much more targeted, in terms of our alumni giving.”
Oubré pointed to a $12 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in 2020 as one example of a major donation, noting that—alumni giving aside—contributions are trending up.
What Is The State of Whittier College?
When Oubré addresses an online audience on Saturday, she will lay out her views on where Whittier College stands, which she describes in positive terms. But that may be very different from how many faculty and staff members see the state of the college.
Employees claim that management is nontransparent and even hostile at times; one former staff member who requested anonymity told Inside Higher Ed they were demoted for raising concerns about leadership strategies and then given more work in a diminished role. Others claim pay scales are noncompetitive and the college has stopped contributing to retirement accounts.
But the enrollment worries remain the most pressing.
“I know we have a robust endowment. The concern with declining enrollment is, how long can we last?” said Sebanc, noting the closure of other colleges that relied heavily on their endowments.
But by the numbers, and the strategies, Oubré is confident about the future of Whittier College.
“We are not in threat of closing, our financial situation is extremely strong, we have an extremely strong balance sheet, we have strong liquidity and we have about $400 million in assets,” Oubré said.
Despite the concerns employees raised to Inside Higher Ed, Oubré suggests that most are “very happy and very excited about the future,” and that the negative voices are merely the loudest.
“We’re very optimistic, and the state of the college is strong,” Oubré said.