By Olivia Montes
Throughout the past several years, Washington College underwent significant changes in response to the lingering fiscal deficit. Now, efforts to tackle these changes are underway.
During the 2020-21 academic year, the College attempted to lessen the fiscal deficit, specifically with the proposed and approved plan focusing on faculty and staff members alike.
According to previous Elm coverage, alongside removing several full-time positions, these cuts have included excluding the cost-of-living adjustments from faculty salaries, reducing additional retirement and healthcare benefits, and deflect on granting faculty members raises in overall salaries.
As of this year, the College’s budget once again did not include the cost-of-living adjustment for faculty salaries.
As the semester continues, President of the College Dr. Mike Sosulski said that it is “so important” to urgently address and take the steps necessary to resolve this “very demoralizing” issue.
“For [the College] to be everything it needs to be, everyone who works here needs to feel valued, and needs to feel that their work is honored,” Dr. Sosulski said. “We have people who come to work and teach in a liberal arts setting [and] do so because they believe in the mission, and we need to do everything we can to support them economically.”
The combination of consistent turnovers in institutional leadership — with at least six presidents, nine vice presidents of advancement and six directors of admissions over the course of nearly nine years — and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further negatively impacted WC’s situation, according to Interim Provost Dr. Michael Harvey.
“What’s happened is a reduction in overall purchasing power,” Dr. Harvey said. “Because if we stand still, and inflation creeps up…then people are starting to fall behind where they were the previous year. We have a long-term obligation both to the people who are here, our workers, our students, and to our alumni, and to the role of the College and the community. We have a really important obligation to make sure that this argument, that this College endures as a liberal arts college.”
Over the last several years, the College made approximately $2 million in cuts relating to academic spending. During the 2020-21 academic year, WC also initiated fiscal reductions and other similar changes “in response to ‘a period of financial stress’ due to declining enrollment and revenue,” according to previous Elm coverage.
These changes included the elimination of a near total of 35 “full-time equivalent staff positions” over the course of three years, including 20 faculty positions in the past two years, as well as the future closing of approximately seven faculty positions over the next two years.
According to previous Elm coverage, this original announcement prompted a response from the WC Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, who then issued their intentions to “petition for voluntary union recognition to College Administration and the Board of Visitors and Governors” on Oct. 13, 2020.
In addition to releasing a petition “to be voluntarily recognized as unionized,” the AAUP-WC was originally formed to address the impacts left by “instability in leadership, the marginalization of faculty voices in strategic decisions, [and] decreases in compensation and benefits,” according to the press release.
“Years of turnover and flawed decisions in the top offices of the College and Board [of Visitors and Governors] have contributed to our current financial problems, but despite talk of co-governance, faculty played almost no role in any of the decisions that have gotten us to where we are,” Associate Professor of History Dr. Clayton Black said to The Elm.
According to Young Ja Lim Professor of Economics Dr. Robert Lynch, the AAUP-WC is still in existence, and will continue to advocate for the voices of faculty members across campus.
While cuts and reductions continue to present several challenges for many academic departments one year later, Dr. Harvey said that these cuts in benefits and suspensions in retirement contributions will not be sustainable in the long term, and, as a result, the College plans to enact solutions to improve the situation. This will include working with Dr. Sosulski, department chairs, and other faculty members to update the strategic plan from 2014 over the next few years, according to Dr. Harvey.
According to Dr. Sosulski, plans to permanently fill the position of chief financial officer are also underway, as it will help to bring insight as to how the College can achieve stability without having to make any more cuts.
“The most important and foundational thing that we can do is hire a permanent [vice president] who I can work with and develop the strategy from a financial perspective that will allow us to restore cost of living adjustments and contributions to retirement benefits — [and] that is so important for all kinds of reasons,” Dr. Sosulski said. “The retirement right is the magic of compounding interest…we value the people who are here in that regard, and I need a partner to help strategize and plan for the long term.”
However, for many professors across the College campus, these changes cannot come soon enough.
For Dr. Lynch, who first joined the College faculty in the fall of 1998, while he says that he has had positive experiences working with both professors and students, and good working relationships with senior administrators, the culmination of these changes has been overwhelming — and largely negative.
“Faculty have not had a raise in several years even as the cost of living has increased. Health benefits and retirement benefits have been reduced. Stipends for taking on duties in addition to the normal teaching, scholarship, and committee work, have also been reduced or eliminated,” he said. “When you add up all these changes, the compensation of faculty has been significantly curtailed.”
As this partnership between WC institutional and academic leaders builds, Dr. Lynch says that it is important to pay attention to all individuals associated with the College, past, present, and future.
“The College needs to be mindful of the long-term consequences of losses in faculty and staff jobs and reductions in compensation,” Dr. Lynch said. “The ‘product’ that a college sells is very different from the product sold by the typical business. For example, when you buy a car, you don’t typically interact with the workers who produced the car, and you don’t typically inquire about their qualifications or observe them working. What you care most about is the quality and price of the final product: the car.”
“But when students and parents purchase what Washington College sells, the ‘product’ they are buying is the education and the college experience we offer,” he said. “In other words, a large part of what you are ‘buying’ is us: the faculty, staff, and students. When faculty and staff positions are eliminated or working conditions deteriorate, the quantity and quality of the education and the college experience that students receive is reduced.”
“There are many aspects of the student experience — [but] ultimately, we exist because of academics,” Dr. Harvey said. “Every cut has been thought about, and all cuts have been difficult. But the priority has been to keep the program going and keep offering students great learning experiences, and we’ve tried to do that in every step — and we remain committed to that.”