Westminster College removed eight full-time faculty positions as part of ongoing efforts to balance the college’s budget, according to an email President Beth Dobkin sent to faculty and staff. The positions removed were held by faculty members in different disciplines and with “varying lengths of service” to the institution.
This comes just one year after faculty and staff benefit cuts and seven months after announcing an 8.5% tuition increase for the incoming academic year — both implemented to reach a realignment in the budget.
Plans to realign the student-faculty ratio have been discussed at the school over the last decade — before President Dobkin arrived at Westminster.
“The misalignment […] has been discussed on campus for years, with various expense reductions made but without addressing the underlying problem of the gap between faculty positions and student enrollment,” President Dobkin said in the email.
Westminster experienced peak enrollment of roughly 3,500 students during the 2011-12 academic year. At the time, the college employed 145 full-time faculty and 276 full-time staff and administrators, according to the president.
Last year, the college’s enrollment was around 2,200 students, while faculty employment increased to 148 full-time positions and staff decreased to 213 full-time employees.
President Dobkin first mentioned the possibility of faculty reductions during a Town Hall meeting May 1 — but more details on the process were officially shared during a Faculty Senate meeting mid-May.
The president announced the elimination of positions to faculty and staff in the beginning of June, noting the reductions will bring the college closer to the desired student-faculty ratio. The list of professors who were let go was not released to The Forum as the college said it does not release personnel information publicly.
However, she said she understands the frustration of timing — as COVID-19 has caused increasing unemployment across the U.S.
“COVID-19 has called into question central tenets of higher education,” President Dobkin said. “Most private colleges before the pandemic, like Westminster, were wrestling with these questions, and now they are faced with the need to take even greater and more immediate action to ensure the continuity of basic functions and provide the education that they promise.”
Faculty and staff were aware these changes were coming, according to Provost Debbie Tahmassebi. The reductions were originally meant to be taken in a slower timeline, but the coronavirus pandemic caused economic strains that hurried the process along.
“It’s been an ongoing issue,” Provost Tahmassebi said in an interview with The Forum. “The timeline is what was impacted, but not the issue itself — that hasn’t changed.”
The reductions were decided by evaluating which classes students are taking versus how many full-time faculty members are in that discipline. It’s important to note, Tahmassebi said, that positions were not removed on a performance-based basis.
“We hire and retain very talented faculty,” she said. “That’s what made this even more challenging and it was really about alignment.”
Tahmassebi added the decisions were not made as an attack on any specific discipline — it was strictly determined by data points. This way, the school could maintain its mission for high-quality education, she said.
“Of course, top of mind is always the quality of the student experience,” Tahmassebi said. “We’re always making sure that students can continue getting the courses that they need for their areas of interest [and] their majors.”
All Westminster faculty and staff members who were let go received severance packages from the institution, which were based on current salaries and years of service. These packages “more than covered the annual cost of health care premiums for most individuals,” according to the email President Dobkin sent out.
In addition to that, President Dobkin said severance packages were increased based on a combination of salaries and average health care premiums.
However, the college could not provide a full-year’s severance due to budgetary reasons, the president said.
From here, President Dobkin said Westminster will continue to work on creating a sustainable budget model for the future — one that will both generate revenue and reduce expenses.
“Our challenges are significant, but I continue to have great confidence in our learning community,” President Dobkin said. “The conversations about addressing these challenges have been thoughtful, compassionate, and reflecting a commitment to our mission and dedication to our students.”
*Any faculty member who was let go and would like to consent to give their name — as an opportunity to address their former students — are welcome to email The Forum editor here.