DePauw University alumni, parents and professors have responded to Monday’s announcement of 36 faculty members accepting a buyout to leave at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year.
Elise Lockwood ‘14 watched this happen before in 2017, when another early retirement package was offered.
“To me, the first buyout marked a really distinct change in what I saw as the values of DePauw,” Lockwood said. “It was a warning sign of how the institution was valuing its people. This is just a continuation of that.”
Sara Horton ‘12 echoed a similar sentiment.
“I do understand that the university is facing some serious funding challenges, and I know enrollment is down significantly from what it used to be,” Horton said. “But, switching teachers over and over again is just a recipe for disaster. That loss of guaranteed continuity is an issue for me.”
Horton questioned what will happen to tuition costs as a result of the payoff.
“It’s an institution that costs, what now, $60,000 a year,” she said. “It’s no longer an institution that’s worth that if you’re not going to provide a certain level of instruction.”
Of the 36 faculty members accepting the buyout, or the voluntary retirement incentive program (VRIP), 31 are tenure lines. However, 10 of the 31 tenured members were going to retire within the next 5 years— a phased retirement. Those members choose to simply accelerate their retirements, said interim vice president of academic affairs Dave Berque.
Melanie Finney, chair of the communication and theater department, is on track for phased retirement in 2024 and chose not to take the buyout.
The 36 faculty members will receive a two years salary when they retire, and this mass sum was something that kept Finney from accepting. The payout will qualify for a higher tax bracket than normal.
Another reason? Finney doesn’t want to stop teaching.
“If I had taken the buyout, this would be my last year, and I can’t imagine that at this point,” Finney said.
That was chair of faculty Howard Brooks’ reasoning for not taking the buyout as well. And although the 36 faculty members remain employed until the end of spring semester, he admitted that DePauw has already felt the effect of their future departure.
“There’s still a sense of uncertainty in that whenever cost cutting has to happen to people, the sense is that those who make the decisions don’t value the people,” Brooks said. “DePauw is still a good place; it’s just a different place.”
Finney and Brooks emphasized that there was no pressure from the administration to take the buyout; each individual faculty member made their own decision.
John Kesler, ‘80, empathizes with the loss of faculty, but doesn’t think DePauw’s situation is unique.
“The liberal arts school is obviously under attack, as compared to all the other choices that are out there for higher education,” Kesler said. “I think this payout is probably a step in the right direction, in that sooner or later DePauw has to trim the tree, so to speak. The legacy costs that come along with some of these tenured professors is pretty significant.”
Kesler isn’t sure what DePauw’s future holds, but he referenced the 2017 closing of Saint Joseph’s College, another private liberal arts college in Indiana.
“I think you’re going to see more and more of these situations like Saint Joe,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the natural course of business. Nothing goes on forever. We just don’t want that for DePauw University in 2019.”
This uncertainty has crossed Carol Grant’s mind while her twin sons are applying to colleges. Grant is the mother of a DePauw senior as well.
“I love DePauw. It is a great school,” Grant said. “But, I’m having reservations because if they’re losing all this experienced staff, you can’t replace that experience. Yes, you can hire younger people who may have fresh ideas, which is all fine and good, but you can’t get rid of experience just because it’s expensive.”
An earlier version of this article said Melanie Finney would be retiring at the end of the 2020. Finney will not retire until 2024.