Increased endowment spending sparks changes at Jewell

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William Jewell College is financially healthy, with an endowment of $62 million, a 4-1 endowment-to-debt ratio, healthy liquidity and clean audit reports. However, for the past 15 years, the College has spent more than it has made by pulling from its endowment. The industry standard for withdrawal from the principal of an endowment ranges from 4 1/2 to five percent. The College has been withdrawing from the endowment at rates as high as 11 percent and as low as just above five percent but has not been able to decrease to the desired five percent threshold in recent years.

Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, newly inaugurated Jewell president, has been working with the Board of Trustees for almost a year and a half regarding endowment spending. The 2017 budget she inherited set the endowment draw at nine percent. By working with the Board, she was able to reduce it to seven percent by not filling open positions and utilizing on-hand cash at the end of the fiscal year. Now, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), one of six regional institutional accreditors for colleges and universities in the U.S., has challenged MacLeod Walls and the Board to decrease the endowment draw to a permanent five percent in the next 18 months.

The HLC placed the College on probation effective Nov. 2, but the Administration was not notified until Nov. 14. The College will retain its accreditation while on probation and has two years to address the HLC’s concerns.  

The College has been talking with the HLC about this issue since 2010. Last year, the HLC focused more on the issue when it restructured its review process. The new process, which applies to all the institutions it accredits, requires the HLC to review an institution twice in a 10-year period: at years four and 10. Previous rules required only one review during a 10-year period. The College was in year seven when the HLC implemented this change, so a review was conducted last year that sparked the push to decrease the endowment spending more quickly.

To decrease spending to the necessary level, changes have begun to be implemented across campus. The Administration has been in contact with faculty and staff since mid-October. On Nov. 7, MacLeod Walls notified students of the impending changes through a letter, which was also sent to faculty, staff and 15,000 of the College’s 18,000 living alumni.

“I am writing with news of important work that we are currently engaged in on campus in order to strengthen our institution and ensure a vibrant future for William Jewell College,” said MacLeod Walls in the letter.

The letter stated that the College “will recalibrate some curricular offerings and College operations” due to the necessity of reducing endowment spending. Over the past seven months, the Administration has evaluated how effectively the curriculum is being delivered.

“[We] looked first and foremost at operational dollars, so we didn’t go straight to people,” said MacLeod Walls. “That’s always the last place that you want to go.”

A thorough investigation into operational dollars was not enough to attain the necessary budget goal. The next assessment was staff efficiency. Staff positions were evaluated and maintained or eliminated based on whether or not the position is directly involved with the student experience.

“[We’re] part of a community, and it’s been painful to watch people leave, particularly when they’re leaving through no fault of their own,” said MacLeod Walls.

The budget is also impacting some aspects of the curriculum. Provost Dr. Anne Dema has been working with a group of faculty since the beginning of the academic year to discuss possibilities.

“Where possible, I’m trying not to act on departments, but I’m also saying I don’t want them to have to make decisions that they shouldn’t be making and so that’s our job,” said Dema. “There’s some level of these decisions that we have to make.”

Programs with fewer than 20 declared primary majors as of the end of September 2017 were evaluated based on their contribution to the core curriculum and to Oxbridge.

“There’s two things that we believe are defining for this institution: one is the core curriculum and the other is Oxbridge,” said MacLeod Walls. “They’re unique to Jewell. You don’t find them anywhere else. And we believe, particularly with the core curriculum, that is where critical thinking is happening within a profound learning community. And so, when we apply the lens of the Jewell philosophy to these two entities within our larger curriculum, then what we came away with was saying, ‘This is who Jewell is.’”

The main areas of the curriculum being assessed are the visual art department and the languages, mainly French and the classical humanities. As of September, the College had three declared studio art primary majors and three secondary majors. Four of these six students will graduate this year. There were two primary majors and three secondary majors, one of whom will graduate this year, in the French department. There were no declared Classics majors. Students cannot declare an interest in these majors anymore, and they have been removed from the Course Catalog as options for prospective students. The Administration has decided to stop putting resources into the art department altogether, but languages are still under review.  

“We want to be really transparent about saying you know at one time these programs were really important for students at Jewell,” said MacLeod Walls. “The landscape has changed, and we are now following, sort of, the shifting marketplace, and we’re going to have to end these programs, but let’s celebrate what they contributed to this institution and to alumni lives.”

The College currently has a language requirement for a Bachelor of Arts degree. At least one semester is required even if a student tests into a 300 level course. There are 27 100 and 200 level courses across the seven offered languages. The faculty, headed by Dr. Gary Armstrong, Associate Dean of the Core Curriculum, will be engaging in dialogue to decide if the language requirement should be maintained for a Bachelor of Arts degree. The group is researching aspirant colleges’ requirements to ensure that Jewell remains competitive. This decision will be finalized by the time next fall’s course catalog is released.

“We don’t want to be ignorant of what these kinds of decisions might do for our future,” said MacLeod Walls. “So all of that complexity is in there for us, and we’re reliant on the faculty because they’re closer to it than we are and so they know what the future holds for their department, their discipline, and what their needs are.”

MacLeod Walls does not foresee any significant changes in rates of either retention or admissions as a result of these shifts.

“We’re less about specific majors at Jewell than we are about graduating critical thinkers…I think for alums, they had a really good experience in those programs, but they also had a larger experience at William Jewell,” said MacLeod Walls.

Different options for the future have been offered to faculty in the affected departments. The College will honor tenure, so tenured professors in the departments being eliminated will be able to teach in the core curriculum if they wish to remain at Jewell. Certain qualifying tenured faculty in all departments were offered voluntary buyouts in October. Tenured faculty were eligible for this if the met criteria based on a combination of years of service and age. Once tenured faculty make their decisions, if budget cuts still need to be made, untenured faculty will be evaluated based on their expertise and contributions to both their departments’ curriculum and the greater College community.

The Administration has indicated their intent to do their best to allow students within these programs to finish their studies. Dema is working to identify all students who will be impacted by these changes.

“None of us have forgotten that for the students who are in those programs, or for the alumni that graduated from those programs, that they have had a high quality experience and that is a passion that they have had,” said Dema.

Different resources could allow students to finish pursuing their degrees. The College currently has agreements with other local institutions, such as the University of Missouri – Kansas City and the Kansas City Art Institute, where Jewell students can take classes.

“One of the things that is so special about Jewell is that we can customize an experience for a student, and we certainly will in this moment, and not every place can say that,” said MacLeod Walls.

2 thoughts on “Increased endowment spending sparks changes at Jewell

  1. Jeremy Fiebig

    Nothing says “critical thinking liberal arts college” quite like a college that cuts its visual art and language programs before it cuts more highly paid administrative positions.

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