Q & A with President Parker

| May 23, 2012

President Parker explains the strategy behind recent program reductions in relation to sustainable excellence.

Sweet Briar has historically been proud of its very low student:faculty ratio.
Why is it so important to reach 10 to 1 now?

The current student-faculty ratio is about 6-to-1.  Most of the colleges that we compare ourselves to, both for quality and for the kind of liberal arts program that we want to maintain, have student:faculty ratios of between 10:1 and 14:1.

At 10-to-1, Sweet Briar will still be among the very smallest and most personal campuses in America, offering a strong liberal arts program, but it will be able to operate in a more financially sustainable way.

When we created the strategic plan, the Plan for Sustainable Excellence, one of the study groups was called “Sustainable Size and Ratios.” That study group worked with the director of institutional research to understand institutional  characteristics that would promote financial sustainability for the College. Those characteristics included things like the relationship between the annual budget and the size of the endowment, student-faculty ratio, the proportion and structure of debt, staff-faculty ratios, and so on. With the leadership of that study group, the administration worked to describe some of the financial characteristics of a healthy and sustainable institution.

So, for example, we saw that we need to reach the enrollment goal of 750 to 800 students. Along with that, we saw we need to be at about a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio. We saw that we need to have an endowment that is approximately three times the size of our annual operating budget. So, the 10-to-1 ratio grew out of analysis of the financial characteristics of a healthy, sustainable institution and is one of several targets that the plan identifies.

It’s important to remember that a student-faculty ratio has two components: one is the size of the faculty and one is the size of the student body. Even as we make modest reductions to the size of the faculty, we need to make aggressive increases to the size of the student body, because we certainly can’t achieve our target student-faculty ratio only through reductions. We need to combine modest reductions with enrollment growth.

Do you think having a larger ratio will enhance the quality of education at Sweet Briar?

I’m sure it will. A slightly larger student body will enrich the academic experience of the College because it will bring more perspectives, backgrounds, and intellectual energy into Sweet Briar’s classrooms. At 10-to-1 we can still be very small and will work very closely together while benefitting from more wonderful students and their perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, questions and talents.

How many faculty positions will be eliminated to reach the 10-to-1 goal?

Two years from now Sweet Briar will have the equivalent of 11 fewer full time faculty positions than at the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

Which departments are likely to be affected the most by faculty reductions?

The biggest impact of the plan will be on German, which will no longer be offered as a major. Students who are currently in the pipeline for the German major, those who’ve already declared that major, will be able to complete their programs. But no future students will be able to declare a German major. Another program being discontinued is the minor in law and society.

Some other programs will be consolidated or combined. Major programs will continue to be offered, but they may be grouped together in new configurations. So, for example, the archaeology and anthropology majors will be combined into a single major, anthropology and archaeology. The two government and international affairs majors will also be combined.  In order to focus on our vibrant and growing Engineering Sciences major, we will no longer be offering a major track in Engineering Management: however, Engineering Sciences students can take courses in management and entrepreneurship through the business program if that is their area of interest.

Why German versus another program?

The dean and the faculty Academic Planning Committee did very careful research into current and historical enrollments, interest trends among prospective students, and curricula at peer institutions. As a result of that study it became apparent that German was a program that Sweet Briar would have difficulty. The strategic decision was to eliminate the German major, consolidate language offerings around French and Spanish (because of the signature Junior Year programs in France and Spain) and actively pursue ways to offer instruction in other languages through new technologies and collaboration with other colleges.

When will we see the first reductions go into effect?

This will vary in each case. Some reductions will be the result of retirements, some will be the result of adjunct faculty contracts that are not renewed, and some will be determined by the timing of student completions. The first changes will be in place next year but the process will continue throughout the next two years as, in each case, we look at student needs and the specific personnel issues involved.

Given that these reductions are being phased in, will we see immediate financial benefits to the College?

The financial benefits will be fully in place in two years. Some benefits will be felt in the budget a year from now.

If the financial situation improves, will any of these reductions be reconsidered?

No. These reductions are not an emergency response to a particular budget cycle. They’re changes designed to move Sweet Briar toward an academic program that’s more sustainable and that will to allow the faculty to move forward with curriculum review and potentially curriculum renewal as called for in the strategic plan.

Eliminating faculty and programs reduces options for prospective students. Will this impact enrollment, and how will Sweet Briar address that problem?

With careful advising and customized work plans, the vast majority of applicants will find that they can get everything they’re looking for at Sweet Briar.

Obviously, there may be one or two students specifically seeking a German major who choose to go elsewhere. But for the vast majority of students a wide range of attractive options will still exist.

One of the strengths of the Sweet Briar curriculum has always been the ability to customize a student’s program. We have the self-designed major and a number of ways to combine major, minor and certificate programs to produce the course of study that’s going to help each student advance toward her goals. Virtually all of the subjects we currently teach are going to remain available. They may simply be available at different levels or in different combinations or be offered every other year instead of every year.

And you concerned that reducing the number of academic programs weakens the “liberal arts” identity of the College?

People don’t think about it this way, but originally the liberal arts tradition started with seven fields of study. Just seven. The currently-dominant curricular structure that emphasizes a wide number of highly specialized departmental majors is actually more characteristic, historically, of a research university than of a traditional liberal arts college. In pruning back some of Sweet Briar’s offerings to achieve a more streamlined curriculum you could argue that we’re actually moving a bit closer to our roots as a liberal arts college.

What were those seven subjects?

They’re known as the “trivium” and  the  “quadrivium.” The trivium includes grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The quadrivium includes music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. Together, these were the studies considered to be fundamental to all human knowledge and a “liberal” education – that is, an education that frees the mind from the constraints of the immediate and practical.

But what about the modern notion of the liberal arts, which generally includes literature, languages, philosophy and so forth?

The modern notion of a liberal arts education emphasizes the ability of a student to move among and between disciplines representing various areas of human knowledge, developing skills in critical thinking, reasoning, analysis and expression fundamental to all. Curriculum is central to this vision of the liberal arts, but so is a pedagogy that develops active and synthetic learning, strong advising, and a coherent general education program. The modern definition of a liberal arts college is best realized by making sure that students experience academic rigor in a number of disciplines as they move through the curriculum, being taught by faculty members who insist on active engagement, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving no matter what subject they teach. Which is exactly what we do so beautifully at Sweet Briar.

You’ve said that students will be allowed to finish their programs. Could you be more specific about how that is going to be accomplished?

This will depend on each individual student, where she is in her progress and what she needs to accomplish. For example, a student who’s advanced in German and only needs one more semester to complete the major may be able to take that here on campus. Another student may complete her German studies through study abroad, or she may be able to take a course at a neighboring institution as part of our regional exchange. If needed, we may be able to acquire tutoring or other services to help students meet their goals. With careful timing and thoughtful advising, it will be possible to be sure that every student will have the support she needs.

What criteria did the Academic Planning Committee use to frame its recommendations to the Dean?

The role of the Academic Planning Committee was to provide perspective, advice and analysis to the dean as various curricular options were considered.

They were looking at not only the major and minor programs but also at the way departments contribute to general education requirements, the pattern of students who enroll in those fields for electives, and at comparative data of what’s commonly available at similar colleges.

What other actions have been taken or considered to put the College on more sustainable financial footing before deciding to reduce academic programs?

In the last three years, Sweet Briar has reduced non-instructional staff by about 20 percent. We’ve been very aggressive in combining administrative departments and reviewing all staff positions in order to make sure that, on the administrative side, we’re being as frugal and as responsible possible. We’ve reviewed everything from purchasing to utilities usage; we’ve refinanced our debt to lower debt service costs; we’ve examined the budget annually from top to bottom to make sure that we find every possible way of ensuring that resources are being directed to the academic program and not to administrative overhead or infrastructure. As we approach the question of staff reduction, we’re looking to increase efficiency of operation, to increase collaboration across units.

We have retained and indeed increased our commitment to a strong financial aid program because we know that families depend on financial aid and that keeping Sweet Briar affordable is central to our mission. We are deeply grateful to those alumnae who have supported financial aid with their philanthropy over the years, and I am always reminding alumnae of how essential support for financial aid is to the intellectual health of the college and the achievements of our students.

Is there a point where you would say that, regardless of how many students we have, there are certain core functions that need to be met, and further streamlining doesn’t make sense?

There are core functions on every campus that need to be fulfilled, whether you have one student or 10,000 students. Obviously, you can’t cut staff to the point where those functions are jeopardized. But it is essential to always seek the most cost-effective possible way to fulfill those functions. We look at how new technologies enable more efficient work processes, we look at inter-institutional collaboration, we look at outsourcing (as for example with the dining program): we are always examining the way those core functions are provided to make sure they are as cost-effective as possible.

We’ve posted several responses that President Parker offered. We have incorporated them here, in a channel view on YouTube.

Category: Summer 2012