Professor Dan Fineman weighs in on Oxy’s endowment discourse, and a ’51 alum testifies to the sticking power of Oswald
A Collective Solution
I have been tremendously interested to read the series of letters in Occidental initiated by Roger Magyar ’66 (“Running the Numbers,” Fall 2012). I believe the endowment is the single most important issue for the College, but one that is rarely addressed publicly except when we are confronted by our inability to match some of the better, but expensive, practices at sister schools. I am therefore heartened by this discussion.
I agree with Bill Hawkins ’69 (“Forward Momentum,” Winter) that Oxy remains a great school with great prospects. Personally, I think myself enormously lucky to have been here for more than 36 years. The students, alumni, administration, trustees, and staff have always impressed me with their collective and individual talents, good will, intelligence, hard work, and loyalty. I have been happily employed here, met my wife here, educated my children here, and expect to retire from this, my institutional home, in another decade or two. All this, however, does not mean that we do not have an abiding problem represented by the marked underperformance of the endowment—perhaps the single most indicative measure of institutional health.
Many may have already forgotten the dark days at the end of the 1990s when Oxy seriously considered downsizing and, in fact, worsened the student/faculty ratio to address the problem. We had been running in the red for several years, and our enrollment was weakening. This crisis was more striking and anomalous for a number of reasons. From the 1970s, Oxy’s national reputation had improved and managed to track that of top schools relatively well. Around the time Barack Obama ’83 was here, the early 1980s, we peaked in the US News rankings among liberal arts colleges, in the mid-20s. Oxy’s reputation has gone consistently, if slowly, down since then, while other excellent schools—notably Pomona and USC, who shared the vivacity, diversity, and wealth of Southern California—have gone up.
While my guess is that this is not solely about money, I am afraid that is the preponderant reason. When I was president of the Faculty Council from 1998 to 2000, the most important and extensive self-study of the board—the “Five Year Plan”—showed that Oxy had missed the enormous boom of the 1990s because it had inadequately managed all three of the central aspects of endowment stewardship: the investing, spending, and raising of funds. If I thought this was just spilled milk, I might remain silent. While we are doing better, Oxy has more recently missed an opportunity represented by the growth up to 2007. We were due for a capital campaign to end well before the recession began, but failed to do so for various reasons.
Obviously, the lack of money is only important because of the consequences. These are, I fear, significant. In the last 20 years, Oxy has twice reduced the quality of its “comparison group” of peer institutions. To those who have continued to work hard and successfully in these reduced circumstances, this changing of the ruler when the measurement was unflattering seems an evasion of more critical self-study. However, the epiphenomena of our endowment weakness are not just metric.
Today, Oxy is uncharacteristic in its dependence on contingent labor, who now teach 40 percent of our courses and are paid less in absolute terms, and much less in CPI-adjusted terms, than in the late 1980s. While this is a national trend, we seem to use more underpaid, insecure, and sans-benefits workers than the other schools even in our now-weaker comparison group. Many have noted that Los Angeles has such a great pool of underemployed academics that we can broaden our offerings while lowering our costs. This fails to note that our brilliant temporary colleagues are becoming increasingly embittered in an institution that celebrates equity and fairness while relying on an underclass who serve students for about 10 percent of the tuition they yield. If contingent faculty made widgets, this dissatisfaction might seem inconsequent, but teaching is personal: Education, in part, stems from the generosity and spirit between student and teacher, especially in the small-school liberal arts tradition.
However, the consequences do not remain there. As Oxy stays highly tuition- dependent, it has been forced to grow in number of students, from a low of about 1,550 to 2,100. As the tenure-track numbers have not grown apace, those elements that make liberal arts education worth its very high price—close personal attention, tutorial settings, good advising, letters of recommendation, etc.—are necessarily placed under pressure at the same time they must meet exterior pressures from the ever greater expectation for professional activity. Further, these same increased enrollments mean that Oxy is less selective in admission than it might have been, and so less exclusive and so rated more poorly.
Still, we have done very well indeed with our more limited circumstances. Therefore, Oxy is still an excellent school, but another storm may be coming. California, due to massive growth and the Master Plan in the 1960s, is more subject to the professorial “baby bust” that, while delayed by the recession, seems likely to impact all higher education. This sea change, together with the growing debt associated with obtaining a Ph.D., seems likely to make less tenable a business model that expects the best and brightest to teach the rich for McDonald’s wages without benefits. In “institutional time,” I believe this threat is around the corner. What can we do?
First, I know that the president and those in institutional advancement already understand these needs and threats and are working hard to address them. The above is a narrative of four decades and does not reflect any individual failure but an institutional problem of the largest size. The solution must be collective, and those who read this may be in some position to help.
Oddly, I find myself approaching retirement with a much larger estate than I would have thought possible. While Occidental has never approached me—my undergraduate and graduate schools have—I should be in a position (supine?) at death to leave something substantial. This is not to brag, I hope, but to recognize that the boomer generation has profited greatly from the success of the United States. While Oxy may have gathered in less than it might, if we who love the school will leave a bit of what history has dealt us, we may yet aid this excellent institution to reach even more of its great potential.
Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies
Stickers and Tricksters
Your article “Multiple Personalities” (Winter) led me to my clipboard, which I have used almost daily all these years. I purchased it at the Oxy bookstore in 1949 or 1950 along with a Tiger decal, which I affixed on the back. It’s still there (below), such as it is. But, gosh, it has lasted how many years?
And the article on Remsen Bird (“The Word of Bird”) reminded me of the time as a young teenager when a couple of friends and I trick-or-treated at Dr. Bird’s house one Halloween. I grew up just three houses away from campus on Ridgeview, so the Oxy campus was our territory, particularly during summers. At the time, Dr. Bird lived in the big white house just off Campus Road at Escarpa Drive.
Anyway, someone came to the door, and we yelled “Trick or treat.” Dr. Bird was summoned, and he came to the door and escorted us in through the dining room where his guests had just finished dinner and into the kitchen. He gave instructions that we were to finish off the pie that was leftover from the dinner. We thought that was absolutely the best trick-or-treat we had ever had and went back several years after that to trick-or-treat again, but no one was ever home.
Peggy Lenney ’51
We Asked, You Answered
I just wanted to take a couple of column inches to thank the 1,191 folks among you who responded to the Occidental readership survey sent out in late January. It should come as no surprise that Class Notes is the most popular section of the magazine, but we will continue to do our best to make the rest of the book worthy of your time and attention as well.
On a semi-related note, Occidental won top honors at the CASE District VII Awards of Excellence this spring, with the magazine taking home the gold for periodical staff writing (for a selection of five feature stories that ran in 2012). In addition, Oxy won a second gold for an admission print piece titled Where Stories Begin, and a bronze for the redesigned oxy.edu website, which launched last June.—Dick Anderson, Editor
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