President's Blog

Archive for the Economics of Higher Education Category

Speaking at Boxwood Luncheon

Each summer I send a special letter of thanks to Sweet Briar’s supporters and donors; more than a quick thank-you note, this summer letter often includes somewhat lengthier reflections on the importance of our mission and of philanthropic support for what we do. One of the things I most enjoy about doing this is reading the responses I get, and I do get responses! This year, in particular, I heard from many readers; perhaps you might be interested as well.

So here’s an excerpt from this year’s letter, the whole of which is available online

 Sweet Briar is one of an increasingly-small number of colleges and universities committed to sustaining a proud tradition in American higher education – the tradition of the residential liberal arts college. In this historically unique and globally influential approach to higher education, undergraduate study is understood as much more than training in specific skills or preparation for immediate employment. Sweet Briar, cherishing the liberal arts tradition as it does, believes that the undergraduate years are a time for building a broad understanding across the major fields of human knowledge while at the same time digging deeply into one or two passionately-interesting subjects. Sweet Briar knows that close and supportive working relationships with faculty members develop judgment, analytic abilities, communication skills, and a sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder in students, qualities which not only equip graduates for professional success but also define what kind of professionals and citizens they will become. We believe that life outside the classroom — on the athletic fields, in student organizations, in campus employment, among friends — develops traits of character, integrity, responsibility and self-direction that are fundamental to living a good and examined life. And, at Sweet Briar, we believe that an environment in which women students are at the center of everything we do intensifies every one of these benefits.

This kind of education, precious and distinctive as it is, is under intense and nearly unsustainable pressure. (You will know what I have in mind if you reflect on the countless discussions you’ve no doubt read in the press or heard in the media about the unsustainable cost of higher education, the call for standardized learning outcomes, the pressure to prioritize career preparation above all.)

I go on to say that in my view we would be both irresponsible and foolish to ignore these critiques. The cost of higher education must be controlled if we are to fulfill our commitment to access for all qualified students; prospective students deserve clear and useful information about our programs and the learning outcomes they can expect to achieve; students certainly need to be prepared to assume meaningful work in a challenging economy.

In my view we are stewards not only of a specific institution, our beloved Sweet Briar, but also of a proud and distinctively American tradition in higher education — the private residential liberal arts college. The challenge before us is to show that this model, which has served students and society well through many periods of social change, has the capacity and flexibility to respond to and to address the pressures of this moment as well. In other words, we will most effectively demonstrate the value of our mission not by refuting the critics of higher education but by addressing their legitimate concerns in ways that honor the intellectual foundations of our tradition.

And those who invest in Sweet Briar — donors who invest their gifts, students who invest their time and tuition dollars, faculty and staff members who invest their talents and careers — do so because they believe this is worth doing. It’s always a privilege to thank them.

Looking Around and Forward

The time after the holidays and before students return to campus is when many professional conferences and meetings take place. For example, I’ve just come back from the President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, which was held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Women’s College Coalition.

Like folks in all other professions, college presidents find it valuable from time to time to raise their heads from the daily agenda in order to look around at the larger context shaping that agenda and forward toward whatever might be coming next. There is much to be learned from the experiences and ideas of educational leaders from across the country who share Sweet Briar’s commitment to liberal education and student success. America’s liberal arts colleges share many values, commitments, and challanges. What makes them stronger as a community makes each college individually stronger as well.

Here are things I especially appreciated during my time at the conference:

  • I heard a keynote address by Andrew DelBanco on the value of liberal education. Many of the ideas he shared with the assembled presidents are developed in his book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. DelBanco’s main point is that residential undergraduate education plays an essential role in preparing students for citizenship and community life by sustaining an environment in which they can practice leadership, decision-making, debate, and self-government under the guidance of role models and mentors.


  • I participated in a robust discussion about financial aid policy. This session has received some press coverage; the question is whether financial aid is appropriately allocated between two purposes — to meet the financial need of families and to provide non-need-based aid to students with particular qualifications.





Of course, I also valued the opportunity to pick the brains of other college presidents, hear about interesting innovations moving forward on other campuses, and reflect on the national picture of opportunity for students.

It goes without saying that leading an academic institution in this day and age is challenging work. But a conference like these is just one more occasion on which I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to do it! Providing the kind of education Sweet Briar offers to new generations of women, and advancing the proud tradition of the American liberal arts college as an option for all students, is endlessly interesting and unquestionably important.


An Important Matter of Public Policy

In this blog, I’ve occasionally pointed to matter of public policy that have important implications for private higher education in general and Sweet Briar in particular.

One such issue is currently under discussion. As our elected leaders are negotiating an agreement to increase tax revenues and decrease government spending, some proposals have contemplated a change in the federal income tax deduction for charitable contributions. Some have argued that this deduction should be eliminated, while others have argued for a cap or reduction.

Along with other leaders of American’s private colleges and universities, I have strongly expressed my concern about any such action through national education organizations. I believe that any reduction in the federal income tax deduction for charitable giving would have an immediate and adverse effect on giving to Sweet Briar — and I know how important philanthropy is to our ability to fulfill our mission, maintain academic quality, and keep a Sweet Briar education affordable.

Please consider calling or emailing your elected representatives, adding your voice to mine in asking them to protect federal tax incentives for charitable giving. There is one central point for you to emphasize. As a supporter of American’s private sector in higher education, urge your representatives to protect the charitable giving deduction. Philanthropy represents the way the private sector supports services that the government therefore need not provide. Boosting tax revenues by discouraging philanthropy would be a false economy and bad public policy.

I am very proud of the public good provided by the private sector in higher education, as I am of the private support that allows distinctive institutions like Sweet Briar to flourish. As Indiana Fletcher Williams knew, philanthropy is the cornerstone that upholds private institutions; it should be encouraged by any public policy that aims to encourage a robust private sector.

And another leadership discussion

After speaking to the Senior Leadership Academy, as I mentioned in my last post, I went on the the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group.

This gathering of the presidents of America’s national, selective, liberal arts colleges is always a refreshing opportunity to compare notes, pick brains, and hear from engaging speakers. Topics on our minds last week included how alumni assess their undergraduate experiences — did you know that 72% of liberal arts college graduates are “completely satisfied” with the quality of their educations, and compared to 41% of “Top 50″ public university graduates? (This according to research conducted by Hardwick~Day.)  Law professor Theodore M. Shaw gave an interesting and timely summary of case law on issues of diversity and affirmative action, and White House Senior Adviser Zakiya Smith offered the presidents some insight into the Obama administration’s higher education agenda.

One of the regular features of this meeting is an update from David Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, on important policy issues affecting all of higher education. Financial aid is, of course, one essential item of importance to colleges, families, and taxpayers alike.

Private institutions benefit enormously from federal programs that help students afford college. For example, did you know that 169 Sweet Briar students receive support from Pell Grants? Between Pell Grants, FSEOG grants, and federal work study, nearly $750,000 in federal assistance supported Sweet Briar students last year. Just to give you a frame of reference, for Sweet Briar to replace that amount with institutional funds would require an additional $15,000,000 in endowed scholarship funds.

And then there are the federal loan programs. Various loan programs helped Sweet Briar students pay nearly $5,640,000 in tuition and fees. If Sweet Briar replaced those loans with institutional funds, it would require an additional $112,000,000 in endowment.

Of course, the question of how we, as a society, wish to invest in higher education is pressing and contentious at this moment. It’s well established that tuition costs must be controlled and that access must be maintained for students from all economic circumstances. There is active debate about the relative roles of institutional cost reduction, federal and state programs, philanthropy, and student loans in keeping American higher education affordable while retaining its excellence.

It is important, however, for those of all political persuasions to recognize that, today, ambitious, talented, and dedicated students in all kinds of institutions across the nation depend on federal programs to help them realize their educational dreams. For institutions like Sweet Briar, federal and state aid allow us to advance our mission by educating women whose families could not otherwise afford to give them a selective private education. Right now, the more than $6,675,000 that supported Sweet Briar women last year is paying off in changed lives and a stronger community for all.


Community Update from the April Board Meeting

As regular readers may know, after each meeting of the Board of Directors I report back to the community by distributing a written report and holding open “town hall” style meetings with faculty, staff, and students. From time to time, I’ve shared those reports with all of you.

I do hope that you’ll take a few minutes to read the report from the April 2012 meeting of Sweet Briar’s Board. Several important issues were on the agenda, including the progress we’re making on the Plan for Sustainable Excellence.

Sustainable Excellence, approved by the Board a year ago, calls for enrollment growth and a review of curriculum undertaken with the goal of achieving a student:faculty ratio of 10:1. (10:1 was selected as the goal because it will allow Sweet Briar to remain among the smallest and most personal of colleges while increasing the financial sustainability of the academic program.) At the April meeting, I presented the College’s plan to achieve that goal within two years.

The plan carefully balances our mission of providing a full range of excellent liberal arts majors and a strong general education program, our desire to preserve tenure and tenure-track positions and retain outstanding faculty, and our need to make adjustments to overall levels of instructional staffing.

In coming months, you will be reading more about this plan — in the Sweet Briar Magazine, in our e-newsletters, on sbc.edu, and in other communications from the College. In the mean time, here’s an excerpt from the community report:

“Sweet Briar, like every institution of its size and type, faces challenges that can be addressed only by making difficult decisions . . . given the reality of our circumstances, we can be very proud of the way we have chosen to meet them – directly, frankly, collegially, and thoughtfully.”

Preserving excellence, increasing sustainability, so that Sweet Briar will be as distinguished for the next hundred years as it has been through the last century. That‘s the plan.

From the Association of American Colleges and Universities

I’ve spent much of this week at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, along with Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall (who is doing two presentations on the program) and a team of six Sweet Briar faculty members.

In my last post I mentioned the recent faculty retreat and our ongoing discussions of curriculum review. Bringing a campus team to this conference was another aspect of that process: here there are sessions highlighting research and best practices from around the country on a wide variety of topics. One member of our team is following discussions of the Bologna Accords and the development of European learning standards: another is attending sessions on business curriculum: several are going to sessions on how to integrate research, assessment, and learning outcomes into campus planning; and all of us are going to the occasional session that just looks interesting! (For me, yesterday, that was a session about how students at elite liberal arts colleges define success. . . for a couple of members of our group yesterday afternoon, it was a session on digital humanities that is featured in this article.)

For my part, I’ve been participating in the President’s Forum. At lunch today, a representative from the Department of Education spoke with us about the education proposals just, and I mean just, announced by President Obama. As you might imagine, having the opportunity to respond to some of these proposals within a day of their announcement was valuable; the presidents who are here posed a number of important and fundamental questions.

It’s both sobering and encouraging to sit with a group of college and university presidents these days. Each and every one of us is aware of the serious problems facing higher education. College needs to be more affordable, more Americans need to complete degrees, the learning that takes place in college needs to be more clearly and persuasively demonstrated, and state and federal investments in education and research need to be commensurate with the importance of higher education to the economic future of the nation. No institution is immune from these considerable pressures — no community college, no elite research university, no liberal arts college, no comprehensive state university. And no one knows what the answers should be or will be. (That’s the sobering part.)

But every single person at this conference is deeply committed to being part of crafting the best possible answers. Every dean and faculty member here is deeply committed to making higher education the best and most meaningful experience it can be for every student on their campuses.  And finally, at the end of the day, whatever the answers turn out to be, we all recognize that they will need to be centered on student learning. As long as student access and learning goals are kept at the center of our thinking, our research, and our planning, we will get to the right answers. That’s the encouraging part!



Article on InsiderHigherEd.com

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter from insidehighered.com. The article appears today.

Here’s one quote: “Jo Ellen Parker, president of the college, said that the cuts were designed to show the commitment to going back to full spending on retirement accounts, salaries and so forth. Had the college simply reduced its pay levels, she said, a signal would have been sent that perhaps the college was scaling back — which she said is not the intent. And the top administrators are working without pay rather than taking furloughs because the college needs to save money and they need to do their jobs.”

I think the article does a nice job of framing an important strategic question for many small liberal arts colleges, which is how to manage the “discount rate.” On the one hand, allowing the discount rate to rise disproportionately creates obvious financial risks for an institution. On the other, failing to relax the discount rate judiciously can lead to other financial risks. Every campus I’m familiar with struggles to navigate this particular Scylla and Charybdis.

As the reporter notes in the article, at Sweet Briar we are actively researching and discussing this issue as we consider our approach to managing the discount rate going forward. Our goal to make sure that Sweet Briar is affordable to families of qualified students while we look to the long term financial health of the college: that is, to make sure that our discount rate policies support both access and sustainability.

Update re: Budget

Recently I posted news about the College’s budget for the current year. Today, the college’s plans for reducing expenditures in the current budget were announced to the community. Earlier this afternoon I held an open convocation to discuss the plan with faculty and staff and this evening I’ll be meeting with students.

For institutions across the country, the current economic situation requires tough choices. For just one recent example, see this message about Dartmouth’s situation: most readers have probably received or seen similar communications from other colleges and universities.

Here at Sweet Briar, our challenge — to trim approximately 2.25% from this year’s budget — is tough but not nearly as tough as the challenges many other institutions face. As I said in my remarks today, prudent and decisive action now will make the College we love stronger and more resilient than ever and will help ensure that we emerge from the current downturn with momentum.

Questions or comments can be directed to me or to any member of Senior Staff.

Important Message re Budget

Today faculty, staff, students, alumnae, and friends of Sweet Briar received a message from me about the College’s budget for this year. In case you missed it, you can find it here.

Many of you have recently read similar messages from the other colleges and universities to which you are connected. Our challenge at Sweet Briar is to remember that we are in a relatively strong position with great momentum. It is precisely in order to retain that strong position and momentum that we need to act decisively and carefully to address budgetary challenges when they arise.

I look forward to sharing the administration’s plan for addressing this year’s revenue gap with the community soon. The plan will protect the quality of the academic program and the student experience while preparing the ground for strategic investments when our enrollment and endowment resume their growth.

In the meantime, we celebrate the fact that we have opened new facilities (when many institutions could not) and welcomed new faculty members (when many institutions did not) and that our investments are already well on the way to recovering their value. The leaders who made prudent decisions over the last several years served the College well and ensured that Sweet Briar has not been hit by the economic downturn nearly as hard as many other colleges have been. Our current circumstances are certainly challenging, but we are well positioned and well prepared to meet the challenge.

Harvard School for New Presidents

Tonight I’m writing at the end of the first full day of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents.  (And I do mean full day: we started with an early breakfast session and had our final class after dinner!) It’s a great privilege to  start my presidency with this experience:  new presidents from across the country spend five days with Seminar faculty and with each other on topics ranging from time management to leadership styles to governance to media relations.  It feels a little bit like freshman orientation on steroids, but I can’t imagine anything more appropriate than to prepare for the new academic year and my new responsibilities with a period of intensive study.

So far I’ve particularly appreciated a presentation on college finance by Kent Chabotar. A former chief finance officer and current college president, Chabotar makes topics like debt ratios and fund accounting compelling. Of course, any discussion of college finance today raises the question of financial strategy in a downturn. Chabotar’s recent article on mistakes to avoid summarizes some of the ideas we discussed this evening. Tomorrow we’ll continue working on how to make sure that financial responses to economic turmoil are strategic and not merely tactical — a crucial topic for Sweet Briar, as for all institutions.

On a Sweet Briar specific note, I’m pleased to report that one of my classmates here is Hampden-Sydney’s new president, Chris Howard. I think Chris and I agree that it’s terrific to have another new president as a near neighbor.  I’m going to enjoy working with him.