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Campus News

The Warren Wilson Fiscal Plight

Anonymous Employee Leaks E-Mail Regarding Tuition Increase, Retirement Contributions Reduction and Work Contracts 

Four days before the onset of the Spring 2014 semester, an email transcript from President Steven Solnick regarding the 2014-15 budget cuts appeared anonymously on the Facebook page “Confessions of an Owl.” The letter, addressed to Warren Wilson faculty and staff on January 15, detailed Warren Wilson’s current student enrollment,  the financial dilemma of the school, and the administration’s plans to return Warren Wilson to fiscal health, a plan which includes increasing both tuition and room and board, modifying salaries and retirement contributions of staff and faculty, and reducing student work contracts.

Three days earlier, Solnick had sent a shorter email to students, informing them of next year’s tuition increases of 4.5% and room and board increases of 5.5%.  The email he sent to faculty and staff voiced more extensively the financial difficulties the college is facing that are the reason behind the tuition increase, as well as several other measures Warren Wilson will be taking to manage the college’s debt.

In the email, Solnick elucidated how enrollment has declined every year since the 2010-2011 school year.  The current school year began with 833 enrolled students, school capacity being roughly 100 more.  These missing students represent around $2 million in revenue.  Last year would have seen a deficit of $1 million, if not for the college having received a donation from Ann Menges of $463,000 and drawn $530,000 from the Financial Stabilization Fund created by trustees in case of such a situation.  There is $862,000 left in the Financial Stabilization Fund, all of which the college intends to use this year.

In addition to the tuition increases, the email announced several other budget-reduction tactics that are also being considered or that are already being put into practice.  In April, Solnick plans to recommend a temporary retirement contribution reduction (from 10% to 7%) to the Board of Trustees.  In addition, all school expenditures will be closely monitored and will be required to meet a new set of guidelines.  Effective immediately, all travel expenditures, food expenditures, and other expenditures over $150 will be required to pass approval from a cabinet (governmental advisory council) member.  The school will also discontinue payment for employee cell phones.  Lastly, break contracts and 5-hour work contracts next year will be “severely limited.”  Because of the work deficit this will cause, there will be a reallocation of the student workforce, and some crews may be eliminated.

While many students interviewed for this story have expressed confidence in the administration’s decision on these measures, some are concerned about the effect they will have on student enrollment, and others remain dissatisfied with the way the information was presented to students.

“I think those are appropriate measures for the school to be taking,” said senior Zak Kane, “[But] for tuition increases of 4.5%, I think that may make some perspective students decide not to come here.”

“I really like what Steve’s (Solnick) doing economically, for the most part,” said junior Samuel Webber, “but I wish he would be a little more consensus-based…the email is an edict, not a suggestion.”

“I feel that they were really all of a sudden and that they should have been presented to the students,” said first-year Ahdonnica Patterson.

Multiple students also raised questions specifically around the president’s decision, in the face of the present economic insecurity, to use the school’s endowment to purchase new computers.  ”The purpose of an endowment is to not spend the capital,” said Webber.

    ”Investment 101 says never touch your endowment.”  Kane added, “I personally don’t see a need for newer school computers–not now.”

Besides stimulating a conversation about budget cuts, the email on Facebook also raised questions about the ethics of showing such information to students.  In an interview on Tuesday, January 28th, the administrator of the Facebook page “Confessions of an Owl” claimed s/he had no intentions of using the page to publish confidential information.  “When I first saw that someone had submitted the email from President Solnick regarding budget cuts, I was very conflicted as to whether or not I should post it on the Confessions page,” s/he said.  “I initially was not going to post it but then I thought quite a bit about it and decided that if the faculty member who (anonymously) sent it to me felt it was that important for students to see, I would just put it on there and see what happened.  Had the email contained more sensitive information, I would not have posted it on the page.”  S/he also advised students, “I do not want to encourage people to ‘leak’ information.”

In an interview on Friday, January 24th, President Solnick said that he had no regrets about students receiving the email on Facebook.  He said that the reason he did not give some of the information it contained to students was that it directly affected faculty and staff.  ”If it was something I didn’t want students to know, I wouldn’t have sent an email,” he said.

Solnick also responded to Facebook comments about the current budget problems being a potential motivation for closing the business department, saying that while the motivation was partly financial, the current economic state of the college was unrelated.  ”It was not a response to the fiscal crises,” he said, “We would have done it even if the budget had been balanced.”

Regarding the elimination of work crews in the 2014-15 school year, Solnick said he had not thought about specifically which crews those would be.  ”We should not assume that the configuration of crews from year to year is unchanged,” said Solnick,  ”We reevaluate every year.  Some crews get bigger and some crews get smaller.”  As far as break and work contracts, he said “those will be tight for a couple of years.”

Solnick also said he was confident that the college would be returned to fiscal health within the next two years.  ”The overall financial health of the college is not precarious,” he said, “We are not heavily in debt, our cash flow is fine, our endowment is strong.”  He added, “I think that if we ignored the situation that we are seeing now, in a fairly short period the college would start to be in danger.”

In the interview, President Solnick offered his commiseration for the difficulties certain students will face.  ”We understand that any increase poses a potential challenge to many of our students,” he said.  ”We have tried to make this as moderate an increase as we can.  We do everything we can to generate new sources of aid for students.  This year and next year it’s just tight.”

By Leo Proechel, Staff Writer 

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