Category Archives: Quaker Colleges

Peg Champney: Tribute to a quietly powerful Friend

Peg Champney, center, working/playing at Olney, with Friends Music Campers, 2008.

 

I owe a lot to Peg Champney, who died November 5, at 87. But I did not know her that warm day in the late 1980s when I turned off Sandy Ridge Road in the small eastern Ohio town of Barnesville, onto the campus of the Olney Friends School, where she was.

The grassy, nearly flat crest of the ridge was covered with luxuriously green grass, lined with tall, venerable trees, weathered into sturdy magnificence by decades of hard Ohio winters.

Olney, on a peak sky day.

Fortunately I was never there in winter; so my memories of Olney are of the green ridge, sloping to a soccer field on the west, and to a large manmade pond on the east. Turtles sunned there, small fish leaped to snap flies, and occasional anglers swung lines like sultry lassos to drop hooks in the dark water after them.

A wide wooden porch swing was perched on the ridge crest facing the pond. In later summers I spent many hours rocking slowly on it. I rose early to watch the sun climb through the mists slowly unfurling from the reflective pond surface; or as the day’s heat receded, bask in the steel purple dusk spreading over the red barn of the farm beyond it.

One of Olney’s ghosts? I always thought so. In daylight, though, it’s four of many student handmade ceramic tiles in the boy’s dorm bathroom.

Behind me were Olney’s school buildings, the “new” girls’ dorm, the older Boys’ dorm, both satellites of the larger, even older main building between them. The place looked hand-built, and much of it likely was, in a style of plain frugality and self-reliance. It embodied the Conservative Quaker ethos that created and long sustained Olney. From this small outpost, the school and its sponsors doggedly resisted the encroachments of the 20th century decade by decade, ultimately yielding almost every time, not always with good grace. Olney has ghosts too, the ones I’ve encountered were mostly friendly.

A dark red sidewalk of bricks, laid in a herringbone pattern and sometimes almost covered by the grass, stretched from the school building north across the long green, flanked by a motley handful of staff houses, to the doors of the cavernous Stillwater Meetinghouse. Stillwater could (and for years did) hold up to 2000 plain-dressed Friends for the summer sessions of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. How they coped with the heat in their stiff plain suits, or heavy dresses and bonnets, I can scarcely imagine.

From a local paper’s report on Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. No date, but it was likely long remembered as the year when Eliza Varney preached for an hour. Not that such extensive effusions of the Spirit were unheard of in those days.

Only a relative, mostly aging handful of them were left when I arrived in the late 1980s. And on the day I’m recalling, yearly meeting was still six weeks or more away.

Some of the downstairs benches of Stillwater Meetinghouse.

It was a Thursday, and with me was my son Asa, who must have been seven. I wanted him to spend the weekend there with me, just soaking up the vibes of the place. Quaker education by atmospheric osmosis? Worth a try.

Barnesville is the main crossroads of Conservative, or Wilburite Quakerism. They split from the Orthodox branch in the 1850s when that group began imbibing a new message preached by elite Quaker ministers from the home country, England. They came bearing exports of their recently-acquired evangelical theology.

They and their alien gospel were denounced by John Wilbur, an obscure, non-elite Rhode Island Friend. (I’ve found no photo or silhouette of him; likely he would not  have stood for such worldly foolishness.) He followed the  Anglos around, arguing their message would wreck traditional Quakerism, and lead to rule by bishops and even popery.

Wilbur was disowned for his trouble. Yet while the insurgent reformers stopped short of Rome, Wilbur’s warning was prescient: they did bring drastic changes to most American Quaker meetings: “programmed” revivalist services, fundamentalist theology, paid preachers and pastors, rule by clerical cliques and superintendents who were bishops in all but name.

Olney’s founders repudiated all that, but they no liberals. They aimed to conserve the old plain ways, in unpastored worship, silence-based but with plenty of preaching, amid a plain, mostly rural life.

But the farm towns where their yearly meeting at first flourished were soon sucked dry of the younger generations, drawn to bigger towns & cities for school, work, and more fun than was allowed at home.

With them also went much of the student base for the Olney Friends School. Financial stress ultimately obliged school officials to do what a previous generation would have abhorred: turn to outsiders, even to the infidel Liberal Quakers, renting out school space in summer.

This is where Peg Champney came in. She was from three hours and a couple light years west, the village of Yellow Springs. It was a tiny island of progressive politics and culture in Ohio’s mostly conservative sea. Part of the very liberal Yellow Springs Friends Meeting, Peg and her friend Jean Putnam had a dream of starting a summer Friends Music Camp, and renting Olney as its base.

Of course, music was one of the diabolical innovations that had provoked the Conservative Quaker schisms. But all that was in another century. Olney needed money, and had no summer program. Peg was winsome, personally respectable, and if her head was stuffed with dangerously progressive notions, her pocketbook was stocked with 100% American cash. In 1980, Friends Music Camp opened.

Its session was underway when I arrived with Asa. I had no real agenda other than for the two of us to soak up the Conservative ambiance; and no place to stay. Frankly, short on cash, I hoped to cadge a couple of spare beds.

I was directed to Peg to negotiate this. She was friendly, but with ten years of herding frisky musical Quaker cats under her belt, she also had a quiet air of command.

I explained myself, and added that I had hoped to barter for our two nights’ lodging.

“What have you got to trade?” she asked.

This was the crucial moment. In today’s paranoid world, she would have had no truck with wandering strangers, especially males. Insurance regulations alone now demand criminal background checks on anyone coming within reach of children; then there’s the proliferating scars of fear on the collective psyche left by our mass murder culture.

But Peg had had her own pre-digital career as a communitarian and camper: she had sized up hundreds of people, as she sized me up that day, and her intuition (what Quakers prefer to call discernment) had been well-honed.

Plus I had, it turned out, an ace in the hole. Besides offering to do physical work, dishes, cleaning or suchlike, I also said I had some stories, original stories I had written and read to my children, which I could share with the campers, if way opened.

Peg’s eyes brightened. “We may be in luck,” she said. The next evening ‘s program had just fallen through. A slot was vacant; storytelling could fill the bill. The deal was made.

Long story short: it wasn’t storytelling, but story reading; My tales were composed, but not memorized. And full disclosure: I was greatly relieved to escape dishwashing or floor-scrubbing.

And the next night, the campers liked my stories. A lot, it seemed; they laughed, held their breath, and applauded. For ninety minutes, I was treated like a famous writer.

Reading at FMC, 2007: it wasn’t my razzle dazzle stage presence; it was the words, the stories that held them.

Asa and I headed home well-marinated in the heirloom broth of Wilburism. And even then I understood it was a spiritual tonic best savored in small, well-spaced doses. They didn’t like talking about it with outsiders, but one of the Wilburites’ main preoccupations was turning personal grievances into theological crises & mini-schisms, which was another reason there were so few left.

But never mind that. The memory of Friends Music Camp, or FMC, stayed warm and vivid, and the next summer I sent a note to Peg — written, I believe, by hand and sent in an envelope with a stamp — offering to do it again if way opened.

My spot on the FMC calendar, always came after the canoe trip.

Way did open; Peg said yes. I again brought Asa, who had leaped headlong into the camp’s ethos as if it were the pond on the hottest day of the year. He railed against the systemic grownup oppression that kept him from being a full-fledged camper til he was ten.

And two years led to another. I was also familiar enough with liberal Quaker culture to know that an event repeated three times at their gatherings automatically becomes a tradition. Many of the campers came back to FMC yearly til they aged out, and my stories found a place in their young memories and camp talk.

And so it has been for thirty-plus summers. Asa finally became a real camper, returned for six summers, and Peg’s mild-mannered magic did him a world of good. (Word is it did worlds of good for many campers.) It was also a welcome spur to my imagination, because while there were tales the campers wanted to hear again, they also were eager for new material. Fiction is not my main medium as a writer; but I soon set a goal of bringing a new story each year, each grandly announced as a World Premiere. So far, I’ve managed to meet it.

So far.

Olney never lost its appeal for me. Whenever I could, I’d arrange to get there a day or two early. Then I’d spend as many hours as possible on the slow swing, facing the pond and the rolling hills beyond. The whole scene became my private retreat center, quiet except for the spasms of dissonant background music from the practice rooms, or the occasional thunderstorm’s fury. All that was welcome too. After Asa’s summers there, FMC gave me modest honoraria for the visits. But I would have paid to do it.

On retreat: the view from the Olney swing, on an evening when the pond was a mirror.

Thirty years is a long time, though, and time brings change.

Peg was not young when FMC began: she had already raised a family with husband Ken in Yellow Springs, and they were grown and flown. More grey appeared in her black hair as the summers progressed, as it did in mine. She understood the process, and did a good job of training counselors and junior staff. And when she retired, several years ago now, the transition seemed smooth enough.

For some years she came to visit the sessions, and was dubious about her status as Honored Founder. Maybe that’s why the visits became shorter. Also, Ken Champney died in 2011.

Then the new staff heard other voices of change: Olney Friends School still needed money, and proposed to raise the camp’s rent. And Earlham College came calling.

Earlham, Quaker-founded and an hour west of Yellow Springs just over the Indiana line, needed money also. One reason was that they were finishing a new, $22 million dollar arts building, with many practice rooms and an elegant compact concert hall. Summer rentals would help pay for it.

It’s easy enough to sense the appeal to the new FMC staff. I said that the Wilburite Quaker tonic was best in small doses. The senior FMC staff had had enough of them that the charm of Olney’s picturesque plainness had mostly worn off. For some veterans, the buildings were no longer venerable and quaint, just old. The food was Midwestern bland (“Groundhog gravy” was a staple, though I liked it). And as summers got hotter, the lack of air conditioning was more onerous.

The camp moved to Earlham in 2016. I was not the only one who wept over its departure, but loyally followed it west. At that point, my stories and I were more than tradition: they became a link to lost origins.

This collection of nineteen original stories is n Amazon at: “Posies for Peg”: https://tinyurl.com/y64reypk

And I needed a memento. From the swing and at other spots, I had taken many photos, trying to capture Olney’s spirit — even hoping one frame might capture a glimpse of one of its ghosts. I put a few favorites on the cover of a collection of nineteen of my FMC stories, and published it as Posies for Peg. (There was never any comment on it from Peg; no surprise. Even her liberal Quakerism retained enough traces of Wilburite plainness that it didn’t hold much with such tributes.)

A sign at Earlham

I still grieve about the move. I expect Peg was heartbroken too, if resigned. I don’t think she visited FMC in its new digs.

Earlham is, it seems, everything it promised: gleaming new dorms, all climate-controlled; veggie, vegan & gluten free options every meal. Its Quaker connection is an upscale one, albeit with a life-size sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr hanged in Boston in 1660, to brood over it all, mostly unnoticed, from an inconspicuous concrete bench. No ghosts wander its modern halls.

A fracking sign, one of any around Barnesville in a recent summer. The buyers found many takers.

Yes, I understand. But you ask me, historic colleges are a dime a dozen. There’s only one Barnesville, and one Olney, even if they now exist mainly in my mind. And of course, change has come there too: the fracking boom has surrounded and invaded the town like a foreign army, cursed by some, welcomed by many. Olney has said no to the frackers’ money, but has been taking in affluent foreign students to keep its doors open. I’m not sure I want to know much more.

Now Peg is gone, and I owe so much to her. May her memory be for a blessing. My run at FMC will also no doubt be reaching its end before long. I’m looking for a successor storyteller to recommend. This fall, for health reasons, travel to places like Earlham abruptly became more problematic. But if it weren’t that, it would soon be something else; mortality is a shapeshifter, coming in many different guises, and on its own schedule; yet amid all the change, its arrival is still a certainty.

Mary Dyer, at Earlham. (Is she brooding, or only musing . . .?)

Ho. Ho. Ho? How The Grinch Is Stealing Christmas at Earlham College

You read it here last August:

“At Earlham College, it’s going to be a tense Christmas this year, especially for faculty and staff.

That’s because, whatever goodies Santa brings, the Grinch will be close behind, snatching away the good cheer and hopes for a happy new year in 2019. . . .”

And this week, Mr, G. will indeed be out there, prowling the streets of Richmond Indiana. And he’ll be delivering pink slips.

The trigger was pulled Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. The Earlham College Board of Trustees adopted a plan, in preparation since late summer, that will cut Earlham College’s budget by 12 per cent, or $4.3 million (to $45.7  million total), and result in elimination of 12 staff positions, a reduction of five more staff jobs from full to part-time, and the ending of 11 visiting faculty positions: 28 in total.

It is the eleven faculty who will be getting pink slips from Mr. G. By college regulations, the bad news must be delivered, preferably in person, by New Years Eve. (The plan was announced in an email letter from the Board on Friday Dec. 21, which was also the Winter Solstice. The staff cuts will be made official by February 15; rumors that this date was chosen to spoil Valentine’s Day as well were unconfirmed.)

[The full text of the December 21 letter is  at the end of this post.]

From one perspective, the cuts were a big success for the faculty: they protected all the school’s tenured & tenure track professors, and turned back the Trustees’ earlier call for $8 million in cuts.

But for how long? The Board was careful to point out that this batch  of cuts was not the end of the matter. Their original $8 million target for cuts, almost 17 per cent, was not forgotten.  To reach that higher number would likely have meant adding some tenured names to the pink slip list. (We explained in the August post how the Board can get around tenure, by abolishing entire majors or departments.) And the December 19th letter was explicit that this option was still on your the table:

“It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.”

To my southeastern ears, that sure sounds more like “when,” rather than “if.” They then added, under the heading “Future planning”:

“The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation. . . .

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

“Financial sustainability” is the key phrase here. The Board’s analysis of admission and income trends views Earlham’s present path and staff/faculty configuration as “unsustainable,” requiring much more drastic restructuring (and job cuts) to stop the bleeding.

A concrete example of where “financial unsustainability” leads can be found by looking east, to Boston. There Wheelock College, after 131 years “merged” last June with Boston University, shrinking from a freestanding college to a department in BU’s ed school. And when the merger” was done, 111 employees, more than half of its almost 200 faculty & staff, were laid off.

How did this happen? One report said: “Schools like Wheelock have experienced a perilous cycle of shrinking enrollment and rising costs over the past decade. . . .

That spiral — of rising costs and shrinking enrollment — is common at small colleges colleges across the country.

Michael Horn, an education consultant based in Boston and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, puts it this way: pit “significant increases in tuition, year over year over year, against the reality that middle-class wages have largely been stagnant.”

Horn anticipates that many such schools could end up merging, closing or going bankrupt in the years ahead. “Forty percent of colleges in this country have fewer than 1,000 students — I think all of those are at grave risk,” he warns. [Emphasis added.]

Earlham’s recent enrollment is barely over a thousand.

An informed Earlham veteran advised me last week that another big factor in Earlham’s plight is that it gives away a great deal of scholarship aid, which has cut down its net tuition revenue to dangerously low [aka “unsustainable”] levels.

So one “fix” likely to be in the mix for the Round Two plan is a substantial reduction in scholarships and raises in tuition.

Such reductions might yield a jump in net tuition income. But then again, maybe not: perhaps enrollment would fall, as prospective  students take their tuition money and look for better bargains elsewhere.  Wheelock raised tuition; it didn’t save them.

And there’s another wild card the Board did not mention in the December 19 letter, but which I bet has been on all the Trustees’ minds since then: the stock market’s rapid slide. Just three months ago, as the first round of plans were taking shape, the market was riding high, seemingly  promising continued steady growth and income from endowments.

Last August, Earlham estimated its endowment at $438 million, up from $425 million in 2017. The school had been drawing on its endowment to cover operating deficits (“unsustainably,” said the Trustees).

But as of last week, all the year’s growth in major markets had been abruptly and completely erased, and more chaos was in the forecast. The Christmas Eve fall of 600+ In the Dow Jones Indexwas one for the record books. Could the markets be heading into a new crash like that of September 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Who knows? But uncertainty hangs over us all, including colleges living on or near the edge. Wheelock College saw its endowment tank in 2008, and it never recovered.

Can Earlham pull through this time of uncertainty? I make no predictions, but here’s one somewhat upbeat footnote: I am reliably informed that these financial problems have not affected the Earlham School of Religion. Or at least not yet.

ESR has a separate budget, which is currently deemed to be “sustainable.” (Of course, seminaries have their own problems, involving shrinking church attendance and finances, which means fewer job opportunities for their graduates. But that’s another story.)

And in the meantime, there’s the Mean One, on the loose.

 

Full text of Board letter, released in Friday, December 21, 2018

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, the Earlham Board of Trustees held a special meeting on campus to consider some time-sensitive issues. Following is a report on the meeting.

Presidential search

The trustees heard an update from the Presidential Search Committee, and they approved a slate of semi-finalists who will be invited to participate in preliminary interviews in January. Finalists will then be invited to visit campus for interviews in early February. The committee will share feedback on those interviews and a recommendation for next steps during the Board’s meeting on February 9-10, 2019.

Financial sustainability

The trustees received the president’s recommendations for a budget reduction for the 2019-2020 academic year. (This was in response to the Board’s direction in June to reduce the 2019-20 expense budget to $42 million, which would be about an $8 million reduction from the current year’s budget.) More than 20 teaching faculty, administrative faculty and staff attended the discussion with the Board. Trustees heard reports from committee conveners on the processes that led to the recommendations, and asked questions to which teaching faculty, administrators and staff members responded.

After a robust discussion, the recommendations were approved. The resolution will reduce the College’s operating budget by nearly 12 percent, lowering our annual expenses by approximately $4.3 million. After this reduction, the College’s operating budget for the 2019-20 academic year will be about $46 million. We consider this a positive step toward long-term financial sustainability, but we must continue to find ways for the College to meet this important strategic goal.

The Board expressed its gratitude to the Teaching Faculty and Curricular Working Group, the Administrative Budget Reduction Team, the Cabinet and the President for their hard work, thoughtfulness, perspectives and advice on the budget reduction process. Trustees acknowledged that they had given the College a very challenging task and that the recommendations are difficult and, in some respects, unwelcome to some in the community. They believe that what they have approved will help the College address its financial challenges while staying true to its core educational mission.

The budget reductions approved by the trustees touch every area of the College. We will eliminate 12 administrative or staff positions, most of which are vacant or will be vacated as a result of our voluntary early retirement program. In addition, five administrative positions that are currently full-time will be reduced to part-time.

We will also not be renewing the contracts of some visiting faculty members, many of whom were hired on one-year contracts. In total, the size of the teaching faculty will be reduced by 11 positions. Most are visiting positions that were scheduled to end this year. In addition, two retiring faculty members will not be replaced. All searches for tenure track and visiting positions that are currently underway will continue. These reductions will change our student-faculty ratio (currently 10:1) to 11:1. The recommendations did not call for the elimination of any tenure or tenure-track faculty positions.

Visiting faculty members whose contracts will not be renewed are being informed this week. We feel that it is important to share this sort of information in person, when possible, and it is necessary to do so this week since the Faculty Handbook stipulates a deadline of December 31, 2018 for non-renewals for visiting faculty. Administrators and staff whose positions will be reduced to part-time will be notified no later than February 15, 2019.

It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.

Future planning

The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation.

The first step in this effort will be the creation of a framework for a curricular plan, developed by the faculty, that will articulate the core values of an Earlham education and offer the world a compelling value proposition.

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability, but that it is also steadfast in its desire to offer an exceptional educational experience to a diverse group of students with a diverse and committed faculty and staff.

 

Earlham, The Grinch, & Sections “M” & “N”

At Earlham College, it’s going to be a tense Christmas this year, especially for faculty and staff.

That’s because, whatever goodies Santa brings, the Grinch will be close behind, snatching away the good cheer and hopes for a happy new year in 2019.

The  Earlham Grinch will be in disguise, but the masquerade won’t fool anybody: the Grinch will be dropping pink slips down chimneys (or for those  gone chimney-free, an email inbox will do).

And while today it may be sweltering summer, with winter holidays seemingly a universe away, Christmas is still on the minds of many around Earlham. That’s because the campus Grinch is already on the loose there, and has
claimed his first, highest-profile victim. Continue reading Earlham, The Grinch, & Sections “M” & “N”