The Budget Cuts are Unacceptable: We Need a Student Voice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

We’d like to ask you to do something for us. Whatever you’re doing tomorrow, make it a point to go to SCI 199 at 7 PM tomorrow evening, where there will be a discussion about the College’s finances with Deans Jim Bock and Garikai Campbell. You’re doing yourselves and your professors no favors by deciding to stay in McCabe, and if you work in Cornell you have no excuse. As students, we have—now—an opportunity to demand input into an important financial and administrative process from which students have been all but excluded. You want the facts? Here they come, so hold on to your broomsticks.

The story began on September 3, when the Phoenix ran a benign-looking article entitled “Planning group weighing College’s financial options”. That article concerned the Ad-Hoc Financial Planning Group (FPG), a committee formed in February and consisting of representatives from the Board of Managers, the Administration, Faculty, and Staff . The Ad-Hoc group is dedicated, according to the Phoenix, to “discussing next year’s budget today in an effort both to seek financial sustainability and preserve the college’s values.” In other words, to deciding where the college can save money — and how. The group has been meeting this semester since that issue of the Phoenix came out, and on December 5, it will present to the Board of Managers its suggestions for financial policy decisions related to next school year. The FPG will submit a proposal directed at cutting 6.9 million dollars from Swarthmore’s endowment spending for the foreseeable future, with another $1.1 million slated to be cut next year. Included in the 6.9 million are $400,000 worth of cuts from faculty and staff benefits and $457,000 from financial aid.

If you aren’t mad yet, keep reading. The Financial Planning Group, whose website you can access here, does not include any students as either members of the group or even lowly observers. Nevertheless, the group has suggested cuts to financial aid that would place undue extra obligations on students who are receiving financial aid (talk about class issues). The FPG has three suggestions for saving money spent on financial aid. These include raising the required in-term work hours for work-study students from 7.5 hours/week to 10 hours/week; raising the required summer contribution for work-study students; and returning the recently removed loan component to financial aid packages. Or the FPG might decide on some yet-to-be determined combination of the three. None of these options seem acceptable. In particular, asking students on financial aid to work extra hours in a College job when student jobs and hours are already being cut, and without a uniform college hiring policy, seems like a recipe for disaster. Frankly, we are saddened that financial aid is even on the table as a program in which “savings” can be found. In the administration’s view, some budgets, such as that for the Honors program, are inviolable. Why shouldn’t financial aid be the same? We commend Student Council for voicing its opposition to the cuts in its meeting on Sunday evening.

That Student Council meeting was co-hosted by SFAP, the Student Financial Advisory Panel, a group created in response to pressure for student inclusion into the discussions of the FPG. SFAP, in theory, gives appointed students some means of contributing to the budget discussion. This group meets every week with Dean Campbell and Treasurer Sue Welsh to discuss student concerns and the current state of the Ad Hoc Group’s deliberations and proposals, but it has no voice in the Ad Hoc Group’s discussions or the considerations of the Board. Students have repeatedly requested representation in the discussions of the Ad Hoc Group and the Board, and each time the administration has denied their requests, citing reasons of confidentiality. The Administration expects SFAP to liaise between the Financial Planning Group, who actually make the decisions about what to propose to the Board, and the rest of the student body, to whom administrators promise vague opportunities to provide feedback. An informative Daily Gazette article on the Panel makes clear many more details about the way in which the Administration hopes SFAP will work.

The Financial Planning Group released the proposal that it will submit to the Board of Managers last Friday, and for students shut out of the discussion process, it was the first opportunity to view data about the budget changes the FPG has been considering. A summary of the group’s recommendations is available. The proposal accompanies a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the administration. Finally, the Finance and Investment Offices’ website has posted a page containing the above links, as well as the audio from the presentation.

While many general decisions about where to cut money have been made by the Ad Hoc group, some of the final specifics remain to be decided. At this moment, then, it is crucial for students to demand increased input into the decision-making process. That’s why it’s so important that you make it to SCI 199 tomorrow evening at seven: Deans Bock and Campbell, both members of the Financial Planning Group, will host a town-hall style meeting dedicated to answering questions students have about the proposal, and, in the words of Student Council president Rachel Bell, as quoted in the Daily Gazette article linked above, “gather student input and get a better sense of what we prioritize” in making cuts going forward.

The town-hall meeting format lends itself to challenging the one-way conduit of information that has more or less been the rule since discussion of budget cuts began. A strong student showing at this meeting would demonstrate, to the Administration in general and to the Financial Policy Group in particular, that students are not content to simply accept cuts that affect students as well as faculty and staff in big ways without demanding a significant and tangible voice in the process. A strong showing would galvanize more students into action and awareness around these issues while demonstrating support for the work that SFAP and Student Council have done in pursuing goals of student representation within the Ad-Hoc Financial Planning Group and before the Board of Managers. We have not been guaranteed a student presence at the upcoming Board of Managers meeting; no students, as it currently stands, will be given the opportunity to address the Board or even to observe the meetings. While SFAP will submit its own report to the Board, it will not be able to explain that report in person or field questions from Board members. The window of opportunity for input into the final decision making process is quickly closing.

It is sad that Swarthmore, a school with a proud legacy of involving students in administrative decisions, has chosen to place so little value on student input in what is, for many here, a time of economic hardship. The real financial challenges facing the College are not lost on the students, though the paucity of financial information that the administration has made available to us raises justifiable curiosity about the exact state of the college’s finances. Swarthmore is happy to trust students to make good decisions in managing for themselves the distribution of funds through SBC, but when it comes to a time of crisis, it isn’t hard to see who is really in charge. If you think that should change, we’ll see you tomorrow at seven.

The Phoenix