‘Save Whittier College’ Response to President Oubré’s ‘State of the College’ Address on February 18, 2023
We agree with the opening premise of President Oubré’s recent ‘State of the College’ Address: It is no secret that higher education is experiencing a period of disruption.
In order to be competitive in today’s digital-first world, Whittier College needs to provide a high-quality liberal arts education that teaches students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn throughout their professional careers, whatever field they pursue.
The three strategic imperatives that President Oubré identified as the cornerstone of her vision for the future are not new for Whittier College:
Whittier has long embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion and alumni have shared innumerable stories of the welcoming, nurturing, and empowering community they experienced across decades. Of course there is always room for improvement;
Whittier is a vibrant residential liberal arts college. Efforts to diversify revenue must align with the core strengths and competitive advantages that Whittier offers; and
Whittier has always aligned its resources to the mission of the College and has delivered a high-quality education in a frugal manner.
We cannot (and do not) speak for all alumni. What we can say is that we have heard from many alumni over the past few months and there is a general understanding that Whittier College may need to make difficult choices to remain competitive and adapt to the shifting landscape across higher education. However, before we can support the elimination of intercollegiate athletics teams and the sale of real estate, we demand transparency on the current financial situation, the scenarios and options that are being considered, and a clear plan rooted in evidence and analysis with accountability. None of that has occurred yet.
We are not resistant to change; however, President Oubré has crafted a narrative that alumni are resistant to change. The Quaker values that President Oubré evoked in her remarks, saying an important aspect “is a will to challenge the norm in the face of criticism and resistance to change” is a shared philosophy between our group and senior leadership. We can accept change. What we cannot accept is the vitiation of an institution we hold dear.
The vision that President Oubré has painted for the future of Whittier College could be a solid course of action to strengthen the future of the institution. Fundamentally, none of the proposed ideas illustrated in the stories of “Tyler” and “Jeannette” are out of place with current offerings in higher education. Yet, there is limited evidence that President Oubré’s proposed vision is achievable at Whittier College and a specific and detailed strategic plan has not been shared on how the administration plans to reach these goals. In fact, there is no evidence that alternative scenarios with an even greater likelihood of success that align with the core strengths of the College have been considered. After five years at the helm, there is little excuse for not having plans and strategies in place.
At no time has the college community been invited to provide input on the vision. Since the president readily espouses the value of her Harvard MBA and the many Harvard alumni she has assembled on her leadership team, we are surprised this group of Ivy league graduates missed the key lesson on the importance of stakeholder engagement. Fostering change is an art; it requires diplomacy and everyone needs to be inspired to work collaboratively toward a positive future. Without a genuine commitment to cultivate relationships, build trust, earn confidence, and establish buy-in there is no way for any key initiatives to be successful.
President Oubré asserts that she was hired to be a change agent; we have heard directly from members of the Board of Trustees who participated in the search process who charged the president “to build a more nimble, creative and ultimately larger, more profitable and sustainable institution.”
Many institutions have had a long head start over Whittier College in many elements of President Oubré’s proposed vision, and the amount of resources and expertise it will take to make them viable could significantly strain the College, particularly if any one of them is unsuccessful. In addition, it appears the Board, president and administration have taken their eyes off the current and most significant source of revenue for the College, which are traditional undergraduate students who have always been the lifeblood of the College.
Below we posit several questions and statements about the ‘State of the College’ Address that we strongly encourage the Board to evaluate before they endorse this vision for the future of Whittier College.
Hybrid classes appear to be a significant part of the strategic plan. Have the faculty been consulted on and consented to this change in the way they teach? Has Whittier’s accreditor, WSCUC, weighed in on this vision?
We feel that faculty, and their teaching and support of students, has always been one of the strongest elements of Whittier College and the president herself said they are devoted to our mission. Most institutions similar to Whittier have gone back to largely in-person “face-to-face” teaching and learning because of the personalized and humanized experience it provides. In addition, many faculty during the pandemic reported the difficulty in managing an in-person and online class at the same time. We hope that Whittier has gained the support of both faculty and WSCUC to execute on this vision. It is important to note that WSCUC and the Department of Education have specific guidelines to approve online programs.
The president briefly mentioned LUX, the certificate/experiential program that has been introduced at Whittier. We have heard many concerns about this endeavor from alumni, staff, faculty and students.
While the president loves to tout LUX and other certificate programs, we have not seen a clear plan for how this program will generate revenue, if there is a sufficient marketing budget, and who the target audience is for the proposed courses. We have heard that classes have been canceled due to lack of enrollment and courses have been haphazardly developed and shared in a manner inconsistent with Whittier College’s core learning model and values. Based on the range of prices for these courses of about $100-$1,200, each course would have to enroll between 15 and 200 students to make up the lost revenue of just one average undergraduate student. Current average enrollment per LUX course is closer to 5-7 students so the revenue model’s viability is in question. To mitigate the loss of 400+ students that Whittier has lost since 2019, the enrollment in LUX courses would need to be at least 8,000 students per year (at high average of about $500 per course), which would represent 50% of the entire non-profit, private certificates market of about 16,000 in 2019-2020 based on National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES) data.
The president said that 85% of college students pick an institution close to home and, for at least the past decade, Whittier disinvested in the local market while it sought students from low growth regions outside of Southern California. She also cited recent enrollment trends that have been misconstrued or misreported. She is confident that Whittier will be able to get enrollment back to pre-pandemic levels over the next three to four years.
During a Town Hall for faculty and staff held on February 23, 2023, President Oubré shared a slide that showed unrealistic projected enrollment growth over the next five years and no strategy for achieving those goals. In fact, our understanding from the Town Hall was that the College has decided to purchase more student names (a typical practice in higher education) but not communicate with them until the summer. Most colleges have already begun their communication with students, starting this past December and January. We applaud that something is being done, but with limited experience in the enrollment area, throwing around investment without a strategy is very worrisome and makes the projections feel even more shaky.
According to several people, including Kieron Miller, former VP for Enrollment, Whittier College did not disinvest in local markets. Rather, the College recruited heavily in the cities of Whittier, Montebello, East LA, La Mirada, La Habra, and other local markets. In fact, looking at publically available integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, the enrollment increases that Whittier saw from 2009, when new student enrollment was at 359, to 2019 when new student enrollment was at 493, came largely from increases in California enrollment. Miller has said that Whittier steadily expanded its California recruitment from 2015 to 2019 when he left. IPEDS data verifies that California market share grew during that time. This hardly supports the assertion of a disinvestment in California recruitment. Rather, President Oubré wanted to disinvest in out-of-state markets even though Whittier has historically done well attracting students from Hawaii, Colorado, Seattle, and the East Coast. During that same period, the College invested heavily in transfer students, too, establishing clear transfer articulation agreements and setting up faculty liaisons to work with designated community colleges.
Several members of the Whittier alumni community are long-time and well-respected enrollment leaders. While all of them agree that evaluating markets each year is a necessary practice, expanding an institution’s presence outside the immediate area often brings in additional revenue from both tuition and room/board. It is true that demographics are not aligned well for colleges going forward, but recent projections by Dr. Nathan Grawe, Professor of Economics and college enrollment expert, suggest typical Whittier markets in the western US will have a period of flat growth or slight decline, but the dropoff will be more of a plateau than a cliff. President Oubré shares national data which does show more of a cliff, but not in the local markets she wants to invest in. This feels disingenuous by picking data that serves her narrative when it suits her.
Whittier summarily pulling out of current markets without regard to history in those markets is problematic and has likely led to the poor enrollment results in the past few years. College recruiters often rely on reputation and their relationship with the schools in a territory; it is easier and more productive to maintain and grow a territory rather than try to rebuild a territory after abandoning it.
In the Q&A portion of the session, the president dismissed the significance of the 113 students who have withdrawn from Whittier since December. She claimed many of these were December graduates or typical losses of first-year football players. She did not answer the question about what has caused the dramatic decline in enrollment since she became president.
While we can quibble about how to count a few students here and there, and chalk up some losses to a typical pattern, the main point remains, Whittier has lost almost 40% of its total enrollment during this administration. It has fared far worse than competitor institutions, and has been slower to recover. The revenue loss from Fall 2019 to Fall 2021 is approximately $16M. This is not mere semantics, it is a huge loss that should be a beacon for those concerned about Whittier’s future.
President Oubré also claims that there were things in recruitment that the College “used to do” and they are bringing back.
Kieron Miller was at Whittier for almost 22 years, so it is hard to fathom that he would have ended successful recruitment efforts. What are those strategies and are they showing any signs of success?
The president suggests that many peer institutions have seen enrollment declines.
This is true, however, none have seen the falloff that Whittier has seen. The Cal States are down about 1-4% depending on which year you consider, and Laverne has had roughly flat enrollment since 2019. Other peers are down since 2019, but most are down far less than Whittier, and have begun to recover more quickly. From 2019 to 2021, Redlands is down 22%, whereas Whittier is down almost 40%. It is also important to disaggregate transfers and new first-years because many peers rely more heavily on transfers and that market has seen the biggest challenges since the pandemic so it makes Whittier’s numbers look more favorable.
President Oubré’s assertions that there is a “strong fundraising program” and that fundraising has “increased significantly in the past five years” is not borne out by the results.
Leaving aside the one-time $12 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, which is a wonderful testament to Whittier College’s long history of success as an HSI/MSI, there is no evidence that fundraising is thriving. In fact, data reported by the College in December 2022 revealed that current giving from alumni is 3%. And this appears to be the intent as supported by President Oubré’s comments to Inside Higher Ed where she revealed that she “purposefully shifted away from an emphasis on alumni donations.” Oubré stated, “The strategy, before I came, had been to focus on the rate of alumni giving. What we decided to focus on is the size of the gift and being very targeted,” she said. “A lot of that alumni rate giving was based on, let’s just be honest, Trotsky (sic) programs. I tease the staff and say, ‘No socks,’ but there were programs where if you give $10, you got a pair of socks, and then it cost $12 to buy and send out the socks. So we became much more targeted, in terms of our alumni giving.”
A strong fundraising program would require growth in new donor conversion rates, donor retention rates, total number of donors by type, referrals, bequest intentions, fundraising participation rates, average gift size, number of donor visits, asks made, and gifts secured. The audited financial statement shows that fundraising has been hovering under $5 million annually for the past four years which is down from the $7 million annual average in the years prior to President Oubré’s arrival. Touting the recent $1.3 million in grants from Foundations in December is a good example of the President’s attempts to claim the work of others as her own. Fletcher Jones, HHMI, and Mellon Foundation are all long-time supporters of Whittier College and its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We commend the College for its ability to continue to attract those donations, but they are not “net new.”
Please address the Save Whittier College group
We love Whittier College. Our group appreciates that the president acknowledges our right to speak up about our concerns as this has not always been her stance. We take serious issue with how the question about the Save Whittier College group was framed, as we have not harmed nor have we tried to harm the institution. We have only tried to shine light on what seems to be a Board and administration who are not forthright with the alumni. We have noted several outright lies of the administration. We’ll highlight two:
A “three-year review” was done prior to the cancellation of athletics programs
There was no analysis that documented the need to eliminate the four teams or the impact this action would have on current and future enrollment and campus morale. Further, the original announcement suggested the decision was due, in large part, to the potential for traumatic brain injury resulting in CTE. It also cited declining participation in high school programs, declining spectator attendance at games, and the expense to sponsor these sports. No evidence of the validity of these myriad claims has been presented.
The in-person Board of Trustees meetings and the in-person ‘State of the College’ Address were moved online “upon the advice of law enforcement due to security concerns over threats made to the Board, president and her leadership team.”
According to FOIA requests of the Whittier PD and LA County Sheriff, there were no threats made toward the College, the Board, or the president and neither agency advised against in-person meetings. Further, no one actively involved in the Save Whittier College group has been contacted by any law enforcement agency to date, which would be the first step in assessing a potential threat. To falsify claims of harassment and threats is despicable.
The president continues to malign the ‘Save Whittier College’ group. In the ‘Q&A with President Oubré’ published in the February 24 issue of the Quaker Campus the president alleged there are “documented threats of me, [and] the Board, etc. This is not appropriate at all.” Where is this documentation? It is interesting to note that Ana Lilia Barraza, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, interjected in the interview to say that “everything gets grouped in ‘Save Whittier’ so it might not even be ‘Save Whittier’!” We can assure you that our group has no tolerance for acts of hate in our Poet community and we encourage robust, respectful dialogue.
President Oubré announced that she and the Board have “identified sources of funding for our future.”
While the enrollment and fundraising declines are deeply concerning and require immediate action to improve, the greatest worry is the third element of President Oubré’s sustainability and growth plan.
After reminding us that Whittier’s financial model was in trouble well before she got here and before the pandemic, and claiming that decades-long problems were exacerbated by the debt that Whittier took on in 2014 in order to finish the Science and Learning Center, President Oubré explained that she engaged a national real estate firm to help value the College’s real estate assets which resulted in a market valuation of more than $250 million dollars. The plan is to restructure the debt so Whittier’s “assets can truly work for the College.”
During the Alumni Town Hall in December, the president said, “Just because we value something doesn’t mean we’re planning on liquidating. But we do need to look at our real estate as a way of funding our future. Because that’s one of our largest assets.” And then she sent a letter to the community disclosing plans to sell Wardman House and three properties on Earlham Drive. It is also understood that there are plans to sell the Weingart Building that houses the Admission Office, too.
Selling these assets might be, in fact, a sound strategy; however, It is hard to know when the necessity to sell these signature properties (and the plans for how real estate sale proceeds will be invested) has not been disclosed. This is yet another example of the complete lack of transparency in communication with the campus community and the alumni. While these properties may need to be sold eventually, we cannot support taking this action until the Board and administration provide a specific plan to restore enrollment and philanthropic giving.
The ‘Save Whittier College’ group wants the best for Whittier College. We want to see the College thrive long into the future. We do not resist change–in fact, we would embrace change if there was a clear path forward from the decisions that have been made to date. But those decisions only seem to have led us down a darker path. The Board, president and administration have not been forthcoming in detailing the vision for the institution and how it will improve the future of the College, so the alumni have no choice but to be skeptical and to ask questions. First and foremost, we ask that you speak plainly and truthfully to the community, acknowledge your mistakes, and move us forward. If you are unable to, then we ask for new leadership of the Board and the institution.
We share below our previous questions since they have not been answered yet. And we add the questions that were submitted by the faculty and staff at their recent Town Hall since they have not been answered either.