Reaffirming our priorities

As the College draws closer to the new presidency under Adam Falk’s leadership, it does so in an era that continues to be plagued by the economic downturn that began nearly a year and a half ago. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, the College has taken many steps to stabilize its finances and limit endowment spending. Some decisions have, of necessity, been made quickly, while others have been considered over the long term. More cuts are inevitably forthcoming. It is productive at this juncture – as budget decisions are made for next year, as President-elect Falk prepares to begin his term in April and as colleges and universities across the country contend with similar financial dilemmas – for the College to take an evaluative step back, reaffirm its priorities and determine what things we can do away with and what things we cannot sacrifice without jeopardizing all that Williams represents. As an institution of higher education, it is clear that we hold academics to be our top priority – certainly above some of the creature comforts that sometimes seem so imperative.

Going forward, the College must continue not only to carefully consider future decisions, but also to regularly reevaluate the changes that have already been made. The College has done so in many cases, notably in its regular reassessment of the Stetson-Sawyer project postponement. In most instances, the College has thus far made conscientious decisions to protect academic vitality. The maintenance of professors’ salaries, overall preservation of departments, continuation of vital positions and availability of close student-professor interactions are all integral to the academic quality of the institution, and must be maintained.

Nonetheless, there have been a few notable failures to safeguard the academic environment. These lapses have sparked an outcry – an outcry that serves as affirmation that some things must remain sacred. When Assistant Professor of Linguistics Nathan Sanders leaves the College at the end of this semester, he will not replaced; the loss of the linguistics department will be felt deeply by all students who seek training in that field of study. Retracting need-blind admissions for international students will, over the next few years, change the demographics of the classroom in subtle but substantive ways that will detract from the academic diversity of the College and may deny students valuable opportunities for cross-cultural learning.

In making future decisions, we hope and trust that the College will take all possible measures to protect our academic interests. While we recognize that academics are not the only important aspect of the student experience, we believe that there exist other areas that can sustain cuts without destroying students’ quality of life. Discussions over the past year and a half amongst administrators have introduced a multitude of possibilities. Potential decisions range from minor inconveniences to cuts that would be profoundly painful to make. However, this year’s budget cuts have, if nothing else, driven home the fact that drastic changes are necessary, painful or not.

Actions like closing underutilized facilities during Winter Study (for example, Griffin Hall) seem like feasible ways to cut corners while minimally impacting the College. In contrast, talk of closing a dining hall strikes fear and outrage into the heart of many a student – but would we rather sacrifice an academic department or one of five dining halls? Similarly, how much money could the College save by scaling back the costs spent on students’ Winter Study travel trips – and could the money saved be used to buttress academic endeavors? Likewise, the College has been able to avoid the ever-frightening concept of lay-offs, but is it fiscally responsible to evaluate departments without taking a hard look at positions that our peer institutions are already scaling back on? We recognize the adverse impacts of these possibilities, but we also recognize the values that an academic institution should uphold.

We are at the point where any cuts the College makes will upset some portion of the community – and justifiably so. During this tumultuous period, it is all the more vital for the College to be clear-sighted about both its goals and its decision-making processes. While we students recognize that we have only a vague grasp of the minutely detailed budgetary models that are scrutinized in Hopkins Hall daily, many of us would like to participate in this process in whatever capacity we can. At the beginning of the financial crisis and ensuing budget cuts, administrators initiated open forums and student representation on committees to provide valuable ways for students to be heard. Reinstating these channels would be a good initial step for President-elect Falk, allowing us to learn more about this institution that we value while, we hope, enriching the conversations about priorities and trade-offs. As we continue forward in these trying financial times, we ask the decision-makers to keep us well-informed and as involved as possible, to provide transparency and explanations and, above all, to keep academic rigor paramount. After all, we go to Williams.

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