Early hath life’s mighty question
Thrilled within thy heart of youth
With a deep and strong beseeching —
What, and where, is Truth?
In his poem, Servants of Truth, the namesake of Whittier College posed this essential question. Yet, there is no Truth to be found in the announcement sent out by Kenya Williams, JD’10, on behalf of the Board of Trustees on Friday, May 12, 2023, announcing the departure of President Linda Oubré.
Below is an annotated review of Ms. Williams’ letter written and submitted by a group of concerned faculty, staff, and alumni.
MESSAGE FROM THE WHITTIER COLLEGE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
May 12, 2023
Dear Poet Community,
On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Whittier College, we would like to thank Dr. Linda Oubré for her service as President over the past five years. We are very appreciative of her hard work and have complete confidence that Linda’s leadership and vision have built a strong foundation1 for Whittier’s future.
When we asked Linda to join us in 2018, we were looking for a change agent who could bring innovation2, diversity, and new thinking to the college. Linda has proven to be accomplished and adept in all aspects of her role3.
In her five years, Linda has worked diligently4 to transform the College and build a sustainable foundation5 for the future. With an unending focus on our mission of student success, Linda has accomplished many things. In fundraising, she attracted6 the largest gift in the history of the College, a $12 million unrestricted gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
We are grateful to Linda for her leadership and steadfast decision-making7 during the three years of the pandemic8, for her guiding the College through its 8-year re-accreditation9, her efforts to realign our resources to our academic mission, developing strategies to invest in the growing local markets for students10, and developing strategies that will put the College on strong financial footing11. She also worked hard to build on our efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure that Whittier College will continue to be a welcoming place for all12.
While Linda will be leaving as President, she will join her predecessor, Dr. Sharon Herzberger, as President Emeritus13.
We wish to congratulate Linda and wish her the best in her future endeavors. We know that she will continue to be a force for change and transformation14 in support of educational access and affordability15.
While Linda’s last day will be June 30, we are fortunate that Dr. sal johnston16 has agreed to serve as interim president of the college in the immediate as the board identifies next steps. Dr. johnston has been a fixture in the Whittier College community for nearly 30 years. He deeply understands the needs of our students, faculty, staff and alumni. He will provide critical ongoing leadership to the college as the board begins engaging students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community in developing the leadership profile to support a national search for Whittier College’s next president. Additionally, in the next week we will be making important announcements of new board leadership and members of the board17. I look forward to sharing those updates with you.
In the coming weeks, the board will announce next steps in the process of beginning a national search for Whittier College’s next president. As part of that work, the board will be engaging directly with critical stakeholders to better understand the needs of the community now and in the future. Working together, we are confident that we will chart the right path18 forward for Whittier College.
Kenya L. Williams, Esq. JD’10
Interim Chair, Whittier College Board of Trustees
1Which part of the “strong foundation” Linda Oubré built is the Board referring to here? The impending reduction of student enrollment to one-half to one-third of what it was after she forced out the previous administration’s leadership team in Admission? The $15M operating deficit for FY23 or the $18M projected operating deficit for FY24? The continued hemorrhaging of our very best faculty who fear the College might close in the very near term? The disrespect toward alumni and longstanding donors? How can the Board of Trustees bury its head in the sand and ignore these facts and assert something that is polar opposite from reality? This statement doesn’t instill confidence. It exposes the Board’s allegiance to the failed president and their fear of her retaliatory tactics. This is failed governance.
2Where is the innovation? The Lux programs are faint echoes of programs already existing at other institutions where they have been in place longer and have established clientele and quality. Meanwhile, Linda Oubré neglects truly innovative programming on campus like the multidisciplinary programs that grow out of the coffee orchard project connecting our students with business in a new agricultural industry and the scientists researching how to make this crop thrive in Southern California. What other liberal arts college in the country has a coffee orchard? There are none. And as a result, only Whittier can offer ready entrance into productive and lucrative careers in the agricultural industry. This is just one example of what she has ignored. There are many others.
3Most people who work at the College have seen no evidence of this. If anything, the opposite is true where she has let promising programs wither and die. For example, a decade of relationship building and innovative programming with partners in East Asia – an area so critical to our country’s future – received little to no attention from Linda and as a result all momentum has been lost.
4Linda Oubré has been absent for much of her presidency primarily residing in Palm Desert. She has refused to hold events or to meet with key constituencies. She has threatened her critics and instilled fear across the campus. The Poet community has been ravaged by her disregard for the alumni and friends who have more passion in their pinky finger than Oubré could muster during her five years at the College.
5Where is the evidence for this statement? All key performance indicators are in free fall. Whittier College does not have a sustainable foundation for the future. Enrollment has collapsed, philanthropic support has dried up, and the reputational damage is profound.
6By her own admission, Linda Oubré did nothing to attract this gift beyond fielding a phone call. MacKenzie Scott made the award because Whittier College had hired an African American woman as president, reflecting that our institution backed up its longstanding commitment to DEI with its most important hire. The award came to Whittier College in recognition of the strength of our institutional values not for anything that Linda Oubré did. This gift was used as a cover for a dearth of fundraising done by Linda Oubré and her hand-picked deputy to oversee development, Timothy Anderson.
7Linda Oubré decided to make draconian cuts to personnel in June 2020 to keep the college functioning during the pandemic. However, rather than spread the cuts evenly throughout the college or strategically assess where minimal damage could be done to vital programs, Linda Oubré targeted two departments to bear the brunt: Admission and Development. These are the primary revenue sources for the College. She stated that her priority was to preserve positions that aid student success; a noble goal. But she didn’t have enough understanding and certainly no foresight to see that when the College has an extreme lack of funds, then student success will suffer. Today, Whittier College lacks students, lacks philanthropic support, and is facing unprecedented financial stresses. This was poor management not “steadfast decision making.”
8The pandemic actually provided cover for the incompetence setting in within the College’s Admissions Office. In February 2020, a month before pandemic restrictions were imposed, then VP for Enrollment, Falone Serna in his first year at Whittier (another Linda Oubré hire) reported to the faculty that applications were down 40% from the previous year. The arrival of the pandemic shutdown provided an excuse for continued poor performance by administrative leadership, all the way until it started becoming clear that most other comparable institutions were not nearly as negatively impacted by the pandemic as was Whittier. Linda failed to act in a timely way to correct this highly problematic and institution-threatening situation—further evidence of managerial incompetence by the President and the Board of Trustees who were solely responsible for her evaluation and supervision. Applications have continued on a downward spiral with reportedly fewer than 2,000 for fall 2023 admission and a projected first-year cohort of 198 students.
9This remains a critical gap in the Board’s understanding of the WSCUC accreditation review process and the serious concerns identified by the Review Team. Linda Oubré and sal johnston continue to mismanage the vital relationship with WSCUC.
10At a recent meeting, Linda Oubré referenced the fact that many high schools in “gateway cities” that straddle the Los Angeles County/Orange County line had not been visited in four years. This means that the last time these schools were visited was the last year the previous administration’s Admission team was still in place. It is the people that Linda Oubré brought in to run the Admission program who neglected these local markets. Yet, she constantly implies and outright states that it was previous leadership that overlooked local markets. The percentage of students enrolled from LA and Orange counties remained quite stable over the past decade in the 60 to 70 percent range. She is criticizing her own administration’s failures and hoping we won’t remember that she was the president for the five years that led to a year-over-year decline in enrollment.
11Linda Oubré has been president since July 1, 2018. We are running an operating deficit of $15M for FY23, we are selling assets to meet debt service ratios, enrollment is in a free fall and philanthropic support has dried up. How exactly is this a “strong financial footing”?
12Whittier College has a long, proud history of DEI built on its Quaker heritage. While Linda Oubré focused on DEI she managed to create a campus climate that was not welcoming to all. Rather, she created a culture of fear and intimidation. She rewarded acolytes and threatened anyone who challenged her. The number of complaints lodged by the president against the Board of Trustees for harassment, discrimination, and racism should give the Board some pause in lauding her leadership. The Board has had a front-row seat to her tactics and this led to more than 30 Trustees leaving the Board rather than take responsibility for a failed presidency.
13Linda Oubré is wholly undeserving of this honor. She has left Whittier College in a dramatically weakened state with an exodus of people leaving because of her failure to act in ways that assure our community of our continuing viability. Faculty and staff attrition is a clear indicator that something is very wrong at Whittier College. The Board’s decision to award Linda Oubré this meritorious recognition makes a mockery of the honor.
14Linda Oubré has not been a force for change that should be lauded or emulated. She has destroyed a venerable college with her mismanagement and to applaud her destruction of the College reveals so much about the cowardice of the Board of Trustees. Her active threats against current Board members who were allowed to negotiate the terms of her departure are grounds for charges of malfeasance by the faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
15Linda Oubré instituted a tuition freeze in a failed attempt to make Whittier College more affordable. Private colleges rely on a differential pricing model to ensure access to those who cannot otherwise afford the cost. The lost revenue from those who are able to pay full price means that Whittier could not afford to sustain its mission of access without running deeper into debt.
16sal johnston has alienated a large majority of the faculty with his recent highly emotional and inappropriate angry outburst at Senior Lecturer of Kinesiology Melanie Householder during a faculty meeting discussion of ways to organize the lecturer positions at the College. Those in attendance were shocked by his behavior; some are planning to submit formal complaints and many feel he must apologize. This was the culmination of a series of events that lead to faculty having little confidence in his leadership abilities. An appointment to Interim President at this time makes a majority of faculty question the Board’s ability to understand the College community and its need for capable, trustworthy leadership. The Board’s action reflects its disconnect to on-the-ground realities and is highly insensitive to those who are entrusted with the education that ensures student success.
17The Board’s delay in announcing new leadership is indicative of its failure to understand the current leadership crisis. There is no confidence in the Board of Trustees and it was only made worse by issuing this letter to the community riddled with gross misrepresentations and outright lies. The Whittier College community does not trust this Board to have the best interest of the College as its highest priority. The Board continues to protect its own interests and stroke the ego of a failed president.
18This Board has shown at every step they are unable to lead Whittier College on a path of strength and promise. There will be little hope for the future of the College until the Board of Trustees is reconstituted under new leadership with the offered resignation of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees including: Kenya Williams JD’10, Interim Chair of the Board; Miguel Santana ’91, Past Chair and Special Advisor to the President; Tim Yamauchi, Treasurer and Chair of Finance Committee; Yvonne Romero da Slilva, Secretary; Fred Anderson ’66, Chair of Innovations and New Ventures Committee; Jascha Kaykas-Wolff ’98, Chair of Advancement Committee; Matt Knight, Chair of Audit; Richard Lichtenstein P’18, Chair of Investment Committee; Alan Lund ’71, Chair of Debt and Assets Committee; Meghan Morrissey P’18, Chair of Student Success and Enrollment; and Francisco Rodriguez, Chair of Academic Affairs Committee. The alumni members of the Executive Committtee — Santana, Anderson, Kaykas-Wolff, and Lund — are especially culpable having allowed this failed presidency to continue for five years on their watch.