Making the Most of the Fiscal Crisis

From the March 2011 Alumni Review

I came to Williams as it was exiting the global economic crisis as from a cold shower, with energy high and senses fully alert. And while few would long to repeat the experience, it’s now clear to me, nearing the end of my status as newcomer, that the College definitely made the most of it.
Because the heavy work took place before I arrived, I can report gratefully on the ways that Williams got this right in terms of both outcome and process.

The outcome was protection of the College’s academic offerings and its commitment to broad access. The student-faculty ratio remained an enviable 7:1 and, through the careful deployment of available resources, the faculty was even able to add major programs in Arabic, environmental policy and environmental science. At the same time, the only budget line that increased was financial aid, as the College continued to make this exceptional Williams experience available to students from all backgrounds.

All this was achieved without layoffs, the sale of assets at distressed prices or the floating of taxable debt.

This was the case in large part because Williams acted both quickly and thoughtfully. First steps involved cutting operating budgets, postponing new capital projects and reducing spending on capital renewal. This bought time to determine longer-range plans, which included reductions in the number of faculty and staff through attrition and an early retirement program in addition to the reorganization of many administrative functions with the aim of increasing both their effectiveness and efficiency.

The main challenge was to reduce spending from the crisis-reduced endowment, which the College did by almost $30 million.

Equally remarkable was the thorough, thoughtful and inclusive process that led to this result. From the start, board members, faculty and staff rolled up their sleeves to think creatively and make difficult decisions, while students offered many of their own money-saving ideas and adapted well to necessary changes, and alumni, parents and friends remained terrifically generous despite the strains on their own finances.

It was a point in the College’s life that I’m convinced historians will smile upon. It certainly has my admiration.

Meanwhile, all of us at Williams reap the benefit. As the economy stabilizes, we’re strongly positioned to offer students from a variety of backgrounds an undergraduate experience second to none. We look forward to starting this spring the construction of the new Sawyer Library, which will transform our teaching and learning in the humanities and social sciences. And we can begin to think about carefully planned advances in areas that include internationalization, sustainability and technology.

We do this on a new financial and operational base that fits solidly the new realities. It results from this community’s deft response to a global challenge. And I thank deeply all who played a role.