February 2009

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Like most presidents of colleges and universities, I have been trying to keep a wide range of constituents apprised of how the steep decline in the American economy is affecting the College. This has been a collective effort, as my administration and the Trustees share my desire to be fully open about the current state of College finances. We have circulated memos, held open meetings, and posted as much information as we can on the College Web site describing our economic status. And we began the process of budget-cutting early in this academic year. This has proven to be a good decision since-as I continuously remind people-we do not know whether we have hit the bottom of this global recession.

I will not repeat here much of what I have been saying for the past six months, but I do want to highlight some of the challenges we have encountered in trying to overcome the $20 million deficit we would experience if we didn’t make major cuts now. Our Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), which is comprised of two faculty, two staff, two students, and three administrators, has worked hard to review many suggestions that have come from the College community at large, from members of the president’s staff, and from within the committeee’s ranks. It has done remarkable work in what is an unprecedented economic environment, and it has had to work relatively quickly (for an academic institution) because the sooner we negate a budget gap, the less of an accumulating deficit we will face and need to address two, three, and four years out. Thus, while many would like a slower and more deliberate process than the one in place, doing so would require more drastic cuts in future years.

The big issue for all of us is how to engage and involve students more effectively in the choices before the BOC. I recognize that having two student representatives on BOC does not meet many students’ desire to voice their opinions on options before the committee as it makes its recommendations to me. Acting Provost Tim Spears and I will be meeting with the Student Government Association (SGA) this coming week to see if it can form its own budget oversight committee to recommend cuts in the budget. We will also see whether SGA can develop a process that will get from students a collective sense of what are the most important things to preserve so the BOC and I are better informed about student opinion regarding specific programs and services on campus.

To date there has been less visible student interest in the budget situation than I would have thought. The two open meetings for staff that our chief financial officer Patrick Norton, Tim Spears, and I hosted earlier this month (February 5-6) attracted nearly 500 staff members. Each meeting lasted two hours and included many, many good questions from the floor. The February faculty meeting (February 16), with finances on the agenda, was very well attended, and included, again, good questions and discussion from a wide range of colleagues. The open meeting for students, on the other hand, held at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday evening (February 10), drew fewer than 40 students. The discussion was very good, and there were more good questions, but the turnout was a disappointment. 

I will be holding more open meetings for students this semester-the next will be Thursday, March 5, at noon in McCullough Social Space-and I hope students will attend and participate. In the meantime, I would love to hear any ideas on how to bring students up to speed on the nature and magnitude of the financial challenges before us, as well as finding ways to hear what is most important to them. For starters, they should consult the Web site listed above and try to attend the open meetings in the coming months so their concerns and suggestions will be better informed and placed in a context that reflects these severe economic circumstances.

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.