Tyler Rak, Chief Copy Editor/Business Manager
As the fall semester winds to a close, campus community members are growing increasingly concerned about the alleged budget deficit faced by The College of Wooster. The Board of Trustees and Interim President Wayne Webster announced earlier this year that Wooster is facing an estimated $6.1 million budget deficit. This has been one of the major concerns of the College’s Strategic Planning and Priorities Advisory Committee (SPPAC), a committee made up of faculty members, staff and students who advise the President on matters pertaining to strategic planning and resource allocation for the College.
In their meetings this semester, SPPAC and the Faculty Committee have claimed that shifting demographics has greatly contributed to financial issues because fewer students are graduating from the states students typically come from, such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Wooster, like other small liberal arts colleges, has faced issues in recruiting students because a liberal arts degree is becoming less desirable among high school seniors. This dynamic has left the same amount of schools to compete for fewer students. Liberal arts colleges have also faced issues in recruiting because students are increasingly looking for majors that liberal arts schools typically do not offer, including nursing and business. This decrease in student interest has caused the College to invest heavily in new recruitment tactics, which contributes to the deficit.
With falling revenue, the College has looked into the rate at which tuition is discounted. At this point, the cost to the College to discount tuition for each class of students is nearing $1 million a year. However, discussions about raising tuition to cover this deficit have been squashed because this would harm recruitment efforts and cause more economic hardships for students already struggling to afford tuition each year.
Aside from recruitment issues and tuition discounts, the College has also faced problems in receiving earnings from students’ tuition. SPPAC co-chair and professor of history, Latin American studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies Katherine Holt has said that the College’s revenue from student’s tuition has “been flat for…four or five years now.”
These concerns have caused SPPAC and the Board of Trustees to investigate new ways to tackle this deficit. One of the ways that the Board of Trustees and Interim President Webster have decided to combat this financial deficit is by initiating an Academic Program Review (APR). The APR will be conducted by a third party consultant and is scheduled to take place during spring and summer of 2023. Holt is excited for this opportunity saying, “I think there [is the] potential for [an] exciting kind of reimagination of existing programs and then again, making sure that what we’re doing is more in line with what students want to do and what the market wants.” She also noted that faculty applications to serve on a committee to assist in this process will be posted in the coming weeks. “I think that making sure that folks are willing to stand for this task force and to participate and to ask questions, hard questions, and to push back is going to be key to success,” Holt adds, “I’m really hoping that a lot of my colleagues will pick themselves up to run, because I think…it’s going to really help shape the institution moving forward.”
While Holt expresses optimism in this process, other faculty members are skeptical of the forthcoming APR. In the SPPAC meeting minutes for Oct. 20, 2022, concerns were raised by faculty “about the impact of the APR. Issues include the timing of the review, the structure of the review and the potential outcomes of the review.” Further concerns were raised, including that, “if a faculty member runs to be a member of the APR task force they may be viewed in a negative light by other faculty.”
Several faculty members on campus highlight the concern that this process is hitting the campus on the heels of a worldwide pandemic and faculty morale that has been on the decline for several years. Dr. Harry Gamble, professor of French and Francophone studies, raised the concern in a Faculty Committee meeting that this is the time to capitalize on recent developments on campus such as the renovations of Lowry Center and welcoming a new president to campus. This campus revitalization would help alleviate tensions surrounding the sagging faculty and staff morale and questions of the College’s leadership, but that the APR appears “to stand in tension with these urgent priorities.”
Other faculty members fear that this process will further divide faculty on campus by pitting departments against one another and calling into question the value of courses that may not be considered “‘financially worthwhile’” such as small seminars about very specific topics or unique classes that provide different insight into topics. These faculty members also fear that the APR will focus solely on quantitative measures of worth instead of qualitative measures and that some departments may be disproportionately impacted by cuts recommended from the APR’s findings.
While many faculty members raise significant concerns about the APR, Holt takes a more positive approach saying that decisions, “are going to be grounded in a financial calculation, but always hopefully informed by who we are as an institution and things that are called our mission.” She added that, “my hope is that we will emerge from this a stronger institution.”
Whether faculty members agree or disagree with the decision to engage in an Academic Program Review or how much this decision is linked to the campus budget deficit, one call is resoundingly clear in the budgeting process – that faculty, staff and students want a more transparent approach to budgeting. Several accounts in the faculty meeting minutes from this semester bring up the topic of opening the full budget to faculty members which would create a more transparent and accessible way of accounting for the College. Holt said that, “one thing I’ve really appreciated about working with Interim President Webster is that he has not held back anything I’ve asked for,” adding that “he’s been really good about making things available to us.” She went on to say, “Under him, I think there’s been a move to greater transparency.” While this move towards transparency has been appreciated, the Board of Trustees granting full access to the budget would be welcomed by faculty, staff and students with open arms.