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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Values matter in money matters

<span class="photocreditinline">SARAH FAGAN</span>

As widespread financial downturn and economic instability pepper front-page headlines and punctuate the inner workings of our day to day lives, institutions of higher education also find themselves facing their own fiscal obstacles. From offering partial tuition refunds to investing in online learning tools and canceling a variety of programs, budgetary shortfalls are threatening the livelihoods of countless colleges and universities. Even with an endowment that hovers around $1 billion, Middlebury is currently confronting a projected $30 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year. This is a reality that cannot be easily circumvented or sidestepped. The truth is that we’re going to be in a financially tight spot for the time being, and the way that Middlebury chooses to wield its budget is even more critical in a world of financial uncertainty and anxiety. 

In this crisis, we expect  Middlebury’s most intrinsic and consequential values will be decisively highlighted. We hope that these values, in turn, are ones that seek to help and support the most vulnerable members of our community. The discussion over staff wages was paramount even before Covid-19 led to the evacuation of the campus. Extensive under-compensation and pay compression have continued to affect staff members all across campus for a while now. Student protests that took place in December in response to the disconcerting state of staff wages succeeded in raising pay for entry-level staff positions. And while we oppose the fact that it took student intervention to catalyze that achievement, we appreciate and commend the administration’s current commitment in prioritizing staff wages during these unprecedented times. It has been affirmed that these supports will continue “as long as possible” and will be evaluated monthly, and senior leadership executives have taken pay cuts as well. Especially when compared to some of our peer institutions, we are thankful for Middlebury's actions and for the transparency that has accompanied them, as college staff undoubtedly serve as the backbone of our institution. 

But we as a board also feel that it is imperative to call attention to the long-term consequences of this budget deficit — both in regards to staff and other essential aspects of the Middlebury community. The protections of on-campus resources such as the Anderson Freeman Center and mental health services are vital. Newer academic offerings like the Black Studies and Education Studies departments must also be similarly treated as indispensable. In response to their own financial troubles, Ohio University is cutting professorship positions in Women’s and Gender Studies and African-American Studies. We sorely hope the administration continues to support academic inquiry in underrepresented fields — to abandon such subjects would be severely antithetical to Middlebury’s mission. Furthermore, as students' own finances continue to be affected, the college must commit to providing consistent and comprehensive support networks for the student body. 

Middlebury’s financial responsibilities and our commitment to a robust community do not have to be mutually exclusive. We hope that the administration will use this crisis as an opportunity to chart a new path, particularly when it comes to supporting our staff. Now more than ever, staff deserve to be adequately compensated for their time and labor. The longstanding disregard of staff issues at Middlebury has been well-documented — and as the largest employer in Addison County, the college has an outstanding obligation to support staff and their families. We demand that the administration prioritize staff not just during these difficult months, but always and without reserve. Our institution would fail to run without them. 

Of course, such responsibilities cannot weigh solely on the shoulders of the administration. In anticipating our eventual return to campus, we as students must act more conscientiously than we have in the past. Our antics should have never escalated to the point where damage fees had to be accrued — but as Middlebury heads toward an inevitable tightening of the fiscal belt, we cannot afford this level of recklessness and disrespect toward the place we call home. Whether it be urinating in Atwater elevators, committing widespread vandalism, or yes, assaulting a tree, these events burden facilities team members and accumulate avoidable fees. Let’s be cognizant of how irresponsible and self-centered actions can exacerbate already troublesome issues that amass additional costs. Moving forward, the Middlebury community will need to step up and act more considerately. 

This year is asking a lot from all of us and will continue to do so. We will only be able to weather the storm together if we — administration, faculty, and students — are committed to protecting and supporting each and every member of our community, whether that be financially or otherwise. This moment, albeit terrible and terrifying, is an opportunity for us to build towards the Middlebury that we truly want to see. We will only get there if we all buy in. 

This editorial represents the opinions of the Middlebury Campus’s editorial board.