A panel of seven Presidential Cabinet members joined with Student Senate Co-Presidents Matt Timmons and Dani Cabrera in an open dialogue with Gustavus students on Wednesday, March 19.
The evening began with introductions of the students in attendance. Many students expressed affiliation with Divest Gustavus, Student Senate, and the Center for Servant Leadership, as well as general interest in communication and decision-making on campus.
Sophomore Kaitlyn Reed was among those in the audience.
“As a student, I want to be involved in how decisions are made and the transparency of those decisions, specifically regarding the vocation and integrative learning office, and decisions made to cut vocation when it’s a very foundational part of the Gustavus mission,” Reed said.
The cabinet members present included President Jack Ohle, Vice President of Advancement Tom Young, Provost Mark Braun, Vice President for Finance Ken Westphal, Vice President of Enrollment Tom Crady, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life JoNes VanHecke, and Vice President of Marketing and Communication Tim Kennedy.
Questions were collected anonymously through submitted index cards which Cabrera and Timmons then directed toward the Cabinet.
The floor opened with inquiry about the purpose and function of the Presidential Cabinet. In response, Ohle explained that the group meets weekly, collaboratively responding to campus-wide issues and making administrative decisions.
Several questions involved budgetary issues and the funding of academic departments.
Braun described the involvement of the board of trustees and an internal budget committee in making financial decisions on campus, noting that most academic budgets remain quite similar from year to year. He also noted that student enrollment highly affects staffing and the amount of money needed to serve the demand.
Another student audience member asked where financial information about the college can be accessed, and the Cabinet noted that audits and tax returns are accessible through the finance page on the Gustavus website.
Ohle stated that the primary concern of Gustavus and all private liberal arts colleges is cost. He, and the cabinet, explained efforts to keep costs affordable to students and families, especially in response to financial aid need.
VanHecke added that in addition to financial concerns, the recognition of mental health concerns amongst the student population has also been related to increased pressure and other more complex issues.
Questions about recent decisions relating to faculty positions were also addressed. Braun noted that students are ultimately involved in the decision making process, since enrollment of specific courses is utilized as indication of class and resource demand.
Ohle added that efforts have been made to preserve the positions of those already employed through Gustavus, an estimated 650 individuals.
“We’ve never come to a breaking point because we’ve never had a significant financial problem, but we want to protect the people who are already here for the next five years, for the next ten years,” Ohle said.
The cabinet also responded to questions about hate crimes and tolerance on campus, and VanHecke emphasized the need to work each day, as a community, to respond to such incidents while striving to foster wider understanding.
The final question related to funding of intramural and club sports, Ohle responded that efforts are being made in collaboration with Director of Athletics Tom Brown to respond to student needs.
Following the discussion, Van Hecke reflected on the experience.
“It sounds crazy, but I thought every single question that was asked was a good question and an important question. The fact that it came from a student who took time out of their busy life and busy schedule and was here to ask it means that it’s important, but even beyond that, I thought the things that people were asking were spot on with the kinds of things that we need to be talking about as we move forward,” VanHecke said.
Timmons agreed about the positive nature of the discussion.
“I think we had a well-attended room that allowed for the perfect balance of in-depth questions, in-depth responses, and kind of an intimate atmosphere,” Timmons said.
Ultimately, both the Cabinet and the Student Senate representatives felt that all students were encouraged to share any concerns in an effort to continue productive conversation and development on campus.