At a town hall event in Barrows Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 19, President Philip Ryken presented the college’s new fiscal plan, “Thunder, Stronger,” which aims to recoup losses accrued as a result of COVID-19 by eliminating some faculty and administrative positions, investing in future programming and restructuring select academic departments. Ryken said the plan will balance Wheaton’s budget, generate up to $9 million in annual savings and help combat a projected $10 million in losses suffered by the college during the pandemic. The trustees approved the plan on Feb. 13.
The plan involves cutting 55 total positions at the school, which, according to vice president for finances and operations Chad Rynbrandt, constitutes 7% of all campus employees, not including student workers. Twenty of these are involuntary lay-offs. Staff members were informed this past week that their positions will be eliminated.
Additionally, 15 faculty members have accepted the Voluntary Exit Incentive Program which was offered in the fall to provide financial compensation for leaving or retiring from Wheaton. While the “Thunder, Stronger” plan originally eliminated some visiting faculty positions, Provost Karen Lee told the Record in an email, that “as of Friday afternoon we were able to retain our visiting lines and will also offer them contracts for 2021-22, thanks to sabbatical replacement funds and other sources like the generosity of external funds.”
While Ryken clarified that all academic programs will continue, he also announced that the Applied Health Science department will merge with the biology department, but the degree will remain. Additionally, the changes will include a “restructuring” of the library and the Academic Records and Services office. Rynbrandt said further details will be released no later than Friday, Feb. 26 regarding two other areas still being analyzed for potential cuts. Ryken clarified that no Wheaton students will need to change their degree trajectories.
“There’s nothing in these changes that diminishes any of our academic programs,” Ryken told the Record. “For many college and university campuses, changes of this magnitude in the operations and finances of the college lead to program closures and significant changes that even affect a student’s ability to complete a major. The biggest takeaway is positive news for students about the protection of academic programs.”
According to a Christianity Today report published in August 2020, Christian liberal arts colleges have cut over 230 faculty and staff positions since the pandemic started. Last summer Calvin University eliminated 12 faculty positions, six staff members and some major and minor degree programs. In addition to COVID-related challenges, many CCCU schools have been facing large budget and staff cuts due to a “demographic cliff” of lower birth rates and falling college admission rates.
The “Thunder, Stronger” plan also seeks to combat these challenges by beginning a yearly $1.5 million “strategic investment” in program innovation. Lee said the goal of this investment will be to expand recruitment and enhance programs such as the Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership and the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics.
Vice president for student development Paul Chelsen told the Record that the college has provided advance notice and resources for the staff members whose positions have been eliminated.
“Many of these folks will be here until June, but some will leave sooner,” Chelsen said. “If you’re working in corporate America, you either get your box and leave right now or maybe you have two weeks at the most. We’re trying to give as much time as we can to look for new jobs, and there is also a severance package.”
Chelsen also confirmed that the college has employed an outplacement service to provide career shift support and resources for the staff members who will be leaving. Additionally, the “Thunder, Stronger” report stated that some staff members will have the opportunity to shift roles internally and stay at Wheaton.
“If a student knows a person in one of these positions, express a word of gratitude,” Chelsen said. “Thank them for how they have invested in your life in whatever context you know them. Don’t underestimate the power of encouragement when someone is feeling low and discouraged.”
At the event on Friday, Lee announced monthly town halls will start in March to track the progress of these changes and finalize the FY22 budget. Lee said the “Thunder, Stronger” plan will be fully implemented by June.