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Skidmore College
Office of the President

A memorandum about the athletics facilities project

February 13, 2020

To:          The Skidmore Campus Community
From:     Philip A. Glotzbach, President
Date:      Thursday, 13 February 2020
Re:          The Athletics Facilities Project

As a community, we are at our best when we collaborate, when we talk together, when we listen to one another, and have the benefit of each other’s best thinking in planning and resolving problems.  Over the past sixteen-and-one-half years, I have worked to nurture that spirit of collaboration.  But it is clear that some members of our community do not believe we have achieved this objective in regard to the Athletics Facilities project that has been a topic of discussion.

Before commenting further, I want to express my gratitude to members of the Institutional Policy and Planning Committee (IPPC), to community members who spoke up at last fall’s Open Forum, and to the authors and signers of a mid-December petition addressed to IPPC regarding the Athletic Facilities project.  My assumption is that people have spoken from a place of care and concern, with the intention that we do what is best for the College.  I also understand that there are other people who support our going forward with this project as planned, though they have not made their opinions known so publicly.  The authors of the petition write that they “are not opposed to the construction of new athletics facilities.”  They also state their belief that the project would be improved if the Administration would “take [their] concerns seriously and act on them.”  They, too, say they write “in the spirit of collegiality and look forward to opportunities to collaborate with [the IPPC and the administration] going forward.” 

I and members of the President’s Cabinet have listened to these voices.  As I respond here to what we have heard, I also want to include some additional information and context that might be helpful to people seeking to understand what this discussion is all about.  There is indeed widespread agreement that this Athletics Facilities project is important and needs to be completed.  I strongly believe it is important to the future of the College and that there are good reasons for wanting to do it now without any delay.  Above all, I, too, offer the following remarks in the spirit of collegiality, sincerely hoping we can reframe this as moment of collaboration.

The Athletics facilities project – some history and context

This capital project – Phase I of the Athletics Facilities Master Plan (which is referenced in the Strategic Plan, p. 27) – will provide a new and expanded workout and fitness space for our students and other community members (a space that will not have to be closed at times during the day to make way for fitness activities classes), new lockers for both occasional users and for some varsity teams, and indoor tennis courts for our men’s and women’s tennis teams, an area that can also be used for indoor practice for additional teams and other activities.  In addition, this project will allow for the repurposing of the existing fitness area in the Williamson Sports Center to create a dedicated workout space for our varsity teams.  These renovations also will help to position Williamson for future improvements, when Health and Human Physiological Sciences moves out to the Center for Integrated Sciences (CIS).  In sum, these improvements in our Athletics facilities are very much needed, and they will benefit not only our entire student body (including all varsity athletes) but members of the staff and faculty as well.  Phase II includes plans for an on-campus ice rink.  But funds are not currently available for this project, so there are no plans to move it forward at this time.

This overall project was envisioned in the 2007 Campus Plan, and planning for it has been under way since before 2010 – planning that included considerable input from students (both varsity athletes and non-athletes), Athletics staff, and others.  In 2010, we issued the first request for proposals (RFP) to selected architectural firms for tennis and fitness facilities along with an ice rink.  In 2016, the IPPC and the Board of Trustees examined plans that resulted from that RFP, but those plans were shelved at that time, because there was no evident way to cover the projected cost (nearly $50M).

Last February, believing, first, in the importance of addressing longstanding issues with our Athletic facilities and, second, that the possibility of a lower-cost solution should be investigated, the Board convened an Athletics Working Group with the goal of developing new and more affordable plans.  This work resulted in a revised RFP that was issued to several design/build firms, including cost parameters intended to yield a more affordable design.  Although the Athletics Council was notified of this work last spring, there was a misunderstanding about whether IPPC was also engaged in this work at that time. 

In fact and regrettably, we could have – and should have – done more last spring to inform and involve the IPPC in these discussions.  I take responsibility for not having done so.  This was not an intentional attempt to withhold this information from IPPC.  We simply were paying more attention to other matters, and frankly, I did not believe that the Athletics Working Group would be able to produce results as quickly it did.  Over the summer, the design-build firm we selected came back with the plans we now have shared with the community.  We did bring this work to the attention of IPPC at its first meeting in September, on 9/6/19.  We also informed chairs of all major governance committees at our 9/13/19 Shared Governance Breakfast and brought it back to IPPC, for a fuller discussion, at our 9/20/19 meeting.  IPPC meeting minutes are available on IPPC’s website.

Following the Board’s approval of this project at the October 2019 Board meeting, we described these plans at Community Meetings on 10/29/19 and at an Open Forum on 11/25/19, called for the express purpose of discussing this project.  I had planned to comment further at the November (11/1/19) and then at the December (12/6/19) Faculty Meetings but was unable to do so because the business of those meetings took longer than anticipated and left insufficient time for my remarks.  I shared an earlier version of these comments with the IPPC at the first meeting of the new semester on 1/31/20 and again was prepared to present this report at the February Faculty Meeting (2/7/20), which unfortunately was canceled due to inclement weather.  My point in reviewing this history is to stress that we have made a number of good-faith efforts to bring this project to the attention of the campus community and have been fully prepared to discuss it further.  Again, I acknowledge that we could have done more last spring, but we will provide additional opportunities for discussion in the coming weeks and months, including special opportunities for students.

Funding

The petition raises the question of funding.  As we have reported before – and it is important that this point not be lost in midst of other details – the College received a wonderful $7M gift in the previous Campaign that was restricted to supporting an indoor tennis center, something we have needed for a long time.  We have had these funds in hand since December 2015, and they cannot be used for any other purpose.

The projected cost of the athletics facilities project Phase I – the fitness and tennis center – is $16.2M.  The Creating Our Future Campaign already included a component for athletics programs and facilities.  But we were able to launch the specific fundraising effort for the facilities portion only in the past few months, once the new designs were available.  In addition, we knew that pledges for this effort most likely would stretch across several years (as is common in these cases); i.e., we would not have these funds fully in-hand immediately.  Because of the desire to move this project ahead now, the Board committed to forward-funding it using currently available reserves, which will be replaced over time by fundraising.  This plan is similar to the commitment we made in February 2019, when the Board approved moving forward with all phases of the Center for Integrated Sciences (CIS). 

The Greenberg Child Care Center (GCCC)

It was clear from comments in the IPPC meetings, in the Open Forum, and in the petition that the Greenberg Child Care Center represents an important value for a portion of our community.  The GCCC is one of many benefits available to Skidmore employees.  Like certain other benefits (e.g., tuition remission for dependent children), it is one that is distributed unevenly across a subset of our community, to those who need and can afford it.  At this time of significant budgetary challenges, we have to examine all our benefits carefully to determine which are most important to our community – those to which we collectively assign the highest value – and how they should be funded.  But we have heard the clear message that some members of our community do place a very high value on this benefit for a variety of understandable reasons.

The Phase I Athletic Facilities plans call for keeping the GCCC in its existing location and mitigating any issues that might arise during construction and after.  By contrast, the 2007 Campus Plan calls for the GCCC to be relocated to an undesignated location elsewhere on campus.  The President’s Cabinet is currently working with the IPPC and the GCCC leadership to address the questions regarding the GCCC that have arisen, including the possibility of relocating it, in the near future, to another location on campus.

We do need to understand that the decision either to maintain the GCCC at its present location or to relocate it elsewhere has associated costs.  As noted, we are working now to explore possibilities for moving it and to understand better the cost of that option, but it is likely that such a move would add something in the neighborhood of $1M to this project.  We also need to understand that – because of state regulatory requirements and the fact that GCCC staff are College employees (with full Skidmore benefits, etc.), and even though the GCCC charges “market rate” for its services – the GCCC operates at an annual deficit of approximately $150,000 (which we project to grow to the range of $200,000 in the near term).  Given our current budgetary outlook – whether we move the GCCC or maintain it in its current location – it is likely that we will need to find ways to decrease this deficit, including the possibility of increasing the cost of placing a child in the GCCC.  As we learn more about the various options, we will continue to work with the IPPC and will provide additional updates to the community.

Sustainability

Concerns also have been expressed about the implications of the athletics facilities project for the College’s larger sustainability goals.  As we have reported on multiple occasions, we initially charged the architects to include as many sustainability features as possible in this design, within the constraints of the budget.  But people have asked about the possibility of including additional sustainability features in the final design.  Questions also have been raised regarding the involvement – or lack of involvement – by the Campus Sustainability Subcommittee (CSS) of IPPC in the planning of this project.

We have encountered similar issues on other recent projects, and I believe we arrived at a helpful juncture last fall when we asked the CSS to research policies at other colleges to determine what guidelines they have in place for designing building projects – with the goal of proposing a set of sustainability guidelines and priorities, a Sustainable Building Policy, that would provide more clarity as we design future building projects.  Developing this policy represents a much more strategic approach than asking the CSS to weigh in on every individual project that is being considered.

As we look strategically at Skidmore’s commitment to environmental sustainability, it is essential that we stay focused on one primary question: What represents the best allocation of scarce resources to achieve the greatest gain in campus sustainability – the best return on investment (ROI) – that will move us further toward achieving our overall goals in this area?  These decisions always involve trade-offs – as do all budgetary and capital decisions – and we need to ensure that we are getting the best (sustainability) return for our investments with every choice we make.  Our architects have informed us that the ROI for additional sustainability investments in the Athletics Building – Phase I – (primarily, solar and geo-thermal) would not be attractive.  We are continuing our research into this issue, and we expect to have the results of this further analysis available in the near term (by the end of February).  When this data becomes available we will share it with the CSS and the IPPC.  If we are serious about improving our overall campus sustainability performance, then we need to make data-driven decisions that will chart the best path to achieving our overall goals.

Last fall, colleagues in our Sustainability Office and Facilities Services reported to the IPPC about a large-scale alternative energy project in which the College is considering investing.  This electricity project would result in a significant improvement in our carbon footprint numbers.  If we are able to make this investment, it will represent a major step in advancing our overall sustainability goals.  We are actively exploring this option.  If we can participate, we will significantly move the needle toward further reducing our overall campus carbon footprint.

One more note on the environmental responsibility front:  I am pleased to report that our Investment Committee (IC) has approved a $10M investment in a sustainable / green-fund investment vehicle.  We have reported on this opportunity before, but there was a substantial waiting period until that investment opened to us.  Last fall, it became available, and at its December meeting the IC acted immediately to secure this investment option.

The Larger Context

To understand the urgency behind this project, it is helpful to appreciate the environment in which the College is operating now and into the foreseeable future, something we have talked about quite a lot over the past few years.  One crucial aspect of this context involves Admissions.

The Admissions numbers for the current year are beginning to become clear.  We did well in Early Decision round I, admitting slightly more students (+10%) than last year but with a significantly higher commitment to financial aid ($1.2M = +32%).  We now know that applications for Early Decision II are running somewhat ahead of last year as well.  In addition, we are slightly ahead of last year’s application numbers for international students – though most of these applicants require substantial financial aid, and our financial aid resources for this population are quite limited.  Still, these numbers are positive.

On the other side of the equation, however, we continue to see a high percentage (~75%) of applicants requesting financial aid.  In addition, and for the first time in quite a few years, we have seen a decline in the overall number of applicants – relative to last year.  This will still be the third largest applicant pool in the history of the College, but we are down ~7% from last year.  It is likely that some of our peer institutions are seeing declines as well. 

We are beginning to experience the effects of a demographic shift that has been evident since ~2010: year over year, there are fewer domestic traditional college age students in the U.S. population.  Specifically, in 2010, 18.1M undergraduate students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities; in 2017, that number went down 16.8M.  – about a 7% decrease.[1]  Most importantly, this trend will continue through the next decade, and we will be facing what some are calling a “demographic cliff” in the mid-2020s, at a moment when our comprehensive fee will likely approach $100,000.  As Jill Barshay writes, “Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College …predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”[2]  These missing students are the babies who were not born from 2008 to 2011, during the economic recession.  “The Northeast, where a disproportionate share of the nation’s colleges and universities are located, is expected to be the hardest hit.”[3] Assuming that our comprehensive fee will continue to rise, fewer families will be able to afford to send a child to Skidmore without financial aid, at a time when families and potential students (especially those not requiring financial aid) will have even more choices available to them than they do at present in deciding which college to attend.  There is a brighter side to this story as well: “elite colleges” – i.e., the top 50 – may be less affected than other segments of higher education.[4] So, we need to continue to do all in our power to remain in this perceived group.

The bottom line is that we now are at an inflection point in our history, one marked by a level of challenges that are unlike anything we have faced in the recent past – including the above-referenced recession.  Over the coming years, we will encounter increasingly fierce competition for the students we need to enroll to maintain our financial sustainability – our viability as an institution.  As good stewards of the College, we need to plan now for these coming realities, to position our institution to weather the storms that clearly are on the horizon.  I have spoken and written on numerous occasions over the past few years of the unfavorable budget projections we are facing in both the short term and the long term.  Last year, in the 2018 “Strategic Action Agenda,” I said that we cannot expect to continue “doing business as usual.”  This comment applies with even more force today. 

Specifically, we currently are working to close a projected $6M deficit in the FY 2021 budget, and we are seeing even larger projected deficits in the out-years – driven primarily by the increases in financial aid that have been necessary to enroll the terrific entering classes we have continue to bring to the College.  The deficits also are driven by other costs that have risen over the years relating to salaries and benefits.  These are structural budget issues: i.e., they result from a built-in excess of projected future spending over projected revenues.  We have shared the specifics of these budget projections with the IPPC in previous years and (in even greater detail) throughout the past fall, and that group will shortly announce plans for a process to provide more detailed information to our campus community at large and to seek additional input regarding the decisions we are facing.  We need to understand, as a community, that these budget issues are real – these numbers are neither manufactured nor exaggerated – and we cannot ignore them.

Planning for these future realities requires us to do everything in our power now to continue to increase our appeal to potential future applicants.  This is one reason why it was so important to move forward on construction for the entire CIS project, as we did last year.  It is also important that we are proceeding with the Center project in Case to support our increasingly diverse student body.  I see the Athletics Facilities project in this light as well.  In addition to serving our entire campus community, it will increase our appeal to a broad range of potential applicants – not just to varsity athletes but to students in general (and to their parents) to whom fitness and health are increasingly important values.  The urgency for this project comes, in part, by the fact that our 10-year agreement with the YMCA to use their courts will expire in 2021.  But more importantly, there are very few things we can do that we know will have a direct bearing on our Admissions success.  Making these investments in our athletics facilities now represents our best available option for effecting such changes.

It sounds paradoxical that I am calling for additional investment in our physical plant at a time when we are facing serious budgetary issues.  In the past, I have referred to this situation as “a tale of two Colleges.”  To resolve this dissonance, we need to understand the difference between one-time funds that are available for capital improvements – especially those that come from fund-raising – and continuing budgetary commitments.  The former cannot be used to resolve issues relating to the latter.  We also need to understand that, as we move away from business as usual, we will be exploring other ways to reduce our costs and enhance revenues; in some cases, we will need to be more nimble than in the past, to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities and favorable economic conditions.  By acting now on the planned improvements to our campus facilities, we truly are helping to position Skidmore to be even more competitive in the future than we are at present, looking forward to a time when the competition for students will become ever more intense than it is now.  Complicating this picture is the fact that we are coming to the end of a capital campaign and are in the midst of a presidential transition. We also have additional work that will occupy our attention this semester, including the initiative to be announced shortly by the IPPC, dealing with expected new Title IX regulations, and discussing the data from the HEDS survey completed last fall.  But let me repeat that it is especially important that we do everything in our power now to position the College well for the future.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with the Skidmore campus community – to hearing more from a broad range of voices and perspectives.  Student Affairs already has scheduled opportunities for discussion with students.  In addition to holding several Community Meetings, we soon will announce another all-College Open Forum focused on the Athletics Facilities project.  I encourage everyone who is interested in this topic to attend that event, to learn more about this terrific project, to ask questions, and to offer your comments.

Thank you for your kind attention.

[1] Reported in USA Today (13 October 2019).
[2] “College students predicted to fall by more than 15% after the year 2025,” Jill Barshay, Hechinger Report (10 September 2018), p. 2: https://hechingerreport.org/college-students-predicted-to-fall-by-more-than-15-after-the-year-2025.  See also, “The Looming Higher Ed Enrollment Cliff,” Missy Kline, Higher Ed HR Magazine (Fall 2019): https://www.cupahr.org/issue/feature/higher-ed-enrollment-cliff/.
[3] Barshay, p. 3.
[4]Ibid.

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