An Open Letter to President Kiss and the Agnes Scott Board of Trustees regarding recent layoffs
June 20, 2017
Dear President Kiss and Board of Trustees,
We are writing to you to express our extreme frustration and disappointment with Agnes Scott’s recent decision to lay off four employees.
We are troubled by this news for the following reasons: ongoing doubts surrounding College financial planning efforts; patterns of communication with students and alumnae regarding current issues and College internal affairs; and — most importantly — retention and treatment of women of color staff and faculty.
Since we matriculated at Agnes Scott in 2005 and 2006, the College has seemed to be under semi-constant financial stress. We recall attending informational sessions as students after the financial crisis of 2008 and listening to the College’s long-term plan for financial stability: at that time, measures taken included a hiring freeze, early retirements, and cuts to departments, among other things. These measures were taken in order to stabilize College finances within a set period of time. As students, we were acutely aware of the difficulty administrators faced in deciding to implement these measures, as well as the blow they dealt to morale among members of the College community. We hoped these difficult measures would result in long-term stability for the College.
In the years since we graduated, we have not seen that stability emerge. Over the past eight years, we have had frequent conversations with a wide variety of folks in our College community that leave us feeling uneasy about the College’s long-term financial health. We hear that “enrollment still isn’t what it needs to be,” “our credit rating was downgraded and it’s very bad publicity,” and “the college is in financial distress.” We understand why the College would be hesitant to publicly broadcast this information, but we are also left with the negative impression of a lack of transparency when the College does not address such concerns at all in communication to alumnae.
Since we matriculated in 2005 and 2006, we have seen the College implement a variety of initiatives designed to result in positive publicity and enrollment boosts. These initiatives include Engaging A Wider World, various sustainability initiatives, various academic initiatives (particularly around STEM fields), and most recently, SUMMIT. As individuals who currently work in higher education, we certainly understand the need to keep the College’s vision fresh for successive generations of prospective students, and we have wholeheartedly supported these initiatives.
However, we are troubled that none of these initiatives seem to have reaped the financial benefits they were partially designed to secure. We are troubled that the latest round of layoffs is rumored to be attributed to the College’s financial distress. As a Fund Chair in her second consecutive term (Esther) and an Alumnae Mentor to current students (Nicole), we collectively question whether we are reflecting an honest assessment of the success of SUMMIT and our College’s financial situation to our fellow alumnae.
Furthermore, we are disheartened by the ways in which the College communicates with alumnae about major campus issues and current internal affairs. As mentioned above, we are left feeling uneasy that we have learned about various instances of financial distress through unofficial channels. This is not an isolated instance: over the years, we have learned of concerning accusations of police brutality (Lt. Guy Antinozzi), sexual harassment (the emails sent out in conjunction with this year’s commencement ceremony), and the recent round of layoffs via social media. Again, we understand that the College has certain legal obligations around privacy and cannot address every concern raised by students and alumnae in a public forum. However, we would appreciate more timely, direct communication from administrators in these instances, especially when College internal affairs go viral on social media.
Finally, and most importantly, we are collectively troubled by more than a decade of observations of how Agnes Scott as an institution treats women of color faculty and staff.
We are distressed to have learned via social media that half of the recently terminated employees are women of color. This would be a disturbing enough revelation on its own, but is worsened due to its resonance with our own observations and stories we have heard from women of color faculty and staff over the past decade.
We cherish Agnes Scott College. We would not be the people we are today without Agnes Scott. It is with deep love and gratitude that we affirm that women of color are the backbone and foundation of our institution, though the institution and many alumnae do not always acknowledge this. We learned to think critically, write well, and question our own positionality because of the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor of women of color staff and faculty at Agnes Scott. It was women of color at Agnes Scott who first taught us about social justice, feminism, and intercultural communication — areas of study that we have both gone on to build our life work around. It was women of color at Agnes Scott who cooked our meals and cleaned the buildings where we lived and studied, though they were not paid a living wage to do so while we were there. It was women of color who constantly pushed back against expressions of injustice at an institution that claims to value social justice and women of color who consistently created safe spaces for marginalized students.
Our institution is what it is because of the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor of women of color. And yet, time and time again, we have watched Agnes Scott systematically devalue the women of color who make the institution what it is. From 2007–2010, we observed faculty in the Asian Studies Program compile detailed annual reports to save Japanese and Chinese language programs at the College — the Japanese program was, at that time, the third-highest enrolled at the College, behind Spanish and French. Yet every year, the value of the labor of the women of color teaching those classes was questioned and threatened with defunding. This is only one example of the institutional barriers faced by women of color we witnessed as students; we could give many more examples of such institutional barriers, as well as instances in which we observed the institution valuing white Eurocentric academic inquiry over academic inquiry focused on people of color.
As students and alumnae, we have heard too many stories of white faculty and staff misnaming women of color; questioning their qualifications; undercutting their research; questioning the value of the academic and social labor these women bring to the College; and consistently committing a wide variety of microaggressions. We have seen the physical toll this takes on women of color staff and faculty. We have seen white faculty and staff consistently dismiss these concerns when women of color raise them. Too often, we have seen Agnes Scott as an institution name its commitment to social justice while it ignores the very real institutional barriers faced by women of color employees. In our observation, Agnes Scott is often not the safe space it claims to be for women of color: it is rather a place they must survive.
We are deeply grateful for the education we claimed* at Agnes Scott College. (*see: Claiming An Education by Adrienne Rich, a reading which changed Esther’s life and which was originally assigned to her in 2007 by a woman of color the College just laid off.) We cherish Agnes Scott and intend to do our part to ensure that the College thrives throughout our lifetimes.
It is with this spirit that we implore you to reverse these layoffs and/or downsizing of divisions. The women of color whose jobs were eliminated provide life experience, knowledge, and space that our College desperately needs. They provide emotional and intellectual support to students — if there is any doubt on this point, one has only to take a look on facebook to see the grief and sense of loss being expressed by current students.
According to the 2016–2017 Common Data Set, Agnes Scott employes 113 full-time and part-time faculty; of those faculty, 76 are women, and 25 are members of minority groups. This data indicates that only 22% of full -time and part-time faculty identify as members of minority groups; the data does not specify how many of the 25 faculty who identify as members of minority groups are women of color. We know that Agnes Scott can improve this ratio. We realize that some academic departments have recently hired women of color as tenure-track faculty, and we are heartened to see movement on this front. In the meantime, every loss of a woman of color faculty or staffmember is an enormous loss for our community, particularly for students of color.
We therefore ask that the College work quickly to reverse this decision. We implore the College develop a series of institutional mechanisms to hire, retain, and affirm women of color staff and faculty.
We ask that the College transparently address its financial situation to alumnae. We ask that the College work to be better prepared to swiftly to communicate with alumnae about internal affairs, especially in this age of social media, where information is spread quickly among alumnae.
In conclusion, we must ask: why were these particular staff members laid off? Does the College intend to re-hire any staff members that have not yet found another position as soon as funds become available? If not, why?
Esther Wallace ‘10
Fund Chair, Class of 2010
Fulbright Taiwan Alum, 2011–2012
Lettie Pate Evans Scholar 2007–2010
Student Assistant to the Asian Studies Program, ASC Asian Studies Program
Nicole Meanor ’09, M.S.Ed.
JET Program Alum, 2009–2012
Agnes Scott Japanese Culture Committee President, 2006–2009
Student Liaison for Events, ASC Asian Studies Program, 2009
Leila Nicole Chreiteh, Class of 2017
Rachael Scott, Class of 2016
Kayla Miller, Class of 2011