Allegheny College faces financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The senior administration and the Board of Trustees held a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 28 to discuss the costs associated with college operations during the pandemic. The college requested that information disclosed at the meeting remain confidential, however, several members of the senior administration offered to discuss some of the information with the Campus.
“Yes we have (seen an increase in cost associated with running the college),” said Chief Financial Officer Linda Wetsell. “The impact of (COVID-19) can also be seen in our revenues. As you know, we offered a discount in housing due to the shortened semester and we have less room and board due to students learning remotely so there has been additional impact on our bottom line because of (COVID-19) from the revenue standpoint.”
Wetsell mentioned that the college has run deficits before, however, due to the pandemic the deficit is larger than it has been in years prior. The college requested the deficit amount be withheld from the public until they have more conclusive data regarding the operational costs and revenue for the academic year.
“One other reason that I do not want to disclose the amount is because we still have the spring semester ahead of us,” Wetsell said. “Right now, it is just a projection and there are a lot of different things that could happen that could change that. I do not mean to make it sound like a secret, but it is more of an operating projection at this time.”
The deficit amount is a projection for the academic year that may change as more students opt to learn in person for the spring semester, Wetsell clarified.
“For context, us and every other school in the country has a deficit this year due to the costs of the pandemic,” said Provost and Dean of College Ron Cole.
Wetsell outlined some of the changes to the college’s budget to remain in operation during COVID-19.
“We repurposed some of our budget line items,” Wetsell said. “There were a lot of expenditures that we did not have this year such as international travel and events so we were able to shift those budget lines to address testing and reopening and for some other expenses.”
Link also acknowledged that the college had the opportunity to reopen and remain open for the duration of the fall semester so they decided to do that.
“We could not run summer programs either so there have been many things that we were unable to do,” President Hilary Link said. “To (Wetsell’s) point, that also counts towards revenue. We did a very comprehensive health and safety process system between (COVID-19) testing, providing top medical assistants to care for our students and quarantine. We have done a tremendous job, quite frankly. … We have watched school after school fail at trying to do exactly what we are succeeding in doing, but there are costs to that and we knew that going into; this was an investment that we made a very clear decision on. We knew that we had not budgeted for (reopening costs), but we felt that we had a unique opportunity to open and stay open.”
Cole further explained that the investment was made for the students.
“We invested for the student experience,” Cole said. “The fact that the students would very much like to be on campus was driving (Link) by pure force of will to get us to this point. I do not want to underestimate the importance of that … We believe that this was absolutely the right thing to do to maintain the educational experience of the students, which is why we all are here.”
Cole added that the college acknowledges the difficulties faced by students and faculty this semester and that it has not been the typical college experience.
Despite the financial strains caused by the pandemic, Link added that she is very optimistic about the college’s potential for growth.
At the beginning of the college’s financial response to the pandemic, employee retirement contributions were paused. According to Wetsell, this change was based on the finances of the college.
“After we have taken the year pause that we implemented back in the summer, we fully intend to return to a retirement contribution,” Link said. “We made that decision early on because it seemed like a way we could address some of our costs without having an immediate impact.”
The college’s administration also recognized that this was a significant decision.
“Our decision making is steeped in trying to maintain our moral and ethical responsibilities to our employees to the best that we can, while also keeping people employed,” Cole said. “Other schools were laying people off last spring and over the summer, and we did not do that.”
Link’s message to those who are concerned about the viability of college was that we are in a better position than other many institutions. Another result of the financial stability concerns are the mandatory two-week furloughs for all employees between Dec. 14, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
“(COVID-19) has thrown a financial wrench in the plans of every college and university — not just in our country, but also abroad,” Link said. “We are really fortunate because of the wonderful financial management of (Wetsell) and our (Board of Trustees) that we have a very manageable deficit to address.”
She clarified that the two week furlough was taken as a measure to address the costs associated with COVID-19.
“We recognize that this is on one level a difficult cut — the two week furlough — we did it in a very humane way,” Link said.
The college has provided the employees with the opportunity to decide when to take the furlough and this would not impact the student experience. Employees are allowed to choose the weeks they are furloughed, and will work with their supervisors to ensure that there is little interruption to the services provided to students, Link clarified. There is also the opportunity for employees to be furloughed in nonconsecutive weeks. Furlough affects all employees at the college, and they can apply for unemployment benefits during the two week furlough.
The administration envisioned that allowing employees to work with supervisors will allow for both a minimization in interruption to student services and furloughs that work at times best for employees.
“All of the furlough arrangements are done by supervisors,” said Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students April Thompson. “There are times that students are not on campus and do not have high levels of personal need, so those will be the times that Student Life staff, for example, will be taking furloughs.”
For employees, the ability to work with supervisors and spread it out is intended to soften the effect of the furlough while also enabling the college to address financial concerns, Link said. For faculty, this furlough will occur during periods that students are not in session to ensure that no class time or access to faculty will be lost during the semester.
“There is a follow up to faculty that outlines weeks that are not a part of the active semester, which will be eligible for faculty to select those weeks for furlough,” Cole said.
While the college has had to take measures to address budgetary concerns, Link is optimistic about how the college can move forward after setbacks.
“I was hired 16 months ago with a very clear vision of how this college can move forward to be recognized as the amazing institution it is, but has not been recognized as for far too long,” Link said. “We do have to make these hard decisions, but they are in service of the bright future that the college is heading towards.”
Both the furlough and the pause in retirement contributions are meant to affect all employees of Allegheny equally.
“Nobody planned for (COVID-19),” Link said. “In reality, we have all had to learn how to manage (COVID-19). … We had to make these smaller decisions. Both with the furlough and retirement pause, is that the whole idea is that it impacts all of us — from the person who earns the most at this institution to the people who earn the least; it is a shared percentage of whatever people make. There is a shared sense that we are all in this together and we are all sacrificing together.”