Like many enrollment-dependent colleges, our institution, Ithaca College, has historically focused on reaching a certain number of targeted students to support its operations. More students has meant more tuition and room and board dollars to maintain the status quo for one more academic year.
It is widely understood now, however, that this business model is vulnerable and unsustainable. And while COVID has dramatically exposed this truth, it did not create it. The pandemic has impacted enrollment numbers at our college for this academic year, but it is not responsible for a shifting demographic trend — one that points with clarity toward a coming enrollment cliff for institutions like ours, a private residential college in the Northeast.
Our COVID crisis will end. But returning to business as usual once that occurs is a mistake that we, as president and provost of Ithaca, refuse to make. The time to activate needed change at Ithaca is now — even in the face of resistance, as described in some detail in a recent Inside Higher Ed article. We’d like to offer some further context to our decision making and why we think significant strategic change is crucial now.
Moving Forward Amid Challenge
Last month, a special committee at Ithaca released a document titled “The Shape of the College” to our community. The report — compiled by deans, directors, members of the provost’s office and other senior leaders — included draft recommendations to restructure our institution’s program offerings, decrease the number of full-time faculty members over the next three years, promote equity among faculty (particularly related to workload distribution) and better encourage interdisciplinary opportunities for our students.
Adhering to our strong commitment to transparency, the committee sent a link to the full draft of recommendations to our faculty, staff and students and shared an executive summary with our alumni and IC families. Today, after the conclusion of a period of faculty review as provided for by our Faculty Handbook, the committee will deliver its final recommendations to the two of us. Informed by both those recommendations and the feedback from our various campus constituencies, we will release our final decisions about the “Shape of the College” recommendations at the end of February.
The document represents a major milestone for our college — and the latest milestone in an important and collaborative strategic planning process that began in 2018, when our community embarked on a yearlong effort to build a strategic plan, Ithaca Forever. Our community developed nine goals within that strategic plan, emphasizing student success; interdisciplinarity; and diversity, equity and inclusion. It also highlighted the importance of determining and maintaining an appropriate and sustainable size for our programs and structures and the associated resources needed to do so. The Ithaca College Board of Trustees approved the strategic plan in June 2019, and we began implementing it in academic year 2019-20.
The goal is to establish a sustainable size of 5,000 students with a 12-to-one student-to-faculty ratio, and it is tightly wedded to three key priorities:
- Our unshakable commitment to academic excellence — a commitment that encompasses not only a recalibration our existing academic programs but also identifying areas for investment and growth;
- Our laser focus on offering a high-quality student experience that is accessible and affordable (this includes our continuing commitment to offering robust institutional aid); and
- Our intention to be an employer of choice, which means having the capacity to offer professional development for staff members, sabbaticals and research dollars for the faculty, and a competitive benefits plan.
We took the first step to realize our goal of a sustainable size within our academic affairs division at the start of the 2019-20 academic year — well before COVID. A focused group, primarily composed of faculty members, began developing guiding principles to inform the academic program prioritization process to come. Those guiding principles were finalized in May and, beginning in the 2020 fall semester, faculty, deans and academic affairs administrators began applying them in an iterative, participatory and data-driven program review, identifying areas of consolidation, reorganization, elimination and growth — one year ahead of schedule.
Throughout this process, transparency and shared governance have been high priorities. One of us, La Jerne Terry Cornish, the provost, and her team have provided weekly updates about the program prioritization process to all faculty members, hosted informative and responsive faculty meetings monthly, and participated in direct, meaningful engagement with our faculty council. We have also apprised additional campus community stakeholders, such as staff and students, of the work taking place within our academic affairs division, as well as regularly communicating with our off-campus constituencies when key milestones have been reached.
Toward a More Equitable Paradigm
Historically, during times of financial uncertainty or organizational change, institutions have taken a familiar path: firing or furloughing staff. Not only does this fail to solve the underlying issues around the higher ed business model, but it also contributes to and sustains a deeply inequitable paradigm of employment in higher education that frames staff jobs as expendable yet faculty jobs as untouchable.
For healthy, holistic and equitable transformation to occur, this paradigm must shift. Yes, Ithaca has furloughed and laid off staff — including staff members at the administrative level — due in part to COVID but primarily in response to our nonacademic program review. Now, we also must follow through with needed change in our academic affairs division by aligning the size of the faculty in correct proportion to the size of the student body.
As the college moves to eliminate faculty positions, we do so within the context of shared governance by adhering to the provisions established in the Faculty Handbook. The handbook clearly outlines the order in which faculty positions should be eliminated, a process that protects the most privileged in the academy: our tenured and tenure-eligible faculty. While we are committed to tenure as a means of building longevity among faculty and attracting top scholars to our institution, the rules guiding the elimination of faculty positions mean that, in this moment, the college will lose some wonderful academics due solely to their status as non-tenure-eligible faculty. We hope that this reality will invite a conversation among faculty about faculty legislation and whether they wish to continue to privilege tenure and tenure-eligible status moving forward. While changes to faculty legislation will not impact decisions that we are in the midst of currently, in the absence of faculty-driven change, tenured and tenure-eligible faculty will always be privileged. This is an issue that further reflects an inequitable paradigm.
Implementing an academic program review process is necessary, realistic and extremely unpopular work that many institutions fail to undertake, except in times of crisis. But the truth is that program prioritization should be ongoing — part of a continuous assessment process that ensures the vibrancy of the curriculum, encourages innovation and provides opportunities for strategic growth in academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate level by discontinuing programs that are underenrolled or lack student demand. That we are moving forward with this work at a time such as this reflects our commitment to the future of Ithaca and the success of our students.
On Race and Power
We cannot end this essay without situating our leadership within the complexities that affect our work as women of color at a predominantly white institution — women of color who are driving systemic change that dismantles the status quo.
As “outsiders within,” our decisions are guided by an authenticity that calls upon not only our deep experience in higher education but also our life experience in a society that marginalizes and devalues BIPOC women. Particularly in our leadership roles, the intersectionality of our identities and our experience negotiating predominantly white environments means that we conceptualize change in holistic ways that include the possibility of interrogating systems of established power to make real space for individuals from all walks of life to thrive. Because one of our strategic planning goals is to be a national model for colleges committed to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, achieving this goal is important to us and a constant consideration in our decision-making process.
We are discouraged to share that our leadership has triggered the types of undermining attacks on our intellect, our ability and our credibility that are very familiar experiences for BIPOC women and men. Examples range from the exasperating — questions about our experience or qualifications, or the veracity of facts we present — to the illogical, such as assertions that our decisions to release contingent faculty disproportionately damages BIPOC faculty opportunities at Ithaca College. (Unlike other institutions, contingent faculty at Ithaca College are more than 70 percent white.)
We are well aware that the coming years will be difficult for the Ithaca College community and for higher education as a sector, which is in deep need of systemic change. We also know that the future can look bright with courageous, student-centered leadership, even though many presidents and provosts — ourselves included — will probably be the subject of no-confidence votes as we try to do right by our students and our institutions. But we cannot be distracted. We must push forward because it is the right thing to do. Our students deserve nothing less.