June 29, 2020: Community Update

Dear RISD Faculty and Staff,

RISD is facing extraordinary financial challenges due to the impact of COVID-19 and related financial realities. As we have stated previously, the total financial impact from the spring, summer and next academic year will be at least $50 million, even under our best-case scenario. To put this figure in perspective, it is at least 10 times the $5 million deficit challenge the college faced during the 2008–2009 economic crisis. Addressing this deficit requires a multi-pronged strategy, which already has included using $7 million in cash reserves, reducing our capital budget by $4 million, reducing support budgets by $2 million, asking Cabinet members to take voluntary salary reductions (even before asking others to do so, and regardless of whether others do so), implementing a general hiring freeze, and offering voluntary early retirement and furlough programs. Overall, we had also hoped to achieve $10.3 million in savings through temporary, progressive, broad-based compensation adjustments across all employee groups to avoid triggering significant layoffs, furloughs and programmatic cuts.

In order to achieve this plan, we asked all of the bargaining units to participate to ensure that all employees were part of the solution and that no employee groups would have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. The proposal that we put in front of the bargaining units included a combination of one-time, progressive salary reductions; a temporary suspension of retirement contributions; and a temporary modification of the CE benefit. Together these steps would have resulted in minimizing job and program losses. They had been recommended by the Budget Priorities Committee, the advisory body that includes four faculty members, three academic administrators and three students who collectively comprise a substantial majority of its membership.

On Friday, I learned that the Full-Time Faculty Association rejected RISD’s proposal. We were disappointed to hear that, as they were asked to do only what every employee at RISD was asked to do—no more and no less—which meant the lowest earners were exempt from the salary reductions and the remaining employees would receive reductions in a tiered manner based on their salary to get us through this coming year.

From direct faculty comments, I have come to believe that some full-time faculty feel they may not have consistently received all of the relevant facts, data and insight to inform their vote. Throughout this process, there have been repeated offers to the executive board of the FTFA to sit down with SVP of Finance Dave Proulx and with me to discuss our challenges and review our finances in detail, but unfortunately they have never agreed. Last Monday, I, along with Dave Proulx and other administrators, met for two hours to discuss and clarify our proposal with presidents and other officers of every bargaining unit except for the FTFA, who again declined to join.

Following additional clarifications after Monday’s meeting, it appeared that other unions may have been inclined to support our proposal. However, on Friday I asked them to cancel their votes, because I will not implement a proposal that impacts only certain groups of employees. I remain steadfast in my commitment to equity across our workforce and will therefore now focus on an alternative plan, which will unfortunately necessitate a much larger number of layoffs and furloughs and an immediate process to consider program cuts. These actions will also require us to begin the faculty retrenchment process in accordance with Article XVIII, Section B of the FTFA contract. Today I asked the President of the FTFA, Jonathan Highfield, to appoint three members to a retrenchment committee, which will begin its work immediately.

I realize that many staff and faculty continue to have questions about alternative ways RISD could reduce costs and increase revenues, such as borrowing from the endowment or deaccessioning works in the Museum. I have attached memos that explain the negative consequences of each and why it is neither feasible nor in the long-term best interest of our institution to implement these options, memos that I also shared with the executive board of the FTFA and other bargaining units two weeks ago. Borrowing from the endowment is an absolute last resort and something that the Board of Trustees will allow only if the financial picture worsens substantially beyond our estimates. The impact of doing so would have significant and even more negative impacts on salary increases and operating budgets for many years to come.

As we have been attempting to work through these issues in a collaborative, equitable process, I have been surprised by references to an outdated and unproductive “us versus the administration” mentality on the part of some that has continued for many years and through many leadership changes. As a long-time faculty member myself, I know that faculty are the heart of this institution. Faculty are a large part of why students attend RISD, and their teaching, research and professional practices bring renown to RISD the world over. Our dedicated staff—including the administration—work every day to facilitate their work and that of the student experience. The narrative that the administration cares only about the bottom line and operates in secrecy is simply wrong and out of touch with the realities of RISD today.

We are faced with incredibly complex and difficult decisions, now more than ever, but they are made with integrity, guided by core principles and communicated transparently. We have activated multiple forms of communications, town halls and invitations for small group conversations to anyone who seeks clarification about the basis of considerations and decisions about not only our finances but also our planning for the fall. That planning has itself included multiple faculty, and we invited the FTFA to participate in it, but again they declined. We always strive—above all else—to stay true to our mission, while advancing important issues of our times that will redefine art and design education. In times of crisis it is easy to blame the structures of higher education, especially when taken out of context. But the financial crisis we currently find ourselves in is not the result of strategic increases in certain areas of the college; it is the result of a global pandemic that has reduced our income through loss of tuition and enrollment and increased expenses associated with a de-densified reopening focused on health and safety.

In fact, though a recent faculty communication suggested otherwise, the full-time faculty at RISD has increased at a higher rate than administrators. Since the beginning of my tenure in 2014, the total number of staff has grown by 11 percent while full-time faculty positions have grown by 26 percent, even without sustained enrollment changes. This increase in faculty was an intentional part of academic and strategic planning supported by the leadership team. Administratively, every higher education institution has had to make important investments in recent years for student support services such as health and counseling, disability support, and Title IX offices. At RISD, we have additionally committed to the establishment and support of the Office of SEI, including the Teaching and Learning Lab, to advance curricula and teaching practices. We have also made a strategic commitment to develop greater research support as well as to build fundraising, the latter of which has resulted in major philanthropic progress with RISD achieving its highest success rates in the past two years. These strategic initiatives are part of a planful commitment to lower tuition dependency over time so that we can lessen the future burden on students and families.

We each play a unique role in the vitality of an institution that we all love. I had hoped we could come together at this crucial moment as one group of committed employees across the institution who care about protecting RISD’s future and all share in the necessary sacrifices in an equitable manner. Our plan was derived to minimize the overall impact on peoples’ lives even more than they may already have been affected during this pandemic by maintaining as many positions as possible. But I am unwilling to expect some groups of employees to participate and not others. Without participation of everyone, the unfortunate result is a greater number of position losses and potential program cuts. We hope to be able to provide decisions by July 31, and will continue to communicate regularly to keep all members of our community informed as we work toward alternative solutions in a fair and respectful manner.

As ever, I am willing to share financial and enrollment details with anyone who feels that they do not have a full understanding of the challenges we face.


Rosanne Somerson

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