Dear Members of the Board,
I appreciate you taking the time to read this. There are some names on here I recognize and some I have yet to meet. To the former: how have you been? To the latter: it’s a pleasure to virtually meet you.
The following is a modified version of a letter I sent to the author of a recent article in Inside Higher Ed profiling Whittier College. I sent this to challenge the author to revisit the article and do a follow up as there are numerous statements made by the administration in the article that are simply not true. The original letter contained only corrections; I believe in keeping private affairs in house. My analysis was not provided externally though it is derived from public sources and could be reproduced by a third party (if they were very motivated and/or very, very bored). For the most part, I was able to fact check via public sources, published by the College, in under 30 minutes.
The landscape of post-secondary education is rapidly evolving and my alma mater is certainly not alone in the challenges it faces. If anything, it’s a case study in why strong leadership is so critical to survival.
It is increasingly clear to me that Whittier has a leadership crisis and for that, I and my fellow alumni are partially to blame. I’ll be the first to admit that “out of sight, out of mind” has been my default standard when it comes to my relationship with Whittier. As an out of state alumni, I’ve been removed from the day to day of college life, hadn’t heard from the school in over a decade and didn’t really look at the state of Whittier until the announcement this past fall that the school was discontinuing athletic programs. I’m looking now and what I’m seeing – and hearing – is deeply concerning.
My ask – many of our ask – is quite simple: Please include the alumni community in decisions regarding the school. Show us the College’s plan so that we may buy in and support the future of the institution that has given us so much.
To date, that request has gone unfulfilled and this administration has repeatedly shown a tendency to play fast and loose with facts in a way that undermines credibility should they present one. Within the Inside Higher Ed article are blatant misrepresentations.
“Oubré pointed to a $12 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in 2020 as one example of a major donation, noting that – alumni giving aside – contributions are trending up.”
The Scott donation was unsolicited, based on Whittier’s status as a Hispanic Serving Institution (a designation pre-dating the administration) and had nothing to do with the administration or their fundraising efforts. An outsized, one time gift should not be cited as validation of strategy. 2022 giving is slightly below pre-Covid levels and front loads multi-year gifts.
“Oubré has defended [cutting sports programs], noting that while some athletes may transfer out, the cost-cutting measure will pay off down the road. She also noted the ongoing retention issues with the football team meaning that some of those players would have inevitably left Whittier College anyway.”
Again, this is part of a constantly evolving narrative regarding the administration’s rationale for eliminating programs. At the previous town hall, alumni were told that no athletes had requested transfer. At that town hall alumni also requested public release of the 3-year review cited as the basis for the decision in the College’s public statements defending the move. We were then told “there isn’t a paper. We studied it.”
I, personally, am less concerned about football than I am about how these types of decisions are made and how frequently the narrative is changing when the administration is pressed for supporting facts. If this was an informed decision that is part of a larger plan to stabilize the college, so be it. It will be a sad day for the college, but times change. All we ask is that the administration show their work. And they can’t. That’s a problem.
“’We are not in threat of closing, our financial situation is extremely strong, we have an extremely strong balance sheet, we have strong liquidity and we have about $400 million in assets,’ Oubré said.”
That statement is factually inaccurate. Per the 2022 audited financials (attached), Whittier College has $294M in gross assets, $229.5M net. That’s a decrease of $25M year-over-year. Tuition revenue decreased 23% year-over-year and enrollment has plummeted.
Publicly misstating net assets by $170.5M, particularly when grossly inflating them, is not a small “oops”. That is running dangerously close to fraud and the Board needs to sit up and pay attention.
While the standard rebuttal for our reversal of fortunes is that “colleges are struggling,” that’s not the entire story. I should know; my Whittier education grounded me in informed decision making. The last Alumni Town Hall raised major red flags for me so I pulled a competitive set of the SCIAC College’s enrollment and financials (also attached). Whittier has the fewest assets of the SCIAC college peer cohort. Our reduction in revenue is unmatched by any peer institution, largely because of the aggressive use of tuition offsets, currently up to 60%, without any corresponding revenue source. Whittier already has one of the lowest operating costs per student so further cutting expenses won’t reverse the financial outlook. We are not ok; we have a major revenue problem. This past year, we were cash flow negative. COVID is no longer an excuse.
Why is Whittier alone struggling? What are we doing differently than our peers, who are thriving?
The administration’s statements in the article are so needlessly damaging and raise serious questions about what is going on at Whittier. Is President Oubré intentionally misrepresenting the financial position of the college or is she unaware of it?
Is she not familiar with fundraising efforts or is she claiming “wins” that aren’t hers to bolster her resume?
Again, why were programs representing over 10% of the student body cut, particularly at a time when revenue is paramount, and how does that fit into the long term business plan for the college? What *is* the business plan the college is operating against to increase revenues back to sustainable levels? Is there even one? The more the narrative changes, the less confidence it instills in the administration’s decision making.
These are the questions that alumni are pressing the administration on; questions which, to date, we have received either no response or unsatisfactory, shifting answers to.
It is both alarming and deeply frustrating to continue to see false and misleading statements made on things that are so easily fact checked. If a student at Whittier tried that in their studies, they wouldn’t be a student for long. Why should the administration of the same institution be held to a lesser standard? Why do you, the Board of Trustees, continue to look the other way and allow this?
The financials paint a damning picture but one that, while unique among Southern California liberal arts colleges, is not unique within the landscape of post-secondary education. To be clear, the current administration is not solely responsible for the position we find ourselves in. They have also not demonstrably reversed any trends despite their business credentials. If anything, the decline has accelerated.
With the right leadership, I am confident Whittier College can pull out of this.
Whittier has a strong legacy of quality education, community and service.
It has a progressive legacy of tolerance and diversity – one which predates this administration by a wide margin which is why I would kindly ask that the Board and the administration stop using DEI as a “get out of jail free card” to deflect justified criticism.
And Whittier has us: a widespread alumni community that love our school and are ready to step up if welcomed back into the fold and provided assurances that our support will be shepherded transparently and appropriately.
Ultimately, those assurances need to be delivered by people we can trust; people who don’t consistently deal in what was pretty accurately called “bullshit”.
I wasn’t listening before. I wasn’t watching. I am now. Are you?
Class of 2002
“As a result, law enforcement has advised the board “to minimize in-person activity,” Santana said.”
Per a FOIA request to the Whittier Police Department, they have received no threats against either President Oubré or Whittier College as a whole.
Press Release: Whittier College Makes Changes to Poet Athletics
YouTube: Alumni Town Hall 12.12.22