By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College has instituted a hiring freeze and plans to shave, through attrition, 100 staff positions from its workforce within the next three years.
The job cuts are just one in a series of budget paring strategies that college officials will use in light of a recession that has taken a 19-percent bite out of the institution’s endowment in just the past six months. The endowment, the exact size of which officials declined to reveal, finances 25 percent of the college’s annual budget.
“It is even more significant as we look out beyond next year, because this year’s performance will be the second time in two years that our endowment return has been negative (last year our return was minus 0.9 percent),” college President Ron Liebowitz wrote in a recent campus-wide update on the global financial crisis and its impact on the institution. “The impact to our operating budget will therefore be felt for longer than three years, and, because deficits compound each year, it is crucial that we make reductions sooner, rather than later.”
A Middlebury College Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) made up of faculty, staff, students and administrators is reviewing potential budget cuts. Specific cuts will be vetted by Liebowitz and disclosed within around a month, according to Patrick Norton, the college’s vice president for administration and chief financial officer. Norton serves as chairman of the BOC.
“We are being as transparent as we can in this process,” Norton said of the BOC, which has been meeting twice each week and has received more than 200 budget trimming suggestions thus far from the college community.
“We have made progress and will continue to make progress.”
Norton noted the college has already identified and frozen more than 20 vacant positions en route to its goal of 100. Those positions run the gamut from food service to administration, he said. A staffing resources committee is making sure that the jobs to be trimmed are not heavily concentrated in one department.
“We have a very strict process in place that looks at every position that becomes vacant,” Norton said.
Asked if the college would consider layoffs if it hasn’t reached its 100 job cuts through attrition at the end of three years, Norton said “it depends on how far we’ve come in reaching our goal.”
But he stressed that layoffs are “the last lever we will pull” in shaving the college’s expenses.
Liebowitz has agreed to keep the faculty “full-time equivalent” count level for next year.
Any marked change in the college’s employment numbers would send a shiver through the Addison County economy.
Middlebury College is the county’s largest employer. The liberal arts institution currently employs around 1,455 faculty and staff, according to Sarah Ray, the college’s director of public affairs. In fiscal year 2008, the college paid out $107 million in salaries and benefits to its workers, a figure that represented 49 percent of the institution’s budget.
An economic impact study completed in 2003 by Westford-based Northern Economic Consulting Inc. revealed that Middlebury College is directly and indirectly responsible for 14.2 percent of all jobs in the county. The college spends a total of $18.7 million on goods and services provided by Vermont firms, including $6.2 million from Addison County businesses.
As previously reported in the Addison Independent, the future of the college’s new nightspot in downtown Middlebury, called 51 Main, also hangs in the balance. That operation currently survives largely thanks to a donor. But its status — along with other services like The Grille and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in Hancock — is being re-evaluated by the BOC.
“We are taking a hard look at how these things run and we need to strive to make them break even, or at least come closer to breaking even,” Norton said.