This September report to campus includes a "state-of-the-college" update I presented to Staff Forum yesterday afternoon, focused mainly on the economy. The complete text is included below. In addition, I want to thank all of you who participated in the fabulous Homecoming, reunion, and family events this past weekend. And finally, my congratulations to Jessica Wooten and the Recycling Crew for our being designated the nation’s "leading school for waste reduction and recycling" by the National Wildlife Federation.
STAFF FORUM REMARKS
Sandy Pfeiffer, President
October 8, 2008
Update on the State of the College: The Economy
Given rapidly occurring changes in the U.S. and world economies, I decided to take this opportunity to discuss ways Warren Wilson can and will continue to thrive as a college community. I’ll speak from a text so that it can be placed on my web site for those not able to attend this Forum meeting. In fact, the text will serve double duty as my periodic report for September.
Notwithstanding some challenges I’ll mention in a minute, our college is fiscally strong, and there is every reason to think it will remain so. Here are a few examples to support that point. We plan to balance our budget this year, as is customary. We also will present a balanced budget for next year to the trustees at their fall meeting. Our tuition and other costs place us in the “best buy” category of a prominent college directory, and we’ll work hard to keep next year’s tuition as low as we can. Our endowment, though modest, has not been as hard hit by the current market as many other college endowments because we planned for some of these declines. Our debt load, which mainly covers past building projects, is manageable and being paid off, and there is no plan to increase it. Unlike many colleges about which you may have recently read, our cash reserves are both secure and available to meet payroll and other operating costs when needed.
And—most important—prospective students continue to show a remarkable interest in attending Warren Wilson. Although the number of student inquiries is down from last year, we had the highest number of actual visitors last month than in any other September and a higher running total as well. Fueling this interest are the excellent regional and national recognitions that continue to come our way and the great success stories of our graduates. Individually these features are impressive enough. Collectively, they paint a picture of a college that can weather tough times—if we remain vigilant, creative, and positive and if we resist becoming complacent.
These strengths notwithstanding, we’re living in disruptive economic times that most of us have not seen before and that no doubt will affect the College. Because we’re in uncharted waters, all of us are understandably concerned for our families, friends, college, country, and planet. For that reason, I thought it useful to mention a few priorities upon which we should stay focused during the difficult period ahead. I also want to suggest strategies all of us can employ to control what we are able to control, and to maintain the sense of community that brought us to Warren Wilson in the first place.
For starters, the College will vigilantly maintain its commitment to environmental action on campus, to adequate benefits for employees, and to a healthy workplace. As for the budget itself, I’ll mention a few specifics that will have the attention of the President’s Advisory Council (PAC) and of course the Board of Trustees. I’ve asked the eight members of the PAC—three vice presidents, three deans, one interim dean, and one executive director—to work with all of you to review the current unit budgets, as well as the one we’re preparing for next year. For my part, I’ll have to make some tough choices as we get closer to the spring semester, when we’ll be finishing the current budget period and determining revenue expectations for next year. Besides conserving operating funds, we’ll scrutinize any positions that become vacant to make sure they are essential before they are filled. We’ll also continue ramping up our fund-raising efforts that began in earnest last year. On that point, we’ve significantly raised our goal this year for the annual fund, which we call the Warren Wilson College Fund. When we’re asking alumni, donors, and friends of the college to contribute—especially in these tough times—we’re sometimes asked if employees have taken part. You will aid in our external fundraising considerably, and thus improve the financial condition of the College, if you donate even a very modest amount to this fund as soon as you receive the brochure. The _percentage_ of faculty and staff contributing is even more important than the amount. In this way you can have an immediate impact on our ability to improve the financial health of the College. That said, fundraising is a long-term strategy. In the short term, it’s hard to predict how an economic downturn will affect donations to the College. Thus our most immediate challenge is to seek budgetary savings—since every dollar saved is one we don’t have to seek in donations—and to maintain our enrollment, since tuition makes up the greatest portion of our revenue.
So yes, it’s no surprise that we need to save and solicit more money. But what are the main priorities for spending it? Certainly a top one is to invest in marketing and enrollment management, telling our story far and wide and acquiring an excellent pool of applicants. Also, financial aid will remain a relatively large part of our budget. In fact, the financial stress felt by millions of families may require us to increase our use of financial aid to attract and retain students. Financial aid already consumes a significant portion of our budget, so any increase probably would have to be matched by savings in other areas, unless new scholarship dollars are found or unless tuition goes up for all to provide financial aid and more operating revenue. It’s a tricky balance and, as I said earlier, we don’t yet know what our tuition increase will be. The devil’s in the details, and those details will start getting fleshed out during and after the fall meeting of the Board of Trustees next week.
Now, I’ll give a few more specifics about how we all can work together to meet the challenges I’ve described. One concern is that we strive to maintain the spirit of community that we all value here. Especially in times such as these, it’s important to display that spirit that binds us together in common cause. While discussing and struggling with tough choices, it’s essential that we treat each other with respect and civility, giving the same “benefit of the doubt” that we hope will be extended to ourselves. We should rely on facts and seek them out at every turn—from our colleagues and of course from our managers. Those of you who are parents may remember saying to your children that “character” can be defined as how you behave when no one is watching. And in a like manner, I think our humanity can be reflected in how fairly we speak of people when they’re not in the room. Stressful times with tough choices make it more important than ever to think the best of folks until, or unless, we have reason to think otherwise. Relatedly, all of us—and that certainly includes me—need to track down rumors and seek truth before we jump to conclusions.
Staying positive and hopeful will continue to make a huge difference in how well this community functions, let alone affecting our personal happiness. This fact is especially true at a college like Warren Wilson, where every person has the opportunity to stand up in a for
um like this one and speak his or her mind. With that privilege comes the formidable responsibility to keep conversations civil, respectful, and positive—no matter how contentious and strongly felt the subject may be. Speaking of forums for discussion, I know we have varying opinions about the best structure for governance. But the fact is that we have a Staff Forum in place with strong, committed leadership, and it deserves our participation and support. If by chance we someday decide to change our system—which many colleges do as they grow—let’s start the discussion in this group and support it with our attendance.
I’ll conclude by returning to the subject of the budget. Let’s use every venue—the work place, your crews, various committees, and our governing bodies—to discuss how we can provide better academic programs and support services for our students, while still economizing where possible. If you send me an idea for making this college run more efficiently and effectively, I’ll bring it to the PAC, if that seems useful, or discuss it with others, if that seems most appropriate. No idea is too small to consider. Before I started college, I worked in a car factory that had a suggestion box for employees. One day I sent forward a suggestion expecting that it would probably be ignored. I proposed that the tall aluminum step ladders we climbed to reach auto parts should be weighted at the bottom for safety. I well remember my surprise hearing that my suggestion would be used—it was gratifying to know that I was heard. I can promise that your ideas will be considered, too.
In closing, let me repeat that I believe this college is well positioned to face the financial challenges ahead. We have a clear mission, we have faculty and staff who see this as much more than a job, and we have students who see this as much more than just another college. Those qualities helped Warren Wilson through more than one financial crisis in the past 110-plus years. Let’s stay fiscally conservative, focus on our mission, engage tough issues but do so with civility, give each other the benefit of the doubt as we would want it given, deal with facts, offer specific suggestions at every turn, and call on the imagination and grit that made Warren Wilson the unique college it is today.