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College workers get a special bonus

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College informed its faculty and staff last week that they would get two extra holidays this year and one-time bonuses to be paid in December.

The announcement, which was sent out on Nov. 10 by Vice President for Human Resources Caitlin Goss, acknowledged some of the challenges and upheavals that have emerged since the pandemic arrived in Vermont more than 20 months ago.

“It’s OK to feel like these are complicated times, they are,” Goss wrote. She added it’s also OK to “turn off your camera to stretch or eat an apple … have pets, partner, kids, or housemates crash your zoom call … wonder why you have to be at the office every day when others work from home … do the work that gives you energy … remember why you love to work here, forget why you love to work here … have the time to space and dream.”

At the same time, “actions matter,” Goss wrote. “First step: two extra days off and a $1,500 bonus in December.”

Bonuses will be made available just prior to winter break to benefits-eligible employees who started at the college before July 1, 2021, and will be prorated based on workweek hours.

With 1,212 workers associated with its Vermont campus — 1,144 full-time and 68 part-time, according to Director of Media Relations Sarah Ray — Middlebury College is the largest employer in Addison County.

Combined, employee bonuses next month will represent a sudden infusion of well over $1 million into the local economy. “We are happy to recognize and thank employees who have been supporting Middlebury, in all our locations and in so many ways, in these complicated times,” Goss told the Independent in an email Wednesday morning. “This is the first step as we build a robust people-centered strategy and we will continue to seek big and small opportunities to recognize, reward and support all employees in our community.”

COVID DEFICITS

Like other institutions of higher education, Middlebury College has struggled financially through the pandemic, though a massive reassessment of its workforce, which concluded in 2019, may have better positioned it to weather the storm.

Middlebury ended that year on a positive note. After analyzing the local and regional employment market, the college increased salary-range minimums for a number of positions, and gave automatic pay raises to nearly 80 employees already in those positions.

But then the pandemic arrived, and on March 10, 2021, more than 2,000 students departed from campus.

Within days, college officials developed a short-term workforce plan they believed reflected the institution’s values: continue paying employees for as long as possible and keep finding work for them wherever possible.

In April the college announced that students would finish the spring 2020 semester remotely.

Financially, with expected student refunds, slower fundraising and other losses, the college was looking at a $13 million operating deficit for the year, and officials were warning of a FY 2021 deficit of more than $30 million.

That month, President Laurie Patton reduced her salary by 20% and senior administrators reduced theirs by 10 to 15%, to be reevaluated on a month-by-month basis.

In FY 2021, which ended this past summer, Middlebury College lost $15 million in tuition revenue from its Schools Abroad and Language Schools programs, and another $10 million from its undergraduate program, but a “shift in spending practices” — including a hiring freeze — and some federal reimbursement led to a smaller than anticipated deficit: only $11.9 million, according to a report last month from Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration David Provost.

ENDOWMENT GAINS

At the same time as the college was operating at a significant deficit, its endowment was growing at a record pace.

“Like other higher education institutions, Middlebury experienced significant growth in our endowment this year, with an overall increase of 37.4 percent over the previous year, or $398.3 million,” Provost wrote in his Oct. 25 report to the college community. “The endowment now stands at $1.5 billion, compared with $1.1 billion in the previous fiscal year.”

The gains, Provost said, “will ensure that we can spend more on financial aid for our students and continue to provide the high-quality education and instruction that they deserve. The majority of these funds are being directed back to our students in the form of financial aid, instructional support, and student services support.”

Endowment gains at Middlebury and other institutions have sparked a great deal of public conversation, Provost acknowledged, but he believed they needed to be put into context.

“As we’ve shared before, (Middlebury) had a history of overspending in previous years,” Provost wrote. “Since then, we have focused our financial efforts on making Middlebury financially sound, being more inclusive of all constituencies in our deliberations about the budget, and better aligning our finances with our mission and long-term goals.”

BIG GIFTS

Earlier this month the college announced it had received two gifts totaling $20 million.

Ted and Kathy O’Connor Truscott from the class of 1983 donated $10 million to “create an endowed professorship in Black Studies, expand financial aid for undergraduate and graduate students, and provided unrestricted support for institutional priorities,” the college announced on Nov. 2.

A second $10 million gift, made anonymously, will be used to renovate the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Building, which was built in 1968 as an interdisciplinary center for the fine arts, and which currently houses the college’s Architectural Studies Program and its Department of studio art.

The gift will also be used to fund a program of study for a new museum on campus. As previously reported in the Independent, the museum has been proposed for the spot now occupied by Battell Hall, which will be torn down sometime after 2023 completion of a new 284-student dormitory.

Editor’s note: Christopher Ross is married to an employee of Middlebury College.

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