On December 22, 2017, 38 Wellesley staff members quietly said their goodbyes to the College at which they dedicated so many years. On June 30, 2018, the end of this year, 34 faculty will do the same. This Wellesley News investigation takes a look at the one-time Voluntary Retirement Program (VRP) offer and seeks to explain the reason for its existence and shed light on the anxiety surrounding possible downsizing at the College. This series hopes to answer questions in three parts: first, an explanation of the VRP and its implications; second, the VRP’s consequences for the curriculum and finally, the reasons for the financial stress that necessitated the VRP in the first place — including the dire need for maintenance of College infrastructure.
On Nov. 13, 2017, Wellesley College faculty and staff received a College Announcement email from the senior leadership team titled “Progress Towards a Sustainable Budget Model.”
“For several years the College has been grappling with the challenge of ensuring the long-term sustainability of our budget,” the email read.
Two days later, eligible staff and faculty who had accepted the VRP, a highly-incentivized retirement package rolled out on July 11, 2017 as part of the College’s new budget goals, signed and submitted their paperwork to Human Resources (HR). There, many decades-long careers with Wellesley College drew to a close.
According to documents obtained by The Wellesley News, benefits-eligible faculty and administrative staff who are 60 or older and have completed 10 or more years of service at the College were offered a retirement bonus equal to one year’s salary, an additional 2.5 percent of the salary for each year of service after the first 25 years and $30,000 through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA), an employer-sponsored plan that allows retirees to use tax-free dollars to reimburse eligible out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. Staff members who elected to take the VRP also receive a payout based on their unused earned vacation and sick time.
According to data in the “Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) Active Notice,” out of the 175 non-union staff and faculty eligible for the VRP, 72 elected to take the package.
In May 2016, the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) recommended that to achieve a sustainable operating budget, the College should reduce the number of tenure-track faculty by 30 positions, raise the College’s comprehensive fee and reduce administrative and non-curricular expenses.
When pressed about the need for a sustainable operating budget, Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Piper Orton said in an email statement that “a sustainable budget is one that fully supports our academic program, institutional priorities, provides for continuous investment in innovation and meets our responsibility to renew and maintain the historic campus to support people and programs.” This statement is identical to the College Announcement email sent by President Johnson on Feb. 28, 2018. Members of senior leadership, specifically Orton and Carolyn Slaboden, assistant vice president of the College and director of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity, repeatedly denied requests for interviews.
The Nov. 13 email noted that the VRP “gives the College an opportunity to make strategic adjustments to our administrative operations. This requires that we pause in filling vacancies generated by the VRP or other departures.” As such, a certain percentage of faculty and staff positions will remain empty until the College deems it necessary to fill them.
The departure of several professors will leave some departments almost completely empty. The Cinema and Media Studies (CAMS) department is losing Professor Winifred Wood, senior lecturer in the writing program and co-director of the CAMS department, as well as her co-director Professor Maurizio Viano, both founding members of the three-person department.
According to an academic administrative assistant, who has requested anonymity for fear of repercussions by the College, the VRP was presented on a case-by-case basis for faculty. For professors, an initial general package was offered, which could then be negotiated for options such as extending their time at the College by an additional semester. Some professors chose this path to ensure that their departments would experience a smoother transition without some faculty members. This differs from the statement The News received from Elizabeth Gildersleeve, chief communications officer, which said that “there was one VRP program for faculty and staff. The terms were not individually negotiated.”
The same administrative assistant explained that eligible staff and faculty were first solicited via email by HR, but that some people, particularly those that were central to the department, were called in for meetings.
“There was, definitely for some of our faculty, more back-and-forth, lots of meeting with the provost to evaluate what that would do to certain programs,” the assistant explained.
But for the vast majority of eligible employees, the process was as simple as completing an acceptance form by Nov. 15, 2017.
The College’s Financial Situation, Then and Now
Despite the optimism expressed by President Johnson’s administration in the VRP announcement, the launch of the program has raised concern regarding the College’s financial situation. The College’s endowment and finances took a huge hit after the 2008 financial crisis, and a similar retirement program was offered to then-members of staff and faculty, according to numerous sources, including former college spokesperson Sofiya Cabalquinto. Cabalquinto explained that “the College offered a retirement program, eliminated vacant positions, reduced work schedules and conducted approximately 20 layoffs within the administrative staff.”
“There are no current plans for layoffs, but in any organization, reductions may occur as staffing needs change over time,” she explained.
This language was also used in the documents received by The News, which include email correspondence between upper administration and staff members, committee presentations to upper administration and the booklet circulated to VRP-eligible staff members of the College. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section of the booklet, which explains the program and its benefits, addresses the possibility of future layoffs.
“Layoffs are not a part of this VRP, but layoffs may occur in any organization as staffing needs change over time,” the booklet explained.
On Feb. 19, Orton gave a presentation for staff during a town hall about the College’s financial situation and its plans moving forward. When asked by attendees if layoffs were presented as an option down the line, Orton acknowledged the possibility, but “not in those exact words,” according to the same administrative assistant.
“Basically the College is trying to to say that in 2008 and 2009, there were a lot of layoffs around campus. So people are expressing anxiety about the same thing happening. HR and Piper have alluded to centralization … which does make sense. But it does mean that people will lose their jobs,” the administrative assistant continued.
After recounting the budget presentation prepared by Orton, the administrative assistant said, “In general, it looks like there will be staff layoffs in the next year, which they’ve been up front about, but it’s led to a lot of uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability around campus.”
Prior to the town hall, senior leadership received a list of questions gathered by the Compensation and Personnel Policy Advisory Committee (CPPAC) to gauge concerns regarding budget restructuring. The survey received over 111 responses. 71.2 percent of respondents said that they were most concerned about job security. The Wellesley News gained access to the responses, which included staff members’ statements. “It seems that poor decisions and lack of planning on the part of Senior Leadership have created this crisis that is primarily being balanced on the backs of administrative staff in the form of staff reductions, minuscule salary increases and reduced departmental budgets,” one staff member wrote.
One response specifically mentioned the VRP, demonstrating concern amongst staff members. “There has been a lot of secrecy around the Voluntary Retirement Program and other news of who is leaving the College. Why? All this does is create fear, foster feelings of uncertainty and ramp up the distrust around campus,” an anonymous respondent wrote.
At the town hall, Orton chose from the list of questions sent to senior leadership and answered them with prepared statements, according to anonymous sources who attended the meeting.
After she finished, Orton asked if anybody had questions. “Nobody said anything. There’s a lot of whispering, rolling of eyes and people looking at each other… but nobody said anything,” said a staff member who refused the VRP.
Casey Rothschild, Norma Wilentz Hess associate professor of economics and chair of the BAC, noted that he is not aware of any College plans to further downsize. However, he explained that “it has been the case at other institutions—I’m not saying it will be here; I have not seen evidence of any plans for this—but it has been the case that there has been a wave of layoffs after a voluntary retirement program.”
In Jan. 2012, Harvard University also announced a Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program for library employees as part of a restructuring initiative of the university’s library system. 65 employees accepted the package and retired, but shortly after, protesters rallied outside of the Harvard Library to oppose further restructuring. In July of that year, six employees were laid off.
Rothschild concedes that layoffs are an option as the next logical step in achieving a sustainable operating budget, but only at institutions with dire financial difficulty, which is not the case at Wellesley. “The last round in the academic world of broadscale voluntary retirement programs was in the wake of the financial crisis,” he said.
That said, as of 2017, Wellesley’s endowment is $1.97 billion and steadily increasing with donations and investments. Rothschild sees the College’s financial future as one that will not necessitate cuts if managed sensibly. Even with sensible management, however, it is possible that the College may choose to reduce faculty numbers even further in the future.
A Tense Atmosphere
For Professor of English and Chair of the English department Yu Jin Ko, tension stemming from the VRP lies in the manner by which the administration has chosen to deal with the College’s financial issues. “I can’t speak for everyone in English or other departments, but people are resigned to [faculty layoffs’] inevitability and necessity, even if they’re unhappy about it … But inevitability involves choices,” he said.
To some faculty and staff, the College’s choices and approach have been characterized as callous, especially when dealing with some of the most senior members of the campus community. In an anonymous interview with The Wellesley News, the staff member who refused the VRP said, “I’ve been here for 30 years, so I’ve seen changes in how the College is run and how staff feel in the College and how it impacts the students. There was so much more sense of community, of everything being connected.”
“A lot of that has disappeared. Things are a lot more impersonal, [more] corporate than they used to be,” she continued. “It showed us what the administration thought about us. That our expertise, our knowledge, our dedication, our love of this place didn’t mean anything. All they care about is saving money, which they will do.”
Streamlining and centralization have become the themes of administration’s messaging. Slaboden told The Wellesley News in an email that “[t]he guiding principles of this work redesign emphasize collaboration and improved coordination across divisional boundaries, and move to significantly streamline systems and practices—for example, the introduction of our new Workday system—in order to maximize efficiency and reduce costs.” Again, Slaboden’s statement is identical to that which has already been distributed by senior leadership in the Nov. 13 email.
Recounting a recent meeting at which Slaboden presented, the staff member who refused the VRP said, “Slaboden mentioned that one of the top-level people … in HR retired, and she said this like it was a good thing. It’s saving the school a lot of money, and Slaboden says the work is going to be done … but the fact that it’s something to brag about? It’s demoralizing.”
The friction between upper administration and staff and faculty has come to light because of the looming financial situation, most particularly, friction surrounding upper administration’s salaries and treatment of lower-level employees. The staff member who refused the VRP sees this tension most obviously in the large bonuses administration enjoy every year. “Again, you go back to the $30,000 or $40,000 bonuses and the huge salaries of the top people. They’re so slick when they talk about that stuff—it’s really hard to argue back,” she explained.
A student familiar with the VRP and Wellesley’s financial situation reiterated the idea of a bloated administration and the unfairness that she sees. “The story is that administration has always lived a high life. I know that people complain about this, that admin lives a different lifestyle, but they really do. It’s just been unequal for a really long time,” she said.
“It’s a really tense battle between two sides. There’s the livelihood of Wellesley’s financial stability against these people who have been here for decades who are being cut or forced to leave,” she continued.
The administrative assistant feels frustrated about the attitude upper administration has toward lower-level employees and their salaries. “It often feels like that upper administration looks down and not across. When you see bonuses in years when the budget is in a deficit, and those bonuses are three, four times what the average administrator makes, it’s really galling that they’re still accepting those, while we aren’t even getting cost-of-living raises,” she said.
Most frustrating of all, she emphasized, is a culture that permits this sort of treatment. “You’re coming into this campus [as a staff member], and you’re treated like a second-class citizen. Upper administration will not look at you like you’re an equal,” she said.
Article correction was made on April 12, 2018 at 9:30 pm.