From: Raymond Erickson
Date: Thu, Mar 16, 2023 at 3:53 PM
Subject: Whittier College’s leadership crisis
Dear Dean Vigil,
I write as an alumnus (B.A. with high honors in Music and Minor in Mathematics) of Whittier College, very worried about the quality of leadership at the College, both at the Presidential level and in the Board of Trustees.
Although I live on the East Coast, I made a number of visits to the College in the years just before the pandemic hit. I made a point of talking with faculty from various departments and with students; I came away extremely enthusiastic about the academic state of the College. I have also been personally acquainted with several presidents and was especially familiar with Sharon Herzberger, who impressed me by being at every concert and lecture I gave for the Whittier College Bach Festival as well as at student performances. She even made a point of visiting me at home in New York’s Hudson Valley. It paid off for the College: as a result, I committed myself to endowing a professorial Chair in the Music Department, towards which I have already donated $200,000. (I understand that Sharon is widely criticized for the debt incurred from the new science building, but that was approved by the Board of Trustees, of course.)
When Linda Oubré arrived I made a point of dropping in to meet her. From that first meeting I was uneasy, getting the feeling that she didn’t really understand the nature of a liberal arts education. She seems to think that going to business school qualifies one to lead a college—apparently not understanding the nature of a non-profit institution or the difference between a corporate CEO and a College President. (I am a little tired reading about the College’s “business plan”: the business plans of Silicon Valley banks are not looking so good these days.) On the other hand, I thought perhaps that Whittier finally might have a president who was a major fund-raiser, someone who could lift the endowment beyond its measly level. And, indeed, that seemed to be the case…at first.
Now, I am the first to recognize that Linda was dealt a very difficult hand with the arrival of the pandemic. From what I can tell, she acted decisively to meet that crisis, and I heard no complaints from my many friends on campus (as well as alumni and retired faculty who keep close tabs on things). And the MacKenzie Scott award certainly was a boost for the morale and reputation of the College, although, of course, it was not so much her doing as the many years of faculty and staff commitment to getting Latino students through to graduation that made Whittier a worthy candidate for that money.
The concerns I had following my first meeting with Linda, however, now seem to be realized. She clearly has lost the confidence of the faculty and the rosy pictures she tries to paint are obviously false in many respects. She seems not to understand that, unlike a corporate CEO, a college President is not an absolute ruler and she seems quite incapable of reversing the decline in enrollment. Recently, I received a telephone call from one very distressed faculty member informing me that a class that normally has a dozen students has only three this semester, and one of those plans to leave Whittier thereafter; she said that nobody believes what the President says and that she has made accusations that are unfounded. Moreover, I can tell you that my granddaughter, after turning down Vassar in favor of Whittier—after having visited both places and after extended conversations with Whittier faculty—left after one year, the first year of Linda’s presidency. She was a straight-A student on the Dean’s List for both of her semesters. What does that tell you about the leadership at Whittier College?
My entire career has unfolded in higher education. After graduation from Whittier, I went to Yale for my Ph.D., and then had a very satisfying career at Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), where I also taught part-time in CUNY’s Graduate Center, where the doctoral programs are housed. At Queens, I also served as Chair of the Department of Music, led its conversion to the Aaron Copland School of Music (of which I then became the first Director), and some years later served as the College’s Dean of Arts and Humanities, with responsibility for more faculty than all of Whittier College’s. I have also served as President for academically-related organizations (including one with Nobel laureates among its membership). I therefore know something about academic leadership, and in Linda I certainly see it lacking.
But my opinion of the Board of Trustees is even lower, an opinion I have held for as long as I can remember. I regard the membership generally (there are exceptions, of course) as small-thinking people of no vision and minimal financial commitment (the small amount given by the entire Board of Trustees for the last fiscal year was appalling—and then they, by sneaky means, get rid of two members who gave in the highest category!!). Incensed by this, I wrote Miguel Santana, who graciously responded with a telephone call, but it was clear to me that he was out of his depth, as his recent resignation confirms. I subsequently wrote all the board members in which I itemized by name the levels of giving by the board as printed in the last financial report distributed to alumni and others. Only one member (who had given nothing that year because of personal issues) responded to accuse me of being unfair. But I pointed out that I, as a member of several boards over the years, always understood my responsibility to give, get, or get off and told her I would hold Whittier College trustees to the same standard—and that, if she was unable to give, or find new donors that could, she should resign.
By the same standard, you have a responsibility not to the Board, not to the President, but to the alumni. Word has it that your primary loyalty may not be to the alumni, in which case you, too, should consider resigning. If, on the other hand, you will be a vigorous representative of alumni interests, you can be assured of my genuine and energetic support. But this is a time when stiff backbones and visionary leadership are needed. It is interesting that I have never heard from you, although I have been an active alumnus. (Ask the folks in the Development Office.)
These are very dangerous times for Whittier College and it is clear that its present leadership is not what is needed. I have no interest in turning my beloved alma mater into some sort of University of Phoenix (a degree from which I disregard as almost academically worthless). The kind of residential College that Whittier represents, with the opportunity to build lasting personal relationships with faculty, is increasingly a rarity, I know, but that makes it an even more valuable national resource.
What is necessary, first and foremost, is to build the Board of Trustees into a powerful fund-raising body. I live between two liberal arts colleges, Vassar and Bard; the latter is not unlike Whittier in size and fiscal problems, but that is about to change because it has received a $500 million matching grant challenge from George Soros. Whittier needs to find trustees or outside donors—or a President—who can do the same for the poet campus. And you, as representative of the alumni and as an ex officio member of the Board, could contribute enormously by identifying graduates who could play a major role in such a campaign.
I am planning to return to Whittier for my 60thcollege reunion next fall. I hope that you will make a point of visiting my, and other, reunions to explain how you have functioned as the President of the Alumni and how you have represented the alumni in the College’s leadership crisis. Because the College stands to lose a lot of money from disenchanted alumni, you can play a pivotal role in restoring alumni confidence in our alma mater. But we alumni do not want a puppet in your position.
Raymond Erickson, ’63