Whitman College, which finds itself facing financial difficulty sooner than expected because of the pandemic, is considering making cuts — including to the humanities and arts.
A Financial Sustainability Review is now taking place that could change how the college operates and what programs it offers in the future.
Leaders at Whitman College had been bracing for an upcoming budget crisis for some time. Then, the pandemic struck.
In response, the school broke from its normal budgeting process and began the Financial Sustainability Review in fall 2020. The review involved forming three subcommittees to recommend possible steps to save money.
The subcommittees are recommending several reductions to many programs, including cuts to the humanities and arts.
When Whitman President Kathleen Murray signed a contract extension last year that was to last through the 2024-25 school year, her goal was to oversee some financial adjustments that would address challenges she and the board of trustees felt they — and higher education in general — were going to face later in the decade.
These challenges include a declining population of 18-year-olds nationally.
When the pandemic struck, it hit the fast-forward button on the need to react. So, Murray announced the review. She also announced this week that she’ll be leaving the school in June 2022 rather than 2025.
“The goal of the review is to address two specific challenges,” Whitman College spokesperson Gina Ohnstad said.
“First, it will address the immediate budget challenge brought on by COVID-19. As a result of the pandemic, we have seen increased costs for things like testing as well as a smaller class size for the first-year class which will have financial implications for the next four years until they graduate in 2024.
“The review will also proactively address the projected budget challenge due to the demographic cliff we are expecting in 2026 — when the number of 18-year-olds in the population heading to college will be sharply lower.”
The three subcommittees each had a focus. One focused on academic programs and support, one on student support and the last on administrative units. The school has posted the reports online. They can be accessed by scrolling to the bottom of the page at ubne.ws/37JU9Zw.
Some of the recommendations — specifically those that would involve cuts to humanities and arts programs — have concerned some community members, students and graduates of the college.
For example, the subcommittee on academic programs recommended saving about $2.1 million over four years through staff changes — many of which are possible because professors are retiring. The school can save money by not replacing those professors.
According to the document, affected departments include classics, environmental humanities, history, mathematics and statistics, Japanese and philosophy.
The document also lists the subcommittee’s recommendation that non-tenure-track faculty be reduced or eliminated in programs such as studio art, art history, visual culture studies, biology, Chinese, French, Japanese, theater and dance, music and politics.
Emily Hanscam, an archaeologist who graduated from Whitman in 2012, said she, along with several other graduates who took classes in the classics program, was emailed by retiring professor Dana L. Burgess, who said his position is not being filled.
Hanscam is concerned because so many of the departments facing cuts are in the humanities and arts. She said she’s worried the school is losing its identity as a liberal arts college.
“Why are they trying to make these cuts that will transform the nature of Whitman College?” Hanscam said. “What they are trying to do is transform the college.”
Ohnstad pushed back on that point.
“Even if every cut proposed in the preliminary report makes it to the final decision phase, which is unlikely, the humanities would still be the academic division that has the most faculty members,” she said.
A group of students is planning to lead a protest at the college Friday from 2-3 p.m. According to an organizer, a smaller protest was held over the weekend, and the group is hoping for a larger turnout of both students and staff on Friday.
The subcommittees are currently reviewing feedback from the Whitman community. Students, staff and faculty were all invited to provide feedback.
Hanscam, however, takes issue with the short window students were given to educate themselves on the situation and provide feedback.
An email was sent by Murray to the college community on Feb. 2. The email contained the reports of the three subcommittees and a link to forms to provide feedback. The feedback was due Feb. 15.
The three reports of the subcommittees combined to 53 pages.
“They are saying, ‘We made it open for feedback,’ but they set an impossibly short deadline,” Hanscam said. “They put a bunch of documents online that, even for the current students and the alumni, are not easy to to understand. They are very much, I don’t want to say incomprehensible, but they are very challenging to read.”
Ohnstad said after reviewing the feedback, the subcommittees will finalize their reports. Murray and her Cabinet will then review them and present their own recommendations to the board of trustees, which will have final say.
“This process is a difficult one, and no one wants to see cuts to any aspect of the college,” Ohnstad said. “We are fortunate that we are not facing a crisis at this time, thanks to the careful financial management of the college over the years.
“Right now we have the ability to plan thoughtfully for the near term and into the future. Many colleges across the country are not so lucky and are being forced to make drastic cuts that fundamentally change the kind of institution they are. Whitman is not in that situation.”