Another college commits to a queen sacrifice

A certain strategy is increasingly available to financially stressed American colleges and universities. It involves cutting selected majors and programs while removing tenure-track faculty.

I’ve dubbed this strategy the queen sacrifice, drawing on that desperate chess move whereby a player gives up their most powerful piece in a risky play for victory. In the analogy tenure-track faculty are like the chess queen, since they have so much institutional clout, nominally and traditionally, if not universally in practice. Cutting those professors is an analogically bold and difficult move. (Declaring a formal state of financial exigency is one way)

I’ve been tracking college and university queen sacrifices for a while, as I see them playing a key role in shaping higher education’s future. Today’s example comes from a Boston-area campus. It’s a useful case study of a college making strategic cuts.

Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts institution in Wenham, Massachusetts, announced it would cut programs and positions. For professors and staff,

[e]leven faculty members are being laid off and two more retiring faculty will not be replaced. In addition, six staff members are being laid off and an additional 17 vacant staff positions will not be filled…

According to Gordon’s student paper, that means “14% of current full-time faculty” positions are cut, including some vacancies.

[E]leven faculty members will lose their jobs; an additional two faculty members are proceeding with their planned retirements and their vacant positions will not be filled. Two of the eleven faculty members were offered different positions within the school.

Program cuts and compressions:

Gordon is eliminating stand-alone majors in chemistry; French; physics; middle school and secondary education; recreation, sport and wellness; Spanish; and social work, and it is merging political science, history and philosophy into a single department.

At the same time there are several curricular expansions under way:

Gordon is also expanding its graduate and online offerings through a newly created School for Graduate, Professional and Extended Studies…

Gordon said it is creating new multidisciplinary or “integrated” majors: for example, in lieu of a chemistry major, future Gordon students can enroll in a new biochemistry and integrated science major. Students interested in physics can take a physics track within a new physics and applied science major. A new sociology and social practice major will combine sociology and social work. Within the combined history, philosophy and political science department, stand-alone majors in political science and international relations will continue to be offered, and potential dual majors such as history and philosophy and history and political science are under review.

A $10 million donation is helping power the curricular development. So Gordon is cutting, expanding, and reorganizing at the same time, leading to a net curricular and employee reduction. The total budget is being cut 7%. (“five percent which will be realized immediately in the 2019–20 academic year, and two percent which will be realized in the 2020–21 academic year”)

Why is this happening? Unusually, Gordon doesn’t seem to be reacting to present threats, but anticipating upcoming ones:

Gordon is taking strategic steps to meet new market realities out of financial prudence and not out of financial distress. (In other words, we’re choosing to be proactive now rather than waiting to be reactive later, when financial pressures would be stronger.) [emphases in original]

As part of the official announcement the school posted an analysis of the overall higher education market, which reads like it was written by a team following this very blog. It describes enrollment declines, rising discount rates, rising total cost of higher education, and greater pressure on tuition. The page even echoes my overbuilt language: “Simply put, [total] higher education capacity exceeds demand.”

I’m not sure of Gordon’s current financial health. A local paper reports that enrollment “had dipped about 6 percent in the last few years, from 2,105 undergraduate and graduate students in 2014 to 1,963 last year.” That could constitute serious financial pressure, depending on other factors. Their endowment is around $35 million, according to Wikipedia, which is too small to solve major problems.

On a related note, I detect a sense of the curriculum being overbuilt. According to one official statement, “This [strategy of cuts] keeps Gordon’s academic resources from being spread too thin across too many individual majors…”

The student paper also offers a good, detailed account of other cuts and cost-saving measures. This is a useful study in the many ways colleges can scramble to fix their finances:

the school is looking at counseling options for students outside of Gordon’s current offerings. Options on the table include partnerships with local Christian counselors and working with the counseling center at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary…

Gordon College is looking to increase investment in solar energy to reduce energy costs; the police department will also receive less funding for non-essential training and overall operations, but no full-time officers are being cut from the Gordon Police force; the Dexter house will be sold after this academic year, and the dorm is housing its last cohort of students this semester; the Center for Technology Services, the mailroom, and the development office will also see reductions in expenses and personnel.

They also seem to be pressing their summer youth (not undergraduate) programs. That’s prominently positioned on their home page today.

Let me close with some observations.

Changes in religious belief may propel some of Gordon’s enrollment decline. It is a religiously conservative institution. In 2014 the college won attention by asking then-president Obama to exempt faith-based organizations from new regulations concerning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender orientation. If Gordon draws its students from New England and focuses on traditional-age learners, declining religious affiliation may be narrowing their enrollment pipeline.

On the majors being cut or compressed, the humanities are represented, unsurprisingly. Languages being cut is typical, although I’m surprised at Spanish, since it remains the overwhelmingly most popular language taught in the US. Squeezing political science, history and philosophy together certainly fits national enrollment trends ( for example). Cutting education (middle school and secondary education) makes sense, given the region’s aging demographics. We can expect these curricular trends to continue.

I’m not sure what to make of axing recreation, social work, sport and wellness. My sense is that those fields are in demand. There may be local challenges I don’t grasp. Cutting chemistry and physics: I suspect this is either a question of costs (these are relatively expensive to offer) or declining enrollment, perhaps because students would prefer studying those at a university or polytechnic, rather than at a religiously-focused liberal arts college, especially when New England offers to many alternatives.

There’s a story about the queen sacrifice process which is hard to make out from a distance. On the one hand, in 2017 there was a major crisis when the entire faculty senate resigned, citing tensions over governance. On the other, an official statement describes a large (26 person) committee spending a lot of time researching and wrestling with problems, which suggests at least some community process.

I am impressed both by Gordon’s market analysis and their intention to get ahead of trends before they hit. It’s a good example of a future oriented strategy.

At the same time I’m saddened by the human losses, including those suffered by faculty, staff, and students.

Overall, the queen sacrifice seems to remain a viable strategy for some American colleges and universities. I would expect to see more of these in at least the short and medium term future.

Originally published at https://bryanalexander.org on May 18, 2019.

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.