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.
That was Alan Price, Earlham’s first black president, who suddenly resigned on June 27, barely a year after taking office. Price was widely admired around campus, and his abrupt departure, after intensive meetings with the Board of Trustees and their Executive Committee, was a shock.
Normally, Boards are as tight-lipped as the CIA about such personnel matters. On July 2, the new Board Chair, David Stump, issued a typical letter, which said, “There is no question that Alan cares deeply for and about the College and ESR. That is all the more reason in the Board’s view why it would be counter-productive for all concerned, including Alan, to engage in commentary regarding the reasons for his resignation.”
But this is the year of #MeToo, and sudden, shocking falls by CEOs, celebrities and others are near-daily news fodder. Thus rumors began to spread: “Was it –?” “Could it be–??”
So Stump’s non-communicative communication was certainly counter-productive, as it did nothing to stem the burgeoning talk; and this fact finally got the chair’s attention.
On July 23 Stump issued a micro-clarification, repeating that: “details of the discussions regarding his resignation are considered confidential and will not be shared.” Then he added:
“This makes it hard to respond more specifically to some of the misinformation and speculation which apparently has been circulating. I do want to be clear, however, that the reasons contributing to Alan’s resignation did not call into question his love for and loyalty to Earlham, or his moral character.” (Emphasis added.)
Well, that’s something. It might quell #MeToo talk; but the fact remained that Price was suddenly out; so what happened?
Of the three topics that traditionally cause such troubles, sex was off the list; next is religion? Earlham was the scene of fierce battles over the Bible and evolution, but that was over a century ago, and the literalists lost and moved on to start their own schools.
Which left the old reliable, and once it emerged from the shadows, the obvious: money. Or more specifically, deficits. Big ones.
Of course! In Earlham’s case, the figures available indicate the school is facing a $19 million deficit on an initially projected budget for next year of about $50 million. And all the higher ed wise persons have been telling us for years that waves of money troubles would be washing over many smaller colleges.
A recent piece in The Boston Globe put it delicately: “The nation’s high school population is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly unable to afford high tuition prices.”
Translated: nonwhite students as a group need more financial aid; and the increasing income erosion of the white middle class is leaving fewer of them able to pay the freight as well.
“Additionally,” the Globe adds, “experts predict a major drop in the number of high school graduates overall after the year 2025 . . . because people have had fewer babies since the 2008 economic recession. As a result, local colleges will have to work harder to bring students to campus and offer them significantly more financial assistance. And some of them, experts predict, will find this a daunting new calculus, leading to more college mergers and even closures.”
This gloomy forecast was underlined by an Inside Higher Education report last November. Buckle your seat belt; rough ride ahead:
“It has not been a good fall for small, private liberal arts colleges. Last week, St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma said it is closing at the end of the semester. The news came on the heels of a similar announcement by the Memphis College of Art in late October, an announcement that itself arrived just weeks after Grace University in Omaha, Neb., unveiled plans to shut down.
Flip back a little farther in the calendar, to when Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., decided in February to suspend academic operations at the end of the spring semester. Now, only 17 people work at the college as it tries to come up with plans for a future incarnation, even as it has been selling off its assets in hopes of raising funds to pay for those plans. . . .
Wheelock College [in Boston] plans to merge into Boston University. Marygrove College in Detroit said in August that it will shut down undergraduate programs after this semester. Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and Holy Cross College in Indiana both decided this spring to sell land in order to stave off financial crises. The University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., announced in June that it will start admitting undergraduate men next year.
Wait, there’s more: Closer to Earlham, Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio has faced a cascade of such bad news:
2016: “Wright State to eliminate 23 positions”
2017: “WSU financial chief: more cuts, layoffs are imminent”
2018: “Wright State to layoff up to 40; expects $10M loss next year”
Other reports say numbers show a slump that is region-wide. Inside Higher Education reads the tea leaves:
“Signs point to the Midwest being under significantly more enrollment pressure than other parts of the country. Many Midwestern admissions officers, even at elite institutions, also reported struggling this year.
A Moody’s tuition survey released last week found that enrollment growth is projected at less than 1 percent across public and private universities nationwide in 2017. But 61 percent of institutions in the Midwest reported enrollment decreasing this fall. The portion projecting decreases in other parts of the country proved to be much lower, in the 40 percent range.”
With this background in mind, it’s not hard to detect under the bland surface of the Earlham official statements, a sense of what was going on behind those closed doors in June.
I’ll go out on a limb here and postulate a scenario:
The Board wanted Price to declare that Earlham was facing a condition of “Financial Exigency.” (Here “exigency” is Board double-talk for “emergency.”)
Price refused. The Board pressed him through two more, likely increasingly tense meetings; he stood fast.
The Board finally said, “Our way, or the highway.”
Price cleaned out his desk.
To tease this out, it’s good to add to our knowledge base two items from the Earlham College Faculty handbook, Sections “M” & “N”. The full text of these sections, which aren’t normally open for public inspection, are here. Bear with us as we navigate through the verbiage.
We’ll start with the relevant parts of “Section M – Faculty Reduction Due to Financial Exigency”
1. Termination of faculty contracts by the institution before the end of their specified term may only be made for adequate cause (as explained in Handbook Section I on Tenure), financial exigency, or discontinuation or reduction of a program or a department. . . .”
The last two are the important phrases:
“Financial exigency”: unmanageable deficits or financial losses.
“discontinuation or reduction of a program or a department”; this pretty much means what it says.
But any sharp-eyed academic would be waving a hand right now and demanding, “But what about tenure?”
Ah, tenure: the Monarch Butterfly of campus tradition, nearly gone, the crumbling pillar of scholarly security.
The Earlham Board reply would be, calmly, to “Read on to Section ‘N’ in your handbook.”
Which we shall, in part:
Section N – Discontinuance or Reduction of a Program or Department not Mandated by Financial Exigency
Termination of a tenured or provisionally tenured appointment, or of a probationary or term appointment, before the end of the specific term, may occur as a result of the discontinuance or reduction of a program or department of instruction. . . .
1. Formal discontinuance or reduction of a program or a department will be based on an overall written plan for the academic program and staffing. This plan will be built upon [consultations with various committees]. Final action will be taken by the President in consultation with the Academic Dean and approved by the Board of Trustees.”
Translated: the Trustees can get around tenure without a “financial exigency” if they abolish a program or department.
It seems clear that the Board wanted Price to put on their Grinch costume, and become the point-man to announce a situation of “financial exigency” and a far-reaching “reorganization,” with big cuts in tenured faculty and whole programs or departments to make the pay cut numbers.
The Board takes the votes; yet according to the Handbook: it is the president who is to make the call official.
But after the votes, what if the president refused to put out the announcement to start the layoff clock ticking??
How can he do that? He can point to:
Sub-sub-section c., to wit:
“The President is not obligated to declare a state of financial exigency if any or all of these conditions obtain.”
Not obligated. So what if the president declines to “take the final action” and announce a plan for major cuts?
According to Sections M & N, the Board can’t force the president to sign off on such a plan.
But they could fire him (or her) and find another one who would.
So that’s what I think they did. Price’s interim successor, Avis Stewart, is a longtime, respected campus executive, also a man of color. And he was also ready to follow the Board’s instructions.
As Stewart put it in a letter to staff and alumni: “Make no mistake, we have a lot of work to do. There are difficult decisions to make as we figure out how the college will adapt to changes in the higher education landscape.”
Now, make no mistake, back to holiday plans: terminations of contracts typically take effect as of December 31.
Still, there are no real villains here. (If you need to point a finger, point it at those who crashed the economy in 2008 and undermined the incomes of the middle class and non-whites for a generation before that. The safe havens are melting like the icebergs; academia included.)
The Board letter professes the members’ utter devotion to Earlham, and I see no reason to doubt it. But they have a budget to balance. And then they have a growing, multifaceted crisis to face, starting with finding a new president.
Of course, the Board has a strategic plan for this, and a summary of it is online here. Among its six “pillars” of a rosy scenario of renewed college success, is this gem:
“The Admitted Student Questionnaire (ASQ) identifies Earlham as “isolated” and much less appealing than its peers in terms of its surroundings and access to off-campus activities. The strategies included in Pillar #5 of the Earlham Strategic Plan aim to reposition Earlham as a vibrant geographic hub rather than an isolated enclave, with a wide range of opportunities both academically and socially available beyond the campus boundaries.”
This bit of fantasy will bring a brief smile to many who have grappled with the faceless rust belt decay that suffuses Earlham’s Richmond setting. But then comes a frown of confusion: how does the Board propose to “reposition” the campus as a “vibrant geographic hub” there, especially “beyond the campus boundaries”??
Maybe build an international airport, so coastal students accustomed to think of Indiana as “flyover country” can actually land there? Or perhaps pack up some spare blocks of Brooklyn and truck them 662 miles west on interstate 70, to be plunked down in a new neighborhood called, say, Hoosier Hipster Heaven?
From frowns to snickers is but a step.
Now to repeat, my rendering of the parting of the ways between Alan Price and the Earlham Board is a hypothesis, inferred from available information. But if the reality differs in many details, he is definitely gone, and the staff and program cut outcome, I believe, is close to certain.
And all I can say to the many faculty and staff who will be sending out resumes and having trouble sleeping for the coming months is:
I feel you; Merry Christmas; and have you met Mr. Grinch?