By editorial board • 

Reality of faculty layoffs looms at Linfield College

As a result of declining enrollment on its home campus in McMinnville, where the count has now dropped below 1,250, Linfield College has no alternative but to cut faculty.

By necessity, the layoffs will affect underperforming programs where demand is weak or waning. It would be foolish to target robust programs serving to best fill classroom seats and thus tuition revenue.

The question is, will the school ax entire departments or programs, or engage in more selective trims?

Understandably, that’s a matter of great anxiety for tenured members of its teaching corps. But it’s not just their futures at stake; it’s the destiny of the entire McMinnville operation.

Linfield has a bright future in Portland, where its nursing school already accounts for 44 percent of the combined graduate total. Demand there far outrstrips supply, and acquisition of a new campus positions Linfield to capture an outsized share.

The future is cloudier here in McMinnville.

One of the key vulnerabilities is a dangerously high 92 percent reliance on tuition revenue to fund operations. Another is an endowment dwarfed by those of most peer institutions, giving it little cushion to fall back on.

Linfield’s endowment hovers around $100 million. And it’s been spending about $3 million into that annually, in order to sustain a combined two-campus faculty of 166.

Elsewhere in the Northwest’s private liberal arts realm, endowment tops $200 million at Willamette and Lewis & Clark, $300 million at Puget Sound, $400 million at Whitman and $500 million at Reed. In many cases, those schools are also less tuition-dependent.

At the top of the private school food chain, Harvard University boasts an endowment of $39 billion. It relies on tuition to meet only 21 percent of its expenses, and is able to fund the other 79 percent without tapping its endowment.

Aspiring to Harvard-like heights is beyond all reason. However, planning for greater parity with peer institutions is not.

Linfield has already tightened on the support side, redoubled its student recruitment efforts and proffered an early-retirement offer. Still bleeding red ink, it has little choice now but to impose academic cuts, no matter how painful that might prove for students and faculty.

The reality is this:

The pool of American high school graduates has been shrinking for years. Because of soaring tuition rates and growing debt fears, that pool is turning increasingly to two- and four-year state schools. Bernie Sanders’ free-tuition movement, gaining momentum on the left, could easily turn a trickle into a torrent. And with unemployment at record lows, proceeding directly into the job market has become increasingly enticing, no matter how short-sighted.

We’d hate to see Linfield become a Portland-based nursing school with a local liberal arts annex. We’d hate even more to see it become a Portland-based nursing school with no local presence whatsoever.

College President Miles Davis didn’t create this challenging situation. He inherited it.

To all appearances, he’s committed to taking thoughtful but forceful steps to resolve it. In that, he deserves the support of all true friends of the college, both on campus and in the larger community.

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