By Nicholas Nerli
Amid the funding crisis that endangered the Counseling Service’s future during the 2017-2018 academic year, complete details were not provided to the entire Lewis & Clark Board of Trustees until their October meeting this year according to two Board members. Attended by the administrative Executive Council, faculty representatives, student representatives and trustees, the Board convened between Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. In response to the Counseling Service’s precarious budget, the Board instituted a $37 per semester health and wellness fee strictly for on-campus mental health services, which will go into effect next academic year.
The Board of Trustees is the primary governing body at LC, responsible for implementing policy that improves education, financial strategy and leadership at the college.
At the October meeting, the Board also voted to raise tuition, room and board and adopted the latest version of the LC Strategic Plan. In a later interview, Board leadership also addressed the decision to turn LC tobacco-free and discussed transparency between trustees and the student body.
After it was made public that funding for the Counseling Service would expire at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 academic year, Associate Dean for Health and Wellness and Chief Psychologist John Hancock, ASLC and concerned community members began discussing solutions. For five years, the Counseling Service was entirely funded by an anonymous donation, set to run out in spring 2018. Without administrative assistance, ASLC voted in April 2018 to fully fund the Counseling Service for the 2018-2019 school year using $62,500 from its 4300 account, the reserve of excess student fees collected each year.
The Board of Trustees does not have a direct representative that corresponds with students and therefore relies on information presented by President Wiewel and the Executive Council. In an interview on Oct. 29, Chair of the Board of Trustees Stephanie Fowler ’97 said she did not know about the Counseling Service problem until the recent October meeting.
“I didn’t know about the grant and the expiration of the grant until the meeting where we approved the fee,” Fowler said. “Someone needed to tell us that, and it could have been the ASLC representative. It wasn’t as if we were ignoring it and it wasn’t that we didn’t care. We just didn’t know.”
First Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Paula Hayes ’92 confirmed that she was also unaware of the Counseling Service situation until the Board held two sessions on mental health services during the October meeting.
“Our responsibility is to sit at this level from a policy standpoint on what the school is doing and how to prepare for the future,” Hayes said. “We’re not going to get in the weeds of the day to day financing, but it would have been nice to know that the funds that were designated to support (the Counseling Service) were going to expire and expire quickly.”
However, during the May 2018 Board meeting, then-ASLC President Marissa Valdez ’18 informed trustees that “(student representatives) unanimously approved a bill that funded the (Counseling Service) for the 2018-2019 year.” Whether any trustees were aware of the Counseling Service’s financial troubles during Valdez’s remarks is unknown.
ASLC President Violet Betters ’20, one of the two student representatives from the College of Arts and Sciences during the 2018-2019 academic year, was present for Valdez’s speech to the Board in May 2018. As a student representative, Betters is responsible for communicating student body concerns to trustees.
According to Betters, if trustees were unaware of the Counseling Service’s budget problem, it would be a significant communication error.
“The truth is, most of ASLC’s role is to communicate to administrators and we anticipate them talking to the Board,” Betters said. “If (the Board) didn’t know, that would be a huge lapse in communication. That would be very, very shocking to me.”
ASLC will continue to fund the Counseling Service for the 2018-2019 academic year. At the start of next school year, the office will be completely budgeted by the $37 health and wellness fee.
The Board approved a 3.5 percent raise in tuition and increased the cost of room by 5 percent and board by 3 percent for the 2019-2020 academic year. Though the Board had already planned a tuition increase, many trustees advocated for a rise of 4 percent instead of 3.5 percent. This debate over percentage increase originated over college financial trends that worried some trustees, including greater financial aid packages for admitted students and the 4 percent annual inflation rate in the Portland metropolitan area.
Student Academic Affairs Board Chair Marshall Piotrowski ’19, the other student representative from the College of Arts and Sciences, reflected on his participation in the tuition discussion and described the Board’s environment from a student perspective.
“I raised concerns that too high of a tuition increase would further decrease our retention rate and force strong students to leave,” Piotrowski said via email. “(Some trustees) seemed a little annoyed to have a student (representative) questioning tuition raises, as if it was redundant because everybody knows that students don’t want tuition to (rise). I’m not happy that tuition is increasing at all; this is an expensive school and I understand that many students really struggle to afford to stay here with these annual tuition increases.”
The cost of attendance at LC has increased for the last 11 academic years, according to public information provided by the Office of Institutional Research. Between the 2008-2009 and 2017-2018 academic years, the average rise in tuition was 4.24 percent per year while the average total cost a year climbed by 4.06 percent.
Despite student concerns, Hayes stated that after careful consideration, the Board deemed the cost increases necessary.
“It was a big topic of conversation,” Hayes said. “We needed to make sure that we were looking at it from all the angles that we needed to.”
In their joint interview, Fowler and Hayes explained the importance of transparency between the Board of Trustees, the administration and the student body. As chair, Fowler has made it a priority to improve the relationship between the Board and students. At her request, the Board now dines with students in Fields Dining Hall while board meetings take place.
“It probably seems like small change, but it took me 14 years to just achieve having lunch with students in Fields,” Fowler said. “That is going to be our default lunch during Board meetings. Anybody who wants to can sit with us. It’s for any student that wants to sit with us, talk with us, and complain to us. It is all welcome.”
Hayes, an original founder of the Black Student Union, also emphasized the importance of transparency.
“Student engagement, for me, is really important,” Hayes said. “I don’t get any sense from anyone, at least in my interactions with the Executive Council, that there is any sort of resistance from being as transparent as possible with students.”
When asked about the decision to make LC a smoke-free campus, Fowler and Hayes revealed that the Board was not consulted before the change was made. Fowler remarked that, during a conversation with President Wiewel, he communicated concerns brought by the Collins View Neighborhood Association.
“I actually only heard about it in my weekly meeting with (President Wiewel),” Fowler said. “He said that because some students (travel) off campus and were smoking across the street, the neighbors were complaining. We had nothing to do with that. I didn’t even know it was controversial.”
The Board of Trustees will have its second annual meeting in January, followed by a third in May. Fowler encourages students to approach trustees during their lunches in Fields Dining Hall and whenever they are present at public functions.