Contingency Planning (02/02/09)

February 2, 2009

Dear Fellow Scots,

I write to update you on the status of the College’s contingency plans for dealing with the most severe, widespread economic downturn since at least the 1940s.

Colleges across America are grappling with this challenge, from Stanford University, which has announced plans to cut its operating budget by $120 million — 15 percent —over the next two years, to Middlebury College, which aims to trim 100 staff positions in the same period. Though it is impossible to predict the future direction of the global economy, I am grateful to say that at this point it does not appear as though The College of Wooster will need to undertake the more draconian steps that have so deeply shaken many of our peer institutions. While we currently forecast some reduction in revenues next year, our position is sufficiently solid and stable that we believe we can take comparatively modest measures to steward the College through this turbulent period.

From the moment we began developing our contingency plans last fall, our first priorities have been to protect the integrity of our core academic mission and to help students whose families are facing financial hardship remain at the College. To that end, in November we announced the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Emergency Student Aid Fund, which provides loans — half of which convert to an outright grant upon graduation — for students whose families have exhausted all other sources of aid. We also encouraged families to sign up for our monthly payment plan mid-year for the first time.

In my December letter to the campus community, I outlined a set of core principles that guide our planning.  Among those principles: that any measures we take to balance the budget should allow for continued investment in strategic initiatives designed to advance our core mission and improve our market position; and that, other things equal, we should choose interventions that can be reversed over those that would be permanent.

Throughout this contingency planning process, we have engaged with and communicated through a range of representative bodies on campus, including the SGA and Campus Council, the Staff Committee, the Financial Advisory Committee, and others. We also established an on-line suggestion box and surveyed the campus community for their ideas, which thus far has generated about 40 responses in all.

Out of this planning effort have come a number of initiatives. Some are already underway, others will be launched soon, and still others continue to be analyzed.

We have begun a new review process for all open staff positions at the College, and are not refilling every position that becomes vacant. We have worked with academic departments to hire fewer visiting faculty next year to replace those on leave.  In both instances, these strategies seek to avoid layoffs although workloads for continuing faculty and staff will likely increase in some measure.

We also have amended the terms of our TIAA-CREF plan to define more narrowly the compensation used for College retirement plan benefit calculations. Effective January 1, 2009, TIAA-CREF contributions will be made on one’s base salary; that definition excludes stipends, fringe benefits, summer camp earnings, and any other supplemental additions to an employee’s base pay, except in the case where such benefits are fully covered by external funding.

In addition, we are working to improve significantly the performance of our auxiliary operations: the golf course, The Wooster Inn, and Ohio Light Opera.

Together, these steps will have a positive impact of several hundred thousand dollars on the College’s bottom line. 

Next fall, we will close Kittredge dining hall, consolidating our main food service operation in Lowry and saving approximately $200,000. Recall that two of the principles guiding our efforts are to protect the integrity of our core academic mission, and to favor interventions that can be reversed over those that would be permanent. Closing Kitt next fall is in keeping with both, and it’s our hope and expectation that once the economic situation improves, we will reopen it.  Meanwhile, we will work to find a new home for the Soup and Bread program.

When it comes to room pricing, Wooster has long been an anomaly in charging the same rate for all rooms, from quads to singles. No other college in the GLCA or the Associated Colleges of the Midwest does this, and after carefully analyzing the issue, we have concluded that neither should we. What we will propose to the Board of Trustees later this month is that starting next fall, we lower our room rates for triples and quads, and increase them for singles. However, if you receive need-based financial aid, the premium for a single room will be reduced by the same percentage.

We plan to convert four of our smallest program houses into rental properties for visiting faculty. By virtue of their size, location, and construction, these properties make very inefficient program houses. They will serve the College much more effectively as rentals, while having the additional benefit of encouraging visiting faculty to live very close to campus.

These are difficult economic times for everyone. Wooster is not immune, but compared with many of our peer institutions we remain well positioned to weather the storm. As I noted earlier, our plans are still developing, and we continue to analyze a number of ideas in addition to those outlined above. Be assured that we will continue to keep you and the rest of the campus community informed and engaged as this work goes forward.


Grant H. Cornwell