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As Dickinson’s vice president for finance & administration, Brontè Burleigh-Jones helps to steer Dickinson safely through the complex challenges posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. A graduate of American University (B.S., finance; MBA), the University of Texas, Austin (Ph.D., higher-ed administration), the Harvard Institute for Higher Education and the Higher Education Resource Services Institute for Women in Higher Education at Wellesley College, Burleigh-Jones oversees all areas of finance and campus operations.
What are the key considerations for financial decision-making during the global COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 is the most significant financial challenge facing the college at this time. Beginning with our response last spring and continuing with our reevaluation of course offerings and campus operations this fall, we have been focused on our response to this unexpected challenge.
In the wake of COVID, our decisions have been guided by three commitments: to protect the health and safety of our community, to ensure the quality of our academic program and to maintain our employee base.
We decided to focus on these values because it was the right thing to do for the college, and because we had the financial strength to do so. For example, when we made the decision to protect the community’s health by going remote for the fall semester, we knew that decision would have financial impacts in lost room and board revenue, and we also knew that we could absorb that cost.
Many higher-ed institutions were not able to offer remote education this semester. How has Dickinson been able to weather the storm?
Dickinson has been able to weather this storm in part because of the operating reserves that we have been building for unexpected challenges such as this. In addition, we have come together as a community to identify a series of operational savings during this period of remote course delivery. These two efforts, coupled with additional fundraising efforts like the Emergency Response Fund, have allowed us to navigate these unexpected financial challenges.
Have any academic programs been cut to meet gaps in funding?
No programs have been eliminated in response to the pandemic. Of course, not every program can operate as usual at the current moment—given the implemented health and safety measures and with a reduced student body on campus—and we asked budget managers across the college to identify savings to assist in our cost reduction efforts for the fall semester.
To be clear: The academic program has not been reduced. Dickinson’s faculty, IT staff and other departments across the college have worked together to deliver a Dickinson education at the highest level through remote instruction.
Is Dickinson using restricted funds for operating costs or to help make up any extra expenses incurred by the pandemic?
No. Dickinson always uses funds in accordance with donors’ stated intentions.
The college created an Emergency Response Fund in response to the pandemic, which was intended to help students and relieve some of the college’s operating costs. We are very grateful that Dickinsonians were and are very generous in their support of this fund. That support is critical to the college’s successes now and in the future.
Can you explain the financial decision-making process?
The All-College Planning & Budget Committee (P&B), which meets weekly when the college is in session, is the body within the shared governance system that participates in the institution’s financial decision-making. Membership includes faculty, senior officers, staff and students. The committee appoints subcommittees to perform more detailed work as needed.
P&B’s task is to make recommendations on financial matters to the president. If accepted, the president forwards them to the Board of Trustees for final review and approval. Part of P&B’s planning efforts have been focused on contingency and multiyear budgeting, which has proven extremely beneficial during this challenge. The committee had already identified a series of funding sources and actions for unexpected budget challenges. We have been forward-thinking in our budget planning, and this has served the college well. It’s also important to note that Dickinson carefully worked through a variety of reopening scenarios last spring and summer so that the college could respond quickly in the face of fast-changing conditions. When we made the decision in mid-July to go remote for fall 2020, giving students and faculty time to prepare and avoiding midsemester disruption, we were one of the first higher-ed institutions to do so. We gave students and their families time to plan and faculty time to develop a highly individualized remote curriculum that’s tailored to our useful liberal-arts curriculum
You mentioned that Dickinson is forward-thinking in its budget planning. Aside from planning for emergencies by building reserves, can you give examples of forward-working budgeting?
Our financial decisions are always informed by the college’s mission and strategic priorities, including the college’s focus on remaining competitive and innovative to meet the critical educational needs of the 21st century. And despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Dickinson remains future-focused and innovative during this time of crisis. We are moving forward with ideas that will help us to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students. We have expanded our global programs to include Arctic studies, an area crucial for environmental and international-relations research. We are drawing on our strength as a global and sustainability education leader to create a new master’s program in managing complex disasters. Through generous donor support and forward-thinking planning, we have been able to provide more resources for student financial aid and are working to make sure this world-class liberal-arts education is available to the best and brightest candidates.
Dickinson celebrated an A+ bond rating last year. What is our current rating?
Dickinson continues to hold an A+ bond rating, with a stable outlook.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
In addition to thanking the loyal Dickinsonians who have supported the Emergency Response Fund and other college priorities, I’d like to thank the members of our extremely talented financial operations team, who work hard every day to safeguard the college’s financial health now and in the future. Our team is routinely acknowledged by our external auditors as perhaps one of the strongest teams that they have the pleasure of working with across the higher education sector.
Published October 1, 2020