President Solnick led the fall 2014 Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, August 12 with faculty and staff attending. After recognizing new Warren Wilson College employees, he began his presentation, which was followed by a question and answer segment.
President Solnick provided updates on the following:
The 2013-14 year closed slightly better than anticipated, with the Financial Stabilization Fund covering the gap between revenues and expenditures. A small balance will remain in that Stabilization Fund for the current year. Though the College’s long-term finances are stable, the budget picture for 2014-15 remains challenging. Enrollment numbers indicate that we are still on track to meet the budgeted headcount of 821 students for the start of the fall 2014 semester. New student numbers are looking strong, but we are seeing unusual volatility among our continuing students. Looking ahead to next year as the admission season begins, admission inquiry numbers are up significantly over last year. The faculty/staff Budget Advisory Committee established in the spring semester will continue to meet this year to provide greater transparency to the budgeting process and offer input into setting priorities as our revenues grow stronger.
The design refresh of the College website is in the final stages, and the rollout is scheduled to begin in a few weeks. In addition, Art & Science, the strategic positioning research firm that the College has engaged, has completed 150 interviews with admitted students and is analyzing the data. A steering committee that includes faculty, staff, students, administrators and trustees will meet again in September with Art & Science representatives to hear their preliminary report. Additional interviews with students inquiring about the College will take place over the winter, and a final report is expected next spring. Decisions on strategic positioning, marketing and rebranding will flow from the Art & Science research, which will also be an important input to the College’s next strategic plan.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
The College’s Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) team is finalizing the ten-year reaffirmation compliance report that will be delivered on September 10. A SACSCOC team will review the report offsite and provide us with a report. An on-site committee will be on campus January 27-29, 2015. The Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a component of SACSCOC reaccreditation, was recommended in May after extensive campuswide discussion and approved by the President. It is titled “Educators as Change Agents: Teaching Diversity and Social Justice across the Triad.” Gary Hawkins and the QEP team will be working hard on QEP planning in September and October.
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
A consultant was retained to guide the College in replacing Aptron with a new ERP system and in creating more effective internal business processes. Phil Leonard, who has led this effort for the campus, worked with the consultants to organize a half-dozen meetings over the summer analyzing business processes such as human resources, purchasing, academic registration, work and service programs, etc. These sessions will help define the parameters and specifications for the new system. We will be moving along to vendor selection this fall.
Many families are seeing changes in their expected family contributions (EFC) as a result of improving job opportunities, changes in tax filing status or changes in federal methodologies for assessing need. When a family’s EFC increases, our policy has always been to downwardly adjust need-based aid awards. As a family’s ability to pay increases, it is able to invest more in a student’s education. Some students are reporting that these adjustments signal changes in the College’s financial aid policies or cutbacks in the College’s overall financial aid. In fact, the College is spending more on financial aid this year than at any point in its history. President Solnick reminded faculty and staff that we are not at liberty to discuss the details of individual students’ financial situations and asked employees to refer students reporting financial concerns to the Financial Aid office or to Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Carol Howard.
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President Solnick then discussed priorities and initiatives for the coming academic year. He noted that despite the pressures of a tight budget and SACSCOC reaffirmation, the College was poised to tackle a number of issues that are crucial to our future.
At its retreat on August 7, the Cabinet reviewed the seven goals identified as institutional priorities for 2013-15, all flowing from the College’s Strategic Plan:
- Enhance the Triad across the College
- Raise the national profile of the College
- Sustain a campuswide conversation about diversity and implement programs to increase campus diversity along multiple dimensions
- With new resources, develop an ambitious set of new goals for environmental sustainability and resiliency for the College
- Develop and implement a plan for financial sustainability, short- and long-term
- Achieve measurable increases in student recruitment and retention
- Successfully complete the 10-year SACSCOC reaffirmation process
Rather than revisit this list of goals, the Cabinet decided to recommend to the Trustees that we preserve them for 2014-16 and focus on one of them – diversity – as a major, crosscutting priority for the College during the coming year. The President noted that increasing diversity on campus supports many of our other institutional goals and values: 1) It is a core value to College’s mission and history; 2) It is essential for building a successful recruitment and retention program; 3) It delivers well-documented pedagogical benefits; and 4) It underscores our commitment to SACSCOC to support the QEP as a key learning enhancement priority for the College.
Strategic Investment Fund (SIF)
The President noted that this is a key year for two ongoing initiatives funded by the Strategic Investment Fund (created by the Trustees’ decision to elevate the payout from endowment from 5% to 7% for three years). First, the ERP system (i.e., Aptron replacement) will proceed through vendor selection to system design and some early implementation. Second, the Art & Science research will see several reports to campus constituencies during the year as new data are analyzed. The reports generated will also inform new marketing and messaging for the College to align and be more competitive with the student market.
Schedule and Calendar Task Force
Over the last 18 months, a student/faculty/staff working group has been examining our weekly and semester schedule templates and collecting data from peer schools and from the campus community. At the end of last semester, the task force produced a comprehensive report that included three alternative scenarios. The Cabinet has reviewed these scenarios; in the coming semester, the four Deans (Triad Deans and Dean of Students) will facilitate a campuswide discussion about schedule reform. Among the goals of any new plan would be the following: increasing the flexibility for classes and crews (work and service) to be able to meet for longer or shorter blocks of time, as dictated by the needs of the activity; creating an exam week for semester-length classes; eliminating the confusing alternating Friday weekly schedule; creating a uniform lunch period that would facilitate scheduling speakers, meetings and brown-bag symposia; and increasing the accessibility of campus offices and services.
Our Governance System
At its retreat, the Cabinet also considered the vulnerabilities faced by the College as a result of vaguely defined policies and procedures across a wide range of operational areas. The President noted that poorly developed policies complicate the lives of every College employee, depriving us of the benefit of past experience every time we make a decision. He discussed what a proper comprehensive policy manual for the College might look like, and how we might begin to define the appropriate levels of authority for approving different components of such a resource. He challenged Forum (and Student Caucus) to partner with the administration in the coming year to address and resolve the bottlenecks in our governance structures that have created confusion about how to move forward with policy reforms. Improving communication, fostering dialogue and using committees effectively will be priorities in this process.
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President Solnick concluded by acknowledging that the College is dealing with an ambitious agenda of change, and that in any situation like this, as we work toward long-term strengthening, some upheaval is unavoidable. He committed the administration to continuing its efforts to increase transparency – through use of task forces, advisory groups and updates – and repeated his call for the existing community governance structures to try to create more spaces for both dissemination of information and dialogue within the community. He noted that not all decisions will achieve consensus, but that he hoped to offer everyone the opportunity for participation in the process and he urged them to participate. He reminded the faculty and staff that our ultimate goal is to serve our students and to be recognized as a national innovator in how the liberal arts model can stretch and grow in higher education.
After his presentation, President Solnick took questions on fundraising, communication, sustainability initiatives and deferred maintenance from community members.
Summary by John Bowers
August 19, 2014