All college departments and divisions have been asked to cut their budgets by 15 percent for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2023, in the wake of a decrease in the college’s endowment and amid persistently high inflation. This change comes despite a 4.9 increase to the comprehensive fee announced Tuesday. There will be no layoffs for staff and no changes to the college’s financial aid policy, President Michael Elliott said.
Alongside the cuts, the college will not add any new staff positions next fiscal year, although already existing positions that are vacant may be filled. The process for filling these vacant positions will be stricter, however, a representative for the college said. Hiring of new faculty will continue as usual.
In interviews with The Student, Elliott and Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein emphasized that the college’s goal was to minimize the impact of cuts on student life. Elliott nonetheless said that the budget cuts would have to prompt a broader “culture shift” at the college.
“Amherst has been a place where we’ve had the capacity over the last five to 10 years to say yes to most new ideas,” he said. “In a very short period of time, we’re having to shift to a mindset where the answer to most new ideas is either going to be ‘no’ or ‘later.’”
Epstein said that the proposed cuts have been instituted to ensure that staff and faculty can receive raises amid increased costs of living. “That’s a priority of the college, particularly right now, because faculty and staff went through the pandemic,” she said.
The budget process remains in its early stages. Academic departments submitted their proposed reduced budgets to Epstein on March 1, but many other non-academic departments have not yet finalized their proposals. Following these initial attempts to find room in the budget, there will be a negotiation process between the president’s office and individual departments culminating in a final budget proposal to the Board of Trustees in May.
Elliott said that the 15 percent number was a starting point in the process, not an iron law. “It is probably not going to be 15 percent across the board,” he said. “But it’s a good way to start asking the questions.”
Elliott said that his office was working to ensure that the cuts do not have a large impact on the student experience. “Anything that involves a large number of students we’ll be looking at really carefully,” he said. “We’ll try to understand the trade-offs.”
Epstein similarly said that she believed that “there are things that could be cut that hopefully won’t be noticed all that much by their absence.”
She specifically mentioned on-campus speaker events as sources of potential cuts, at least for academic departments. “We do have an awful lot of speakers who come to campus and a very large number of events that are often not particularly well attended,” she said.
Elliott suggested that the number of events on campus might not necessarily decrease, but they may become “less lavish.”
When asked for other examples of the kinds of things that might be cut, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I.T. says, ‘Here’s some technology that we’re supporting that actually not that many people on campus are actually using.’”
The budget cuts are likely to affect different parts of the college’s operation differently. Elliott pointed toward the dining services division as one that might have difficulty cutting 15 percent, due to the especially high levels of inflation in food prices.
“We’re not going to reduce our food operation,” Elliott said, though he conceded that some items at Val might be discontinued.
The impacts of the cuts will also vary among academic departments. Some departments have accrued large, department-specific endowed funds from alumni donations that provide financial cushion against the cuts.
Professor Mark Marshall, co-chair of the chemistry department, told The Student that his department would not make any spending cuts and would instead make up the difference with a greater infusion from its endowed fund — which is the largest of any academic department.
Alternatively, Professor Michael Ching, chair of the math department, said that financing the cuts from his department’s endowment would not be “sustainable.” He also said, though, that his department was in a better position than many because a large share of its budget is salaries for student graders and Teaching Assistants, which will remain untouched. He said that community-building events for majors might have to be scaled back to meet the budget cuts.
Epstein said it was possible that departments with larger endowed funds would be asked to bear greater burdens, in an effort to “redistribute” money across the departments. Generally, Epstein said that she hoped that direct instructional expenses would be maintained, with cuts being made outside the classroom.
It is clear that this will not be possible in all cases. Professor Karen Koehler, chair of the Department of Art and History of Art, said that the cuts were forcing the department to find new ways to source the art supplies it provides to all students who take studio classes — whether that means buying more in bulk or changing suppliers. She maintained that these changes would not fundamentally change the student experience.
Epstein said that it appeared that most departments would be able to make the cuts.
“Only one [academic] department has come to me so far and said, ‘I don't know how we can do this,’” she said, but would not say which one.
She emphasized that the fiscal year 2024 budget process remained a “work in progress.”
This is especially true for non-academic departments, such as dining, athletics, student affairs, and admissions. Representatives from those departments indicated that it was too soon in the process to gauge the impact of the budget process.
Regardless, all departments will have to find a way to make the numbers work before the final budget proposal to the trustees in May.
Correction, March 8, 2023: A previous version of this article said that the college would institute a hiring freeze for staff in the 2024 fiscal year. A spokesperson for the college clarified that although the college will not add any new staff positions, already vacant positions may continue to be filled, albeit subject to a stricter hiring process.