Some faculty and officials think the Quaker college, which is having tough financial times, may have veered from its niche, so they plan to refocus.
Before school began this year, Guilford College President Don McNemar called the faculty together for some shocking news: Unless things change, Guilford will be heading toward a financial crisis.
The 160-year-old institution has been hit by the same problem facing hundreds of other small liberal arts colleges across the country: Fewer people are willing to pay the high price that comes with getting a private-college education.The money Guilford receives from tuition can no longer cover the costs of scholarships and salaries, whereas four years ago the college had $2 million to spare. In the past 10 years, enrollment has dropped from nearly 1,500 students to less than 1,300. Meanwhile, the cost of running the campus has doubled.
McNemar, who's been at Guilford for only a year, told faculty members he came to the Quaker college to make changes, not preside over its demise. Though it is not in immediate danger, McNemar said, the college needs to radically reshape itself if it is to stop this slow decline.
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That includes finding $2-3 million to make Guilford ``sustainable' - either by slashing its $28-million budget or bringing in more money, McNemar said. It also means cutting the faculty by about 25 percent.
McNemar's announcement shook up faculty members, most of whom had little idea that the college's fiscal future looked so bleak. One semester later, anxiety still grips the campus.
Nearly a half-dozen new task forces of faculty, staff and students are scrambling to find ways to meet McNemar's goals, which go beyond mere cost-cutting. He also wants to revamp the curriculum to make it more appealing to today's students, restructure academic departments to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy and then sell the whole package more effectively.
``I didn't want to shock people,' McNemar explained in a recent interview, ``but what I wanted to say is we need to face issues of what we want liberal arts to be in the future. Guilford has the opportunity to be a great leader. All the elements are here.'
The rest of the campus is not as confident that the changes in store at the college will make Guilford stronger.
``Tension is very high, and understandably,' said Rob Whitnell, an assistant professor of chemistry who is on a task force in charge of recommending staff cuts. ``I certainly haven't talked to anyone who thinks their particular job is safe.'
``At the same time,' says his colleague, Ken Cameron, an assistant professor of biology, ``I haven't talked to anyone who doesn't think change is necessary. How that is done is what's open to debate.'
A sk people on Guilford's campus how it came to find itself in this predicament and you'll get a range of answers.
Some say the college's emphasis on service and self-discovery has fallen out of fashion in a world fixated on instant gratification.
``Every so often the culture comes up and bites us,' says Max Carter, campus ministry coordinator. ``Our graduates go off and do good. Well that doesn't pay. ... I'd rather crank out those type of folk, but you pay a price for that.'
Others believe Guilford is no different than most liberal arts colleges, which have been hurt by deep cuts in outside aid and stagnant family incomes.
Both groups are right, says David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based organization that represents private colleges on policy issues.
Families no longer assume that a traditional liberal arts education, with its emphasis on critical thinking and detached intellectualism, will give their children the edge they need to succeed after graduation, Warren says.
And the major supporters of private education - federal and state governments, corporations and foundations - are no longer as generous as they once were.
Those two cultural forces, Warren said, have led private institutions down a dangerous path. They must raise tuition to make up for a decline in outside support. And they must offer larger financial aid packages to lure students away from inexpensive state schools, a move that boosts tuition further.
The result is that the cost of attending a private college has risen faster than both inflation and family incomes. Between 1980 and 1995, private college tuition rose 228 percent, even after adjusting for inflation, Warren said. During that same period, institutional aid to students has risen 268 percent.
But growth in financial aid is just one reason why college costs have grown so quickly in recent years. Faculty salaries, new technology and building maintenance have all risen faster than inflation.
Private colleges generally have taken one of two approaches to this problem. Some have decided to spend money to make money. The hope is that new computer labs and expanded academic programs will lure in more students, whose tuition dollars can improve the bottom line.
This has been Elon College's strategy. The school has spent millions on new buildings and new professors while steadily enrolling more students. Elon Provost Gerry Francis says the college has been adding about 100 students each year in recent years.
Others have decided to streamline. These schools argue that rather than trying to be all things to all students, they will offer fewer but better programs.
Some schools combine these approaches. Wake Forest University, for example, cut $1 million from its non-academic operating budget even as it increased tuition and hired more faculty.
Even colleges with hefty endowments aren't immune to market forces. Janet Dickerson, a Guilford trustee and vice president for student affairs at Duke University, said that Duke has had to reduce its staff in recent years and beef up recruiting efforts to deal with a declining number of students applying for admission.
``We've been challenged to do more with less,' said Dickerson. ``Or not do as much as we want to do.'
I f Duke's immense wealth can't protect it from market forces, what can Guilford hope to do? That question is just now being addressed by the entire campus, but administrators have been wrestling with it for years.
In the early 1990s, when enrollment started to slide, the college lopped off 10 percent of its payroll, mostly through eliminating administrative jobs. In all, 32 people were let go.
When McNemar arrived on campus one year ago, he knew the budget was still in trouble, he said, but he did not quite realize how much trouble until this summer.
He hoped that by focusing on recruiting and retaining students Guilford could avoid another painful round of cuts. Instead, he found there still wasn't enough money to put the college on the right track.
In some ways, Guilford's problems are of its own doing. In the past decade, its reputation has shifted from that of a Money magazine ``best buy' college to a school known nationally for academic excellence. To make that transition, Guilford pumped money into its academic programs and more than doubled its tuition.
Now, instead of competing against regional colleges like Elon, it must go head to head with nationally known colleges such as Wake Forest and Davidson. Yet Guilford lacks the high-profile draw of Wake's ACC sports program and falls short of Davidson's academic reputation. That helps to explain why it has struggled to attract students in recent years.
Thus, as it considers which programs to keep and which to cut, this high-stakes competition has also forced the campus to ask itself one fundamental question:
What makes Guilford College worth $20,000 a year?
McNemar says Guilford can put itself back in the game only if it proves that it can offer something other colleges can't. Cutting the budget is just a short-term solution.
He argues that Guilford's curriculum should be restructured around its Quaker principles, such as the importance of learning from other cultures and a commitment to public service. In past years, McNemar said, Guilford haphazardly added classes and departments, effectively watering down its unique brand of education.
``There's a tendency to add and try to meet the needs of every student,' he noted. ``And part of what we're doing now is, 'How do we focus our program?' '
No one disagrees with McNemar's basic premise that Guilford needs to build on its strengths. But some differ on how, and how quickly, to do that. When McNemar said this summer that faculty should be cut by about 25 percent, for example, his number crunching came under attack as both arbitrary and severe.
Wayman, the art professor, said she sympathizes with McNemar's position and admires his willingness to take an unpopular stand, but she, too, questions his figures.
``There are huge risks to staying the way we are, and everyone sees that,' Wayman said. ``But there are also risks in cutting too deeply.'
Students are also nervous about the impending changes. ``Right now, there's a general fear on campus. 'Will my favorite professor be cut? Will my department still exist?' ' said Peter Morscheck, a sophomore who sits on the curriculum task force.
Concern among students was high enough this fall that more than 300 students signed a petition demanding an open forum with McNemar at which he could explain the proposed changes.
T his fall, Guilford took its first steps toward restructuring. Faculty hiring was frozen and some professors have opted for early retirement.
But the fundamental, and more difficult, changes McNemar outlined in that first faculty meeting have yet to take place, leaving both students and faculty feeling both nervous and restless. McNemar has said he will rely on the recommendations of various task forces he put in place before making his final decision, which he will take to his board of trustees in January.
So far, members of the curriculum and restructuring task forces have declined to say where specific faculty cuts are likely to be made, although they say it's likely that some departments will have to merge.
Some faculty members believe that streamlining will be good for the college. Like McNemar, they argue that Guilford's strongest academic areas have been weakened by a plethora of new programs that have eaten into the budget. Cutting in certain places, they add, also means more money to pay for repairs on campus buildings and for faculty salaries, which have been frozen for the last two years. ``We're all willing to put our heads on the chopping block for the good of the institution,' said Cameron, the biology professor.
Others believe that getting rid of one quarter of the faculty would cripple Guilford. It is essentially a teaching college, where classes are small and professors devote the majority of their time to students. If fewer professors are asked to teach more students, they argue, they simply can't do as good a job.
``Here's my rule of thumb,' said Elwood Parker, a 30-year veteran of Guilford's math department. ``The closer the thing is to the student, the more important it is. When I use that as my guiding principle, I don't talk about cutting faculty.' Making this monumental task all the more difficult is Guilford's reliance on the Quaker process of decision-making. Rather than using majority rule, Quakers believe that a group must reach consensus before moving forward. Theoretically, if one person objects, a proposal dies. That holds true from Guilford's board of trustees to its student government.
Despite McNemar's attempts to get buy-in from the campus, it's possible he could end up making the tough decisions by himself.
Richie Zweigenhaft, a psychology professor heading up the task force in charge of restructuring the academic departments and recommending staff cuts, said he is not convinced that Guilford needs to reduce faculty by the number McNemar has suggested. Nor has his group identified any programs that should be eliminated.
If his group, which is essentially at the eye of the storm, doesn't agree with McNemar's vision, the campus could find itself in a standoff with its president. Most believe that that won't happen, if only because they take the process of consensus to heart. Still, Zweigenhaft said he can't rule out the possibility of turmoil.
``I don't think this is the greatest test ever,' Zweigenhaft said. ``But it's the greatest test in the 23 years I've been here.'