Antioch cuts $2.5M; jobs lost
- Published: July 9, 2020
Amid ongoing financial challenges worsened by COVID-19, Antioch College seems — perhaps against the odds — determined to survive.
The college last Tuesday announced $2.5 million in cuts to its 2021 fiscal year budget, which entailed job losses for six faculty and eight staff. The cuts were spurred by ongoing financial challenges at the college intensified by revenue downturns related to COVID-19, according to college leaders in an interview with the News last Wednesday.
President Tom Manley called the financial situation of the college “acute” as it ended its fiscal year on June 30, and said the cuts were needed for the college to go forward amid the uncertainties of COVID-19 and longstanding struggles to cover costs.
“These are big, tough decisions,” he said. “The numbers are what they are, and each year we try to line up revenues with expenses.”
The new budget is $8.5 million, down 20% from $10.9 million in the fiscal year that just ended. Those figures refer to the college’s cash budget, which aligns expenses with revenues. The college’s total operating budget, which in 2019 was about $18 million, includes deficit spending. College expenses that year came in $3.7 million over revenues, according to Antioch’s 2019 financial audit.
The college anticipates being able to raise $8.5 million in revenue in the coming year, an amount Board of Trustees Chair Maureen Lynch said she felt comfortable the college could achieve. The expense budget is pegged to that revenue projection.
“The board is confident that it’s a sensible, achievable budget,” Lynch said last week.
Alongside the new budget, the college appears to be undergoing a quiet leadership shift. Two board members have stepped into unpaid senior administrative roles at the college on a temporary basis for an unspecified period of time. Trustee Sharen Neuhardt now oversees operations and trustee John Jacobs administers college finances. President Manley remains involved in these areas, but is focused on developing a new strategic direction for the college tied to Antioch’s recently launched work-study program, Antioch College Works.
The new roles for Neuhardt and Jacobs were announced to the campus community in a May 19 email from Manley and were effective from that date. A copy of the email obtained by the News reads in part: “The contribution of their time and expertise will allow me to devote more of my time to visibility and resource development, which will be essential as we seek to secure the success of our new Antioch College Works program and continue to engage alumni and friends.”
Manley remains the college’s president, Lynch emphasized in a statement this week in response to News questions about the new roles.
“Tom is Antioch’s President and remains actively involved in the executive leadership of the college, meeting three times a week with Sharen and John on operations/finance matters,” she said.
The new budget was developed by a three-member trustee task force, consisting of Neuhardt, Jacobs and a third trustee, Shadia Alvarez, with input from college administration, the wider board and an unnamed pro bono consultant.
According to Lynch, Antioch trustees are increasing their involvement in running the college in response to financial pressures endemic to higher education that have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Educational systems at all levels are being challenged to adapt quickly. As the Board of Trustees of a very small college, we have recognized that augmenting staff capacity in critical areas will ensure the continuation and success of the college through a volunteer ‘task force’ approach,” Lynch said.
Faculty, staff losses
The college has shed six faculty positions and one program under the new budget, which cuts $600,000 from the previous year’s academic budget.
Departed faculty include Associate Professor of Performance Louise Smith, whose retirement was announced publicly at the college’s commencement on June 20; Japanese instructor Toyoko Miwa-Osborne, who confirmed to the News this week that she left through a “negotiated departure” as a result of the Japanese program being discontinued; and four tenure-track faculty in literature, philosophy, environmental science and political economy, all of whom separated from the college under “voluntary departures.”
Smith, a longtime villager and Antioch alumna who has served in various roles at the college for 25 years, said the faculty reduction was the result of a budget process that originated with the trustee task force, but was shaped substantially by the college’s three-person executive committee of faculty, consisting of herself and two other faculty members.
She credited the college with allowing faculty a significant voice in the process, noting that the resulting faculty departures largely reflect the faculty committee’s proposal. The departure of Miwa-Osborne was in addition to the faculty who agreed to depart with severance pay.
Rounding out the academic budget cuts, some remaining faculty are taking unpaid sabbaticals. An additional proposal for a faculty pay cut was rejected by the trustees, who stated their belief that faculty should not be paid less for taking on more work as a result of the cuts, according to Smith.
“Under really lousy circumstances, it was the best outcome we could muster,” she said of the reductions that ultimately resulted.
Regarding her own departure, Smith said she had been considering retirement prior to the budget process, but opted to bring her Antioch career to a close sooner as part of the faculty reduction. Doing so is bittersweet, she added.
“It’s been a challenging place to work that has given me so much in my life,” she said, adding that she was “rooting for” the college to succeed.
Another departing faculty, Miwa-Osborne, reached for comment this week, said she was “not that surprised but a little sad” that Antioch was eliminating the Japanese program, for which she was the sole instructor. The program was built by Japanese scholar Harold Wright in the 1970s and has fostered deep ties between Antioch and Japan.
A longtime villager who has taught at Antioch since it reopened to students in 2011, Miwa-Osborne expressed the hope that Japanese courses would return to the college in the future.
“I just hope the college recovers from this and resumes teaching Japanese,” she said.
Other departing and current faculty members contacted by the News for comment either declined interviews or did not respond.
This is the first time the reopened college has reduced faculty through separations, as opposed to attrition. Antioch faculty now numbers 18, down from a high of more than 30.
Comparing the current faculty to faculty of 2016 underscores the scope of the downsizing. Where Antioch’s website in 2016 previously listed a total of nine humanities faculty, it currently lists four. Similarly, social sciences faculty previously numbered eight, and now numbers three. The sole faculty member currently listed in the category of literature now has departed.
Smith stated her belief that Antioch could continue to deliver a cohesive liberal arts curriculum despite the cuts, with remaining faculty stepping in for departing colleagues. But she acknowledged that the reopened college continued to wrestle with “honing what we do well and letting go of some things in the process.”
Smith also said the small and, in recent years, decreasing size of Antioch’s student body has meant that some classes are “underpopulated.” Having fewer faculty would allow classes to be “a little more populated,” adding vibrancy to the student experience, she said.
Contacted regarding the impact of budget cuts on the college’s faculty and curriculum, Vice President for Academic Affairs Kevin McGruder, who is also a tenured history professor, referred the News to the college’s communications office.
Manley maintained the faculty cuts “still allow the curriculum to have integrity,” given cross-coverage by remaining faculty.
On the staff side, eight staff positions have been cut from among the 27 college employees furloughed in early April in response to COVID-19. Staff who have lost their jobs permanently include a senior fundraiser, the Herndon Gallery’s creative director, the registrar, a library employee and individuals on the housekeeping and maintenance staffs, according to those familiar with the cuts. News emails to two of these employees seeking comment were not returned.
Most furloughed employees who were not laid off last week remain on furlough as the college evaluates its staffing needs for the fall, according to Manley. In early June, Antioch announced its intention to reopen its campus this fall, a move that could bring some furloughed workers back on payroll.
According to Manley, college finances, not individual worker performance or other issues, determined which employees were cut. Manley acknowledged the difficulty for all involved.
“When you have to make these changes, it’s truly, truly difficult,” he said, referring specifically to the faculty departures.
As with most organizations, compensation is the single largest expense in Antioch’s budget, accounting for about $8 million of its $18 million total operating budget in 2019, or nearly half. The faculty and staff cuts make up about three-quarters of the overall $2.5 million budget decrease, with additional cost-saving measures that touch all departments of the college, Manley said.
Alongside the cuts, Antioch is restoring pay for employees making over $40,000, according to college spokesperson Christine Reedy this week. On top of the April furloughs, the college previously enacted tiered pay cuts for employees above this pay level. Manley and Susanne Hashim, vice president for advancement, currently are the only employees whose previous pay cuts remain in place, Reedy said.
‘Human cost’ of cuts
The budget action was announced and discussed during the college’s weekly community meeting, which in recent months, due to COVID-19, has taken place online.
About 70 staff, faculty, students and trustees were on that call, and “people were understandably upset,” according to college archivist and longtime Antioch employee Scott Sanders, reached for comment last week.
Students were especially unhappy about the loss of faculty and staff they considered valuable teachers and mentors, he said.
“Every one of those persons was somebody’s favorite person,” Sanders observed of those who lost their jobs.
Student Ryn McCall was away on co-op and not on the call, but said by phone this week that learning about the cuts through emails and texts after the fact was troubling and jarring.
A couple of the departing faculty were “pretty essential to the rest of my degree,” McCall said. McCall is working toward a self-designed major in political ecology and plans to graduate next year.
In addition, one of the staff let go was a “huge mentor” to McCall, and a far-reaching contributor to the campus community.
McCall is also concerned that the cuts will increase the burden on faculty, staff and students. Antioch students “already have a heavy list of ‘asks,’” McCall said, referring to students’ roles in organizing and leading campus events and groups.
Another student, Ben Zitsman, who graduated this year with a self-designed major in American studies and American religious traditions, said his academic advisor was among the departing faculty.
“Her dedication was pretty much unrivaled,” he said.
Zitsman is also concerned that the cuts reduce an “already bare bones” faculty, leading to significant gaps in the curriculum for future students. These gaps occur in literature, philosophy and ancient history, he said.
“You can’t get a liberal arts education at Antioch,” he contended.
Sanders said he came away from the virtual community meeting troubled by the “human cost” of the cuts. Layoffs have been a consistent yet painful feature of his 26 years at Antioch, Sanders said, including the collegewide layoffs that followed Antioch College’s closure by Antioch University in 2008.
“I’ve spent most of my career saying goodbye to people,” he said.
In the current instance, the fact that staff who lost their jobs already were furloughed amid the COVID-19 pandemic made the process of “saying goodbye” trickier.
“You wonder what’s the best way to reach out to people,” he reflected.
Sanders lost a longtime library colleague in the staff layoffs, and said he feels disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement for that individual.
“He needs a retirement party,” Sanders said of the library employee.
Asked about faculty morale, departing faculty member Smith said the budget cuts have been difficult for all involved.
“It’s a blow,” she said, reflecting that times were tough for higher education faculty across the country.
Still, remaining Antioch faculty members seem willing to “roll their sleeves up and take the challenge,” she said.
“It’s an amazing group of people,” she added.
Calls or emails to four trustees to get their views on the cuts were either declined or unreturned, with trustees referring the News to the college’s communications office.
News of the budget cuts also reached some alumni last week, with posts to Antioch College Alumni and Community, a public Facebook group, drawing many comments expressing everything from frustration to sadness to skepticism about the efficacy of the cuts to the resolve to help.
One commenter was Amanda Cole, a 2005 alumna who also worked for two years as a fundraiser for the college’s alumni office. Contacted by the News for further comment, she said she empathized with the pain of the campus community, recalling her own years as a student when the college was struggling on the brink of closure.
“The slow bleed of not knowing what is happening is exhausting for staff and students,” she said.
Cole said she was indebted to Antioch — her undergraduate experience “changed me to my core,” she said — but skeptical that the college can cut its way to financial sustainability. Antioch needs to increase and diversify revenue, she said, yet lacks a “deep enough base of major donors.”
“It’s the same people writing the same checks,” she said.
What’s at stake
This is the third time in recent years Antioch has sought financial stability through budget cuts.
Beginning in 2015 and continuing through the end of 2016, Antioch underwent an 18-month effort to reduce expenses toward closing a major budget deficit of more than $7 million. The reduction was accomplished through attrition and other means, culminating in salary cuts and the elimination of five staff positions at the end of 2016.
A second, multi-phase effort began in early 2018, with collegewide budget planning, a curricular redesign and new recruitment strategies. As part of that effort, Antioch reduced expenses further, requiring periods of unpaid leave for most faculty and staff to reduce overall compensation expenses prior to the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
The earlier efforts addressed but didn’t close the college’s budget gap, which in 2019 was $3.7 million, up from the previous two years.
The current cut is the largest single action Antioch has taken to reduce expenses since reopening to students in 2011. In last week’s interview, Manley said the board believed decisive action was required to allow the college to move forward.
“Rather than go at it incrementally, the board felt it had to be decisive,” he said.
Manley acknowledged that Antioch has struggled with the other side of the balance sheet: revenue. The college’s strategy of “leveraging” curricular assets such as WYSO, Glen Helen, the Wellness Center and other entities to generate new revenue has not panned out over the past several years, he said.
“The results have been mixed. The revenue isn’t as great as we thought or projected,” he said.
These entities have not covered their own costs, much less provided revenue streams to support the college’s core operations, he contended. Antioch sold WYSO to an independent community-owned nonprofit last year, and currently has an “agreement in principle” with the Glen Helen Association for the sale of the Glen to that nonprofit group.
In place of leveraging curricular assets, Manley said the college is pursuing a new strategic direction, tied to its work-study program, Antioch College Works, which the college announced in January. The program provides free tuition to lower income, Pell-eligible students, as well as expanded co-op opportunities during college and after graduation. Revenue-wise, the goal is to seek regional and national partnerships that would translate into enhanced opportunities for students and new revenue for the college, he said.
“The model of Antioch College Works presents the opportunity for us to be a different kind of college,” he said.
The program is resonating with prospective students, according to Manley. About twice as many new and transfer students have accepted the college’s offer of admission this year over last year, or about 50 students so far.
That’s one positive indicator that Antioch College Works could help the college position itself as “a model of applied liberal arts” with a distinct identity from other small colleges, he said.
Whether new funding will follow amid major shifts in higher education accelerated by the financial challenges of COVID-19 remains to be seen.
“Antioch has legitimate longstanding claims to that legacy,” Manley said. “It’s worth saving.”