Faculty Discuss Budget Cuts, Student Mental Health

In a faculty meeting held on Tuesday, April 4, President Michael Elliott and Dean and Provost of Faculty Catherine Epstein led discussions surrounding impending budget cuts, staff-faculty relations, and student mental health.

In a faculty meeting held on Tuesday, April 4, President Michael Elliott and Dean and Provost of Faculty Catherine Epstein led discussions surrounding impending budget cuts, student mental health and skill levels relative to those observed before the pandemic, and a number of other topics.

In light of anticipated 15 percent budget cuts for all college departments in the 2024 fiscal year — beginning in July — Epstein communicated to faculty the areas where they could cut spending, and encouraged them to be more thoughtful when requesting services from staff. Epstein said that staff are already being told to plan for the impending decrease in funds and resources and reduce programming accordingly.

“Please know that staff are really worried about what happens when they say no to faculty,” Epstein told faculty. “Please consider the power relations or positionality involved when you ask staff to do things.”

According to Epstein, the college can expect less social programming across campus next year as part of decreased spending. Additionally, the registrar’s office will continue to send graduating students their individual diplomas in the mail following Commencement, and hand each graduate a generic ceremonial stand-in during the ceremony. The practice, initially adopted in 2020 for hygienic purposes, makes the jobs of registrar staff less stressful and time-consuming, Epstein explained.

Epstein emphasized the importance of restoring trust between college employees and the administration, which has apparently dwindled coming out of pandemic restrictions with the launch of Workday and various understaffed departments.

“I urge everyone to take every opportunity that you can to get to know your colleagues, both faculty and staff,” she said. “When we rebuild our community, we will have more accountability.”

The college administration had previously announced that, in light of the cuts, no new staff positions will be created in the 2024 fiscal year and that the hiring process for vacant positions will be stricter moving forward.

But at the April 4 meeting, Professor of Economics Jessica Reyes — citing Elliott’s commitment at a Feb. 7 faculty meeting to only fill positions “critical to the college’s mission” for the next 18 months — questioned whether this new ethos was honored when two open positions for assistant football coaches were posted in an email to faculty from the office of Human Resources.

“Athletics does not appear in the mission statement,” Reyes said. “How could a wide receiver coach possibly be core to the college’s mission?”

She said this question went unanswered in a letter to the Faculty and Executive Committee (FEC); she prompted Elliott and Epstein for an answer during the meeting. Among Reyes’s other requests for the FEC was a moratorium on “such redundant athletic positions” until the college’s “core mission” is met.

In response, a representative from the FEC said that the funding for assistant coach positions can only be used for such positions, but that the broader question remains whether athletics is core to the college’s mission in light of reduced spending.

Another concern, brought up by Professor of Biology Josef Trapani, was about how professors can support students through mental health struggles continuing out of the pandemic. He requested more programming to help students navigate anxiety levels in the classroom, citing students’ apparent inability to sit through class without “leaving for long periods of time,” which roused knowing laughter from the room.

“It would help to know that there are legitimate reasons why that's happening,” he said. “I have to imagine that there's valid reasons why they can't sit through class.”

Professor of German Christian Rogowski read a eulogy for Professor of German Donald White, who died in December, followed by a moment of silence in his honor.

Other announcements from Elliott included the hiring of a new chief financial and administrative officer from Middlebury College, Michael Thomas, who had begun his work at Amherst a week prior to the meeting.

Elliott also commented on his and President of AAS Sirus Wheaton’s “State of the College” addresses, an event with low student turnout. Elliott said that Wheaton commented on his experience with last semester’s impeachment trial with “grace and humility,” which he contrasted to that of “other national figures.”

Correction, April 18, 2023: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the college's new chief financial and administrative officer by the wrong name. His name is Michael Thomas.