New committee folds faculty, staff, student into budgetary process

By SABINE POUX

A committee that the college convened this winter to democratize financial decision-making is now helping it work through coronavirus-related budgetary woes.

The Budget Advisory Committee was created in December and serves the college in an advisory capacity. Budget decisions ultimately fall on the Board of Trustees, which approves the budget in May.

Originally, the committee was to come up with recommendations to reduce the college’s $4 million deficit. Now, it is looking into the budget cuts the college can make to mitigate the more severe Covid-19-related losses in Fiscal Year 2021.

The committee includes members of the Faculty Resources Committee and Educational Affairs Committee; members of the budget office; two members from the Middlebury institute of International Studies at Monterey; four members of Staff Council; Treasurer and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Treasurer Provost; and Kenshin Cho ’20, chair of the Student Government Association Finance Committee. Cho is the only student on the committee.

One of the original goals of the committee was to democratize the budgetary process. Before on-campus operations were suspended this March, The Campus spoke with a handful of members of the committee who said that, as representatives of their respective constituencies, they wanted to represent the attitudes of their peers on the committee as accurately as possible.

But it was unclear upon the committee’s creation how that could happen when so many of the college’s budget documents and statements remain available only to those on the committee. PowerPoints and notes from each committee meeting are marked “confidential.” The college’s annual financial results webpage has not been updated since November 2018. And committee members seemed unsure about how they might gauge others’ opinions without any formal feedback mechanisms.

“To me personally, it’s difficult sometimes to know what it is that the faculty thinks,” said Enrique García, a professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies and a member of the committee. “So even though I’m the elected member, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with making certain statements about decisions that are being made because I don’t have a venue to discuss and get direct feedback from the faculty body while engaging with the administration.”

Since going remote, however, the college has released two public general memos on the state of the budget. It is planning on releasing a survey in the coming week soliciting input from faculty and staff on where to make cuts in next year’s budget.

The committee has additionally begun convening without the administrators who sit in on meetings. Members receive the PowerPoint presentations in advance of their general meetings and get to talk about priorities more freely, said Katie Gillespie, an associate director for research compliance who sits on the committee as a representative from Staff Council.

“As a staff member, I feel great about that,” she said. “Faculty members have tenure and have been asking really great questions, ones that have been on my mind, but I feel less comfortable asking.”

Committee member Rick Bunt, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said part of the committee’s work is determining where the college’s priorities should lie and, therefore, where it needs to make cuts.

“The budget is not just about how the people in the finance department think,” he said. “We really wanted it to be an expression of our values.”

The committee is meeting today, without administrators, before the larger committee meeting on May 4. Gillespie said they’re planning to talk about priorities at that meeting.

“Can we all get on the same page, I’m not sure,” she said. “But it feels like by doing that extra bit outside the committee, it’s become a better process.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the faculty and staff survey will be sent out in the coming weeks.