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Catharine Hill

President Hill's letter on Vassar and the economy


December 23, 2009

Dear members of the Vassar community,

As the semester comes to a close, I write not only to express my gratitude for the hard work and attention so many of you have given to getting through this difficult year at the College, but also to look ahead with renewed energy to our future. It has been a challenging fall and the Vassar community has participated in passionate discussion about how best to sustain the extraordinary College we all believe in. The focus of our discussion has centered on how to weigh the importance of different aspects of this complex institution, and it is only right that in our intellectually engaged community, we will have different ideas about how to preserve its well being. Although we may not all agree, our commitment to having these conversations with respect for differing points of view reflects Vassar’s strength as an academic community.

As we have worked to make the changes necessary to bring the College’s spending to a sustainable level, we have kept our focus on the values that define Vassar: our varied and exciting academic program; our commitment to making this academic experience available to all qualified students without regard to their financial need; our commitment to providing fair compensation to all employees; responsible care for the physical facilities of our campus; and strong connections to our neighboring communities. These values have been at the forefront of our planning processes.

Throughout the course of this year, we have made substantive changes in our operating costs through reorganization and responsible reductions in services. In almost every office in the College we have asked people to rethink the way they do their work, to innovate, and consider what may not be necessary. We have, for example, coordinated and consolidated work among offices where there was overlap in responsibilities; we have temporarily slowed down our program of capital improvements in response to reduced financial resources; and we have made adjustments in how we provide services in many areas, from health services and student employment to the faculty housing program and cleaning services. These changes have required all of us on campus to reconsider our expectations and open our minds to new approaches.

We have done a great deal of planning around the College’s workforce. Since compensation takes up two-thirds of our operating budget, reducing the size of the workforce is essential to creating equilibrium in the College's financial structure now and into the future. In making decisions about where we could reduce staffing we have paid careful attention to the potential effect of reductions on our educational mission. We have particularly considered areas where cooperation and efficiency could be improved within and among offices as staffing is reduced. The overall result of this planning is that since the fall of 2008, our non-faculty staffing has been reduced by a total of about 80 positions. We were able to achieve most of that reduction by not filling open positions and by offering a program of retirement incentives. We feel great sadness, however, that 20 of the 80 reductions in positions required laying off valued colleagues among our staff and administration. We are working with those employees to help them find other work; and, in fact, to date 11 of them have taken positions in other areas of the College or found employment elsewhere.

We also have reduced the faculty salary budget but have done so in a way that minimizes the effect on the curriculum. To achieve necessary savings we offered eligible faculty retirement and phased retirement incentives; restricted leave replacements; declined a portion of the requests for new tenure-track appointments; and reduced the number of team-taught courses and classes of fewer than five students.

Every year departments make requests for additional staffing, including renewal of non-tenure-track faculty contracts, and only a portion of those requests is typically approved. In consultation with department chairs over the past several weeks we have approved a smaller proportion than usual of requests for courses to be taught by non-tenure-track faculty in the next academic year. Considering requests made for 2009/10 as well as 2010/11, a total of 19 non-tenure-track faculty in part or full-time positions have not had their contracts renewed. In some other cases we have agreed to renewed contracts with a reduced course load. Colleagues and students will deeply miss those faculty who will no longer be at the College; they have enriched Vassar and had a significant impact on their colleagues and students.

Although we are still planning the curriculum for 2010/11, we expect that it will be the same size or slightly larger than this year’s curriculum due to leave patterns and fewer course reductions for faculty who have taken on administrative duties.

The Vassar community has met the unprecedented challenges of the past year, and we are now in a better position to move forward even as we face uncertain economic conditions ahead. The College will continue to be a place where curious, creative, and engaged young people from all backgrounds are challenged intellectually and stimulated by their interactions with each other and the other members of the community. Because we believe in the importance of this kind of education, we must steward the College’s resources so that Vassar continues to play a leading role in creating a better future for people here and around the world. I look forward to working with all of you in reaffirming our commitment to that mission and to strengthening the College and all that it means to our students now and for generations to come. I wish you all restful holidays and, again, I thank you for all that you do for Vassar.

— Catharine Hill, President

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