Faculty and administrators quickly got to work. For
a year, senior administrators, the faculty benefits committee, the
general faculty planning committee, and the general faculty council
scrutinized expenses and revenue sources in all corners of the campus.
Departmental discretionary budgets for equipment, supplies, and
printing were trimmed by 20 percent. Several publications were eliminated
or transferred to the web. The College rolled out a more affordable
health care plan that increased employees' premiums. And, 78 positions
were eliminated--the vast majority of which were vacant due to a
2001 hiring freeze on all non-faculty positions. All in all, the
moves shaved $9 million from the College's operating costs. The
current budget will end this June 30 with a modest planned deficit
of close to $1 million.
To ensure a balanced budget next year, the College
will increase revenue by $6.5 million. Campus auxiliaries will generate
one-fourth of that amount, in part from new and renovated campus
housing. The goal, part of Oberlin's strategic plan to build a stronger
on-campus community, is to move 300 of the 900 students living off
campus into new, more apartment-like College accommodations. The
new construction will be the first new campus housing in more than
Tuition, Oberlin's largest source of income, is also
on the rise. In 2002, the cost of attending Oberlin rose to $34,894.
This coming fall, tuition and lodging will rise 5.8 percent to $36,938.
A modest increase of 30 students will bring Oberlin's total enrollment
to 2,891. All in all, the tuition changes are expected to generate
an additional $5.7 million.
Oberlin's 2003-04 budget, which begins July 1, is
Some Oberlin insiders, uncomfortable with any cuts
to the budget, wonder if the College should have been more prudent
during the boom years of the 1990s--a decade of huge returns for
the endowment. Just as the market's out-performance drove up corporate
growth and consumer spending, some of Oberlin's current budget woes
stem from spending choices made then, such as added faculty positions,
more competitive salaries, increased financial aid, and the construction
of the new science center. Many colleges, in fact, saw the '90s
as the ideal time to reach for long-term goals.
"The income that the endowment growth generated
in the past six years, along with unprecedented success in fund
raising, allowed us to address many long-standing needs of students
and faculty and to make strategic improvements in our academic programs,"
Dye says. "Now, we need to consolidate and secure those gains
and build on our accomplishments."
Given those gains, others on campus have questioned
why Oberlin's half-billion dollar endowment can't be tapped to fill
in current yearly operational shortfalls. In fact, Oberlin's Board
of Trustees, did--as did many other institutions--vote to override
its own spending policy for a limited period of time. Each year,
some portion of the endowment's income--typically 5 percent in recent
years--is transferred to the College's operating budget. This year,
in an action viewed as necessary but temporary, trustees voted to
withdraw an additional $5 million to contain the budget shortfall.
But continued dipping into the endowment income above the allotted
amount, says Evans, would only jeopardize its value for future generations--the
very reason the spending policy was originally put in place. "At
any college, the principal role of an endowment is to provide a
sustainable spending stream to support the institution's educational
mission in perpetuity," he says.
While no one has a crystal ball, this is certainly
not the first budget problem weathered by Dye or the College. As
recently as 1994 when Dye took office, the College faced escalating
financial challenges. Quick action then, as now, inspired confidence.
It also sparked a turnaround.
Dye looked then to a future that would reinforce the
school's core goals. "Oberlin remains true to its mission,"
she says. "And Oberlin remains and will remain one of the strongest
institutions in American higher education. Working together, we
can and will emerge from these temporary difficulties as a stronger
and better college than we are today."
Jennifer Stoffel has written about business,
personal finance, and real estate for The New York Times, Chicago
Tribune, and Money Magazine.
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