Quaker Colleges & another Corona Crisis

A headline from the Greensboro NC News & Record:

With its campus closed, Guilford College furloughs more than 130 employees

Furloughs were ordered in all campus areas except among professors, who are teaching classes remotely through May.

John Newsom. News & Record April 3, 2020

GREENSBORO — Its campus empty through the rest of the spring semester, Guilford College has furloughed 133 full-time and part-time staff employees for the next two months.

Slightly more than half of the college’s 250 non-faculty employees were notified Thursday (April 2) that they would have to take unpaid time off from work through at least June 1, President Jane Fernandes said in an interview Friday.

Guilford President Fernandes, center, with students.

Furloughs were ordered in all campus areas except among professors, who are teaching classes remotely through May.

The furloughs are intended to help the private Quaker college of about 1,700 students save money at a time when the campus is closed because of COVID-19 and the nation teeters on the brink of a deep recession.

“In a sense,” Fernandes said, “it’s a crisis within a crisis.”

The furloughs came about two weeks after Guilford told all students to move off campus by March 21 as cases of COVID-19 started to surge across the state and nation. Fernandes said most Guilford students are back home. Some who couldn’t return home right away are staying locally with college alumni and trustees.

In the past month, Guilford, like most other N.C. colleges and universities, moved classes to online instruction, told employees to work from home and postponed May’s commencement.

“There’s less and less need to be on campus,” Fernandes said. “The work is not being needed in the same way.”
Furloughed employees are eligible for state unemployment benefits and will keep their health insurance and other Guilford benefits until they’re recalled. Fernandes said she intends to bring back furloughed employees “as quickly as possible.”

Guilford may not be alone in looking to cut costs in an uncertain time.

According to a survey of college presidents conducted in late March, more than half expect to have to lay off some employees, and nearly 60% say they probably will furlough some workers. More than 80% of presidents are predicting they’ll see lower enrollments in the fall — a worrisome development for small private colleges like Guilford whose budgets depend heavily on annual tuition revenues. . ..

Meanwhile at Guilford, the work continues.

Fernandes said the admissions office continues to recruit students for its next freshman class scheduled to arrive on campus in August. The advancement office is raising money for a new emergency fund to help students cover the unexpected costs of daily living expenses, medical bills and technology so they can take classes online. Professors and remaining staff members are planning for summer school . . . .

Though campus buildings are locked, she said, the college is not closed.

“We haven’t closed anything. Guilford College is surviving,” Fernandes said. “The college is going to get through this crisis and prevail.”

[NOTE: this is not the first round of layoffs at Guilford  We reported here on the shedding of fifty-plus staff in 2015; Fernandes responded to that report here.]

Some years back, I took a granddaughter on an admissions tour of Guilford.

The grove of trees on the Guilford campus which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The tour was fun, the guides charming, the talk about “enriching experiences beyond the classroom” nonstop, the “amenities” appealing (except there wasn’t enough hot sauce in the au courant Free-range dining hall; tho I figured that was just me).

But then there were the numbers. They were no surprise to me. “Discount rate”? Sure, the school would have been generous to her. But the bottom line would have been $15-20,000 in loan debt per year.

That would be debt for her, not me. And  my view was quite clear: steering her around that quicksand of endless repayment would be a much bigger “gift” to her than all the gauzy-gooey stuff of debt-financed campus life.

She was tempted, and at the small, much lower-cost state school she went to instead, she picked up a little debt, along with her year of dorm & campus life.

But the big payoff there was the guy who became her husband. Now as a mom of two, she’s switched to all-online, and tells me her student grant is covering the cost.

So today she’s doing a course at a time, while changing a diaper at a time, making a family life a day at a time, while now facing the same plague of our time as the rest of us.

But she’s doing it without that other generation-crushing plague of the $60-80,000 debt burden on her young family’s backs. That’s what beckoned to us at Guilford. I saw it as a trap then, and that view has not been altered by later events.

If my preaching and nagging about avoiding it (which BTW fits 100% with the understanding of Quakerism I also tried to pass on to her) — if it had any impact, I’d call that no small life achievement. As for the Quaker colleges, my crystal ball is in the shop, but I expect there will be a price to be paid from our current troubles. Among the Quaker colleges, I’m told that Swarthmore has the biggest endowment, so maybe it’s the safest. The rest? I expect for several it will be a crap shoot.

What I see on the campuses is mainly artifacts (aka “amenities”) of upper middle & for a few, upper-class American culture, part of the superstructure of our already yawning inequalities (inequalities which are now, it seems clear, expanding hugely right before our eyes).

That’s not a condemnation, just a fact. And if what remains of our middle class is further squashed by the current “tumults and commotions,” as old minutes would describe them, then among the fallout of this landslide of downward mobility there will likely be a winnowing. I expect the loss of some others, such as country clubs, higher end resorts, “fine dining” establishments and the more upscale yoga chains. Plus some “spiritual” centers, where silence is bottled, priced & poured out like fine vintage wine.  The very top spots in all these industries will remain, behind higher walls and tighter security.

Quakers were once notable for a streak of practical inventiveness: they produced early steam trains, good chocolate and popularized root beer, among other things (not including oatmeal).

If there are any traces of that inventiveness left among us, or if it could be recovered & renewed, my guess is that the current disturbances would open up many opportunities for its useful (& profitable) exercise. I hope that could happen outside the pattern of attaching our remaining institutions ever-more firmly as ornaments/servants of those at or near the top of what looks like an emerging neo-feudal order.

Friends have done better than that, for their benefit & that of others. I hope we could again.

5 thoughts on “Quaker Colleges & another Corona Crisis”

  1. Many of these organizations are facing a writing on a wall that will speak to them. Naturally – remove the actual ‘working-class’ positions, and keep ‘ours’. It is very doubtful that any higher-ups have even considered a pay-cut…

    It’s telling that these organizations appear to be doing so much worse than these organizations did in the 1930’s. Yes – it was time of very limited resources, but these organizations were not loaded down with so much that costs much, but gives nothing of actual value…

  2. Hi Chuck,

    In 1566, in “A Letter to the Brethren” by A. Barclay, Quakers were admonished to put “good order” over “inspiration. 11 years after Fox was thrown in jail, London Meeting made a choice for middle-class stability rather than the creative chaos of Spirit-led life. The Quaker colleges are an accurate reflection of who we are. If we want to change them, we need to change who we are.


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