President Hill's letter on financial aid and the budget

June 5, 2009

Dear members of the Vassar Community,

As we conclude the academic year, I want to express my appreciation for the efforts of so many who make Vassar a remarkable place to learn and work. As we have worked this year to meet the financial challenges created by the downturn in the economy, I have had the opportunity to speak with many of you about the college’s values and mission and the choices we are making to sustain Vassar and secure its future. This is a difficult time and there are understandable concerns within our community. I am grateful for the patience, commitment, and goodwill you have shown as we have begun to meet these challenges.

It is to preserve the extraordinary qualities we see around us every day – dedication to creative and intellectual pursuits, the rigorous preparation of young people to be actively involved in the world, and the strong connections inside and outside the community – that we must continue to take steps to conserve Vassar’s resources and strengthen its future. How we take these steps is of great importance to me and to the entire community.

Campus Discussions

This spring we continued to have constructive discussions throughout the college community and we have worked together within the governance structure of the college to reach decisions that reflect our mission and values. We will continue to provide opportunities to participate in discussions to keep our dialogue and planning moving forward. We also will launch a website during the summer with information about our planning processes and the college’s finances to keep the community further informed.

The Vassar community is engaged in our economic challenges at various levels and in various ways. In May a group of senior officers and I had a series of discussions with a group of students particularly concerned about the possible hardship facing food service employees with 10-month contracts who could not be employed on campus this summer. The result of these discussions was the establishment of a hardship fund to provide support for our lowest-paid employees who are facing economic difficulties because the college has had to reduce their non-contractual work hours. The fund offers the community an opportunity to come together to support those who are least able to withstand the pressures of the national and global economic situation.

Admissions and Financial Aid Update

Despite these difficult economic times, we are continuing to make progress on expanding access to a Vassar education and achieving significant socio-economic diversity in our incoming classes – important goals that so many of us have been working hard to realize. The Admissions Office has nearly completed its efforts to bring in the Class of 2013, the second whose admission was guided by our return to a need-blind policy. By mid-May we had acceptances from 641 students (out of a target number of 660). Sixty-one percent of these students will receive Vassar scholarships; the financial aid budget for this class is nearly $13 million. We anticipate that there also may be greater need among our continuing students. In discussions with the Priorities and Planning Committee and the Board of Trustees, we came to the decision to take need into account as one of the factors in deciding which 40 or so students to accept from the wait-list for the Class of 2013. This is a process also followed by other, but not all, colleges that are need-blind. While this decision was a difficult one, we concluded that the current economic pressures required it.

Budget Measures

Under a mandate from the Board of Trustees to bring the college into financial equilibrium over the next few years, we have begun the hard work of reducing our use of the endowment for annual operating expenses. And we are making progress. The operating budget for 2009/10 is lower than the amount spent this year, the result of many changes around the college. Most categories of supplies and expenses have been reduced. Capital spending on equipment and facility renewal and renovation has been significantly restricted. Salaries of faculty and administrators at the higher levels have been frozen, and we have begun a review of benefits that may result in moderating the growth of total compensation for faculty and administrators. While we have honored increases in hourly wages for those with union contracts, reliance on overtime and seasonal employment has been reduced as much as possible. The freezing of vacant positions has required many of us to adjust, and we have had to make the very hard decision to lay off a small number of employees. Some faculty teaching contracts were reduced, leave replacements were curtailed, and several tenure-track searches were postponed. The overall reduction in employment planned for the 2009/10 budget amounts to more than 40 positions, with about two-thirds of the reduction coming from salaried positions of faculty and administrators. These have not been easy decisions and I am proud of the way our community has responsibly and thoughtfully approached the need to take these necessary measures.

Further Planning

We are trying as much as possible to achieve further reductions in our workforce through voluntary departures. A total of 20 office, technical, and security employees accepted a special retirement incentive and will be retiring over the course of the next six months. In addition, there is an existing retirement incentive, negotiated by the union representing service employees, which remains open until October 31, 2009. The Board has recently approved additional retirement incentive programs for faculty and administrators; these are being offered to eligible employees this summer. We are hopeful that these retirement incentives will move us significantly towards the total reduction that we have to achieve.

After we know the results of the retirement incentive programs in early September, we will have a better understanding of the scope of the further reductions we must make in our expenses, including employment. Preliminary planning has already begun and final decisions will be made by the deans, vice-presidents, and me based on consultations with the Advisory Group on the Allocation of Faculty Resources, the Priorities and Planning Committee, suggestions from the community, and insights provided by department heads and managers around the campus. I expect that we will have a clear understanding of the need for further staff reductions by early October. In keeping with the principles we stated earlier this year, any involuntary departures will have as a condition either three months notice or three months pay, or will follow the terms of union contracts as applicable. We also will provide counseling to assist employees in finding other work.

We are determined to maintain the educational quality that is at Vassar’s core. The people who make possible the educational experience we all take pride in – whether faculty, administrators, or staff – need to earn salaries competitive to those in comparable positions at other institutions. Similarly, to sustain the student population that makes our program so distinctive, we need to be able to ensure that our financial aid resources remain robust and growing. We also must continue to be responsible stewards of Vassar’s remarkable physical resources.

We have gained a great deal as an institution from decisions we made in the past to grow in certain areas. But now the institution must take sensible measures to economize, while sustaining the essential qualities and values of a Vassar education. I am confident that we will, as a community, continue to rise to this challenge. Vassar has a history of making difficult decisions thoughtfully, with courage and conviction, and we will continue to act in this tradition.

Thank you for all of your contributions to the Vassar community during this year.

Catharine Hill

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, June 5, 2009