Following the release of a memo by President Barry Mills last week, outlining a series of recommendations to aid financial planning, 13 students attended a forum on College finances Tuesday night. Part of a series of community meetings also including staff and faculty forums, the meeting sought to clarify student questions surrounding the College's fiscal affairs and plans to reduce future deficits.
In response to the economic crisis and Bowdoin's shrunken endowment, the "blue tarp" committee, composed of students, staff, and faculty, has put forward recommendations to increase the student body by 50 students over the next five years, freeze all faculty and most staff salaries for two years, and hold operating costs flat.
"These are extraordinary times," Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said. "Higher education is not immune. It's pretty clear that people are going to have to change the way we operate, moving forward."
Foster and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley addressed student questions and concerns, in place of President Barry Mills who was unable to return to campus in time for the forum. Student members of the "blue tarp" committee Joelinda Coichy '11 and Sophia Seifert '09 also attended to comment on how the recommendations were reached and the discussions that took place.
Longley explained the importance of the financial planning model used by the College, indicating that if no action were taken, that "we can assume deficits of about 17 million" over the next five years, which would only increase thereafter.
While the endowment normally serves as the second largest source of revenue for the College, behind tuition and fees, the 10-year financial planning model is assuming a 20 percent loss in the endowment for the 2009 fiscal year, followed by a zero percent gain in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, and returns of 7 percent thereafter.
Longley said that the first recommendation, to increase the student body by 10 students per year over the next five years, is the one Mills is "most reticent about," as it can potentially put pressure on faculty, staff, housing, and course enrollment. Nonetheless, in his memo, Mills stated that the increase in the student body may be pared back if the economy "bounces back" sooner.
He also wrote, "We expect that this increased enrollment will be accomplished in a manner allowing us to continue our 'need-blind' admissions policy," and members concurred that the extra enrollment shouldn't have a noticeably negative impact on the College.
After indicating the incremental gains each year that 10 additional students paying full tuition would bring to the help the deficit, a student asked how the College would ensure that these additional students would not require financial aid.
Exchanging glances with Foster, Longley lowered her tone and replied that the College could accept transfer students and students off the waitlist, who aren't "susceptible" to need-blind admissions.
Students further questioned the impact of these additional students on housing scenarios and, again, financial aid demand. Longley replied that, in order to help the "bottom line" of the College's deficit and to make the numbers work, the additional students wouldn't be on student aid.
As for housing, Foster reassured students that, as it was done during the first-year dorm renovations, an additional 115 beds could be put in place, by converting some quads into quints, or doubles into triples. He noted that Registrar Christine Cote "has a pretty complex model" for College enrollment, which would help determine how many additional students are necessary.
The forum went on to discuss the topic of staff and faculty salaries and benefits, which comprise 61 percent of the College's expenses.
The committee was adamant about not laying off any employees, thus recommending, for two years, to freeze all faculty salaries, as well as staff salaries above $40,000, and allowing for a 2 percent increase in staff salaries under $40,000. However, raises will still be provided for faculty promotions.
Historically, the College bases raises on a "4, 5, 6" policy that, as Mills' letter describes, "adjusts the salary base for continuing faculty at each rank based on a three-year lagging average of percentage increases for faculty at colleges ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth by average salary in our comparison group."
"It's a 'shared pain' approach," said Longley. "We're all in this together."
She said that the faculty forum on Monday went well, and that the faculty was "quite supportive." She commented that there wasn't really any stated opposition, and though they were concerned and asking questions about filling departmental vacancies and openings, she said the College is not freezing vacancies.
Another recommendation made by the committee is to hold operating costs flat, avoiding the typical core cost increase of 4 to 7 percent each year. Rather than dictate how that will happen, Longley said, "each department will decide how to keep its expenses flat."
Foster said that in addition to some cost savings in this deflationary period, staff has been working to negotiate better contracts, rates, and deals, without making noticeable sacrifices to students. The College has already locked in fuel costs for this year and next, and ensured that Dining has the funds they need.
The College has a "rainy day fund" of more than $1 million to address unexpected expenses, which it has yet to draw on. Longley expressed a desire to refrain from using these funds.
Foster said he believes the proposal to be "prudent," and said he hopes that "these numbers will be conservative." He also reminded attendees that other schools are taking more drastic steps, such as freezing salaries completely or, in the case of Brandeis, deciding to liquidate its art museum.
Following the forum, the few students in attendance expressed their appreciation of the College's handling of the matter.
"I think that President Mills' decision to include a diverse committee in this decision-making process and people's positive reaction to the recommendations speak volumes about our community," said Seifert.
She also praised the engagement and thoughtfulness of attendees. She described being "approached by a number of students who have been asking smart questions and thinking realistically about the state of affairs."
Kathryn Jordan '10 contrasted the experience with her first year at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where financial struggles "made the students, admissions staff, professors, and workers feel like separate entities that each needed to defend their needs."
Rasha Harvey '11, though, regretted the low turnout.
"Students should take more ownership in the College, especially in crucial times," she said.