In recent months, I’ve read articles in Inside Higher Ed and other news media outlets about the terrible toll that the pandemic, demographic shifts and changing philosophies among the public about the value of the liberal arts and higher education have taken on colleges and universities. When I read that the sector has lost 650,000 jobs—and counting—since the beginning of the pandemic, it gave me some pause. And when I then read that Ithaca College, with an endowment of over $300 million and annual tuition exceeding $45,000, was having to make draconian personnel cuts, that pause turned into a need to consider the future of the institution where I work.
That institution is a small, rural, public university in the western foothills of Maine. In contrast to Ithaca, we have around a $15 million endowment and in-state tuition under $10,000. I am watching this college desperately try to navigate a plethora of financial forces that point to an inevitable decline and possibly extinction if they continue or even accelerate.
The university has done a lot of smart things in the past 20 years or so to make itself more sustainable. We’ve converted our central heating plant from a fuel oil system to a more sustainable and less carbon-emitting biomass plant, and we’ve dug a series of geothermal wells. Our College of Education has remained strong and added graduate degree programs to its offerings in order to continue to develop and support Maine’s teachers. Our bachelor of fine arts in creative writing still develops the minds and talents of many budding writers. While we’ve made some mistakes along the way, both locally and at the system level, the university has continued to serve a vital purpose and has had a multitude of successes in the students it has graduated.
Now, we must grapple with a number of the negative trends, some of which I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. We have a relatively new administration, both at our institution and within the broader university system, that recognizes the issues we are confronting and is working to deal with them. But while better governance has arrived, it has arrived without the resources to do much other than cut more staff and programs in ways that could make this fine institution almost unrecognizable.
I am not in the administration or on the faculty, but I have worked here for the last 10 years, and my job is to run the technical aspects of our newest and one of our most outward-facing facilities. So, at least for now, I am not particularly concerned for my job. Yet I joined the Staff Senate because I wanted to make a difference and was concerned with how many people had lost their jobs in the decade that I have been here. I’m not in finance or human resources. But in the many years of my career before I came to this wonderful place, I was in the business world, and often in that time, I had to lead a variety of staff reductions through several industries. I even spent some time consulting for nonperforming and underperforming companies. That has given me what I think is a distinct perspective on what is happening at my university now.
We have great faculty members, many of whom could be anywhere that they might want to be and are powerhouses in their fields. They have chosen not only to come here, but also to remain, despite the limitations of aging facilities and limited budgets, because they know that they can make a real difference. In rural communities, where access to public education is difficult, regional public universities serve a vital purpose. Nearly 50 percent of our students are first-generation college students who come from Maine’s working-class families. Just enrolling college is often a challenge as well as an opportunity for them, especially when so many hold down more than one job and struggle to deal with living expenses.
I fear, however, that the staff cuts here may be reaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to the possible effectiveness of the university. I have spent the last few years trying to understand its business model in order to figure out if I can help at all, and I recently remembered something: a few years ago, a generous donor partially endowed a faculty chair at the flagship campus of our system for $1 million. That amount doesn’t fully pay for a faculty position there and wouldn’t at my university, either, but $2 million could, at least here.
The average loaded labor cost—salary and benefits—for a faculty member at my institution is just over about $100,000 per year. A gift of $2 million, then, would endow a position for years to come, and $100 million would endow 50 positions, while at the same time opening up $5 million a year in our budget to do all those things that need to happen in a small university. With that kind of money, we could reinvest in our facilities; build a nest egg for the uncertain future; start new, innovative programs; and market ourselves better to bring those students to us who may believe that college is impossible for them.
Big-money donors seem to like to donate money to build big buildings and put their names on them. I am sure that my university would accept that kind of donation, but it is the nuts and bolts of running a labor-intensive organization that is difficult. In a time of reduced resources at the state level and changing demographics within our student base, and with tuition being frozen for much of the last decade, what we really need is sustainable working capital.
I have not won the lottery, and based on my ticket-buying habits (and the odds in general), I am unlikely to ever do so. That means my big idea depends on the generosity of others: people who have those kinds of resources and seem to be trying to make a difference.
For example, a group of philanthropists has come together to take the Giving Pledge—a group that has in its membership people like Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, and MacKenzie Scott. They all seem to have an interest in education and have given away billions of dollars in order to make a difference in the country and the world. Of course, $100 million is a lot of money—a fortune to a place like this. But put into perspective, making that kind of donation to one rural public university in each state would total around $5 billion. MacKenzie Scott gave away $6 billion of her considerable wealth just last year, and among this group, they probably donate exponentially more than that annually.
I have no way to reach major philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott or the others involved in the Giving Pledge. You can google them and find webpages and sites, but there is no clear way to approach them. It makes sense that I don’t have access to those kinds of possible resources, and it may be true that they would be overwhelmed by requests—pleas, really, for assistance. I also don’t represent the neediest of the neediest or, in fact, anyone officially.
But if I could talk to the Bills and Melindas, the Warrens, the MacKenzies and the other Giving Pledgers of the world, I would suggest my big idea: endowed sustaining faculty chairs is my name for it. It’s not as sexy as a big new building, but it is sustainable for generations to come, doesn’t come with the same long-term maintenance costs and would be transformational. It is even scalable and could be provided to any number of the roughly 1,600 public universities in the country.
Maybe it seems naïve to ask just for the money to keep the brain trust that our faculty represents. Probably some caveats to the donations would have to be put in place so that budget-strapped states can’t use the money instead of public money and just put us back to where we started or worse. Retention of the donation might also need to be tied proportionally to the state appropriations to the flagship campus in question so the money isn’t siphoned away. The idea is for rural public universities to thrive, not just survive. And it can be done.
While I have been at my university for 10 years, my wife is retiring from it after more than 30. Thus, we’ve both seen countless examples of students who have awakened to their potential by simply being given the chance to be here, to work their tails off and to find their passion. We just want it to be able to continue.