Focus on the Presidency: Harambee, an Alternative for College Leaders

By Roger Hull    //    Volume 28,  Number 6   //    November/December 2020

While hitchhiking in East Africa many years ago, I came across the Swahili word harambee, which, in English, translates as “all pull together.” It is a word that stuck with me and is of particular relevance to colleges today.

Colleges have long claimed to be special. Sometimes referred to as “caring communities,” sometimes labeled “families,” colleges were thought to be very different from their for-profit counterparts. Sure, squabbles existed among college members, but at the end of the day, they stuck together for their benefit and that of the college.

Following COVID-related decisions, colleges will be hard-pressed to make that claim. Furloughs and terminations have exposed colleges’ hypocrisy. As for community and family, those words are now simply rhetoric.

For the 24 years I led two first-rate liberal arts colleges, the concept of harambee, of all pulling together, was my guiding principle. While COVID-19 has drastically changed the education landscape, the concept is as relevant today as it was in 1981, when I began my presidential journey.

COVID-19 has forced colleges to rethink how they do things. By laying off staff, though, the concept of everyone working together, of harambee, has been shattered.

It didn’t have to be this way.

For those with significant endowments, an increased draw could have kept faculty and staff in place. For those with small (or no) endowments, salary reductions for all could have, too. (I suspect most of those who kept their positions would have preferred salary reductions to layoffs of friends and colleagues.)

In 1981, I began my presidency at a college whose endowment was $8 million (roughly $24 million in today’s dollars), $5 million of which was pledged to banks. Of the remaining $3 million, all was donor-restricted, thereby leaving us with neither liquid endowment nor financial flexibility.

The easy thing would have been to cut faculty and staff. We didn’t. Despite the financial challenges we faced, no one was either furloughed or terminated.

We all pulled together. Importantly, we never balanced our books on the backs of those working at the college.

When I accepted another  presidency, the concept of harambee moved with me. It was by then well-ingrained in my approach to leading a college.

It wasn’t always easy. For instance, during the meltdown two decades ago, a trustee, who had laid off nearly half his employees, asked me how many people I was going to “pink slip.” I said none, and no one was laid off.

Let’s be clear: I recognize COVID-19 has changed everything. But with many college endowments clearly in a position to absorb the deficits caused by the pandemic, I am amazed more people aren’t questioning the endowment’s proper use. After all, if unrestricted funds in an endowment are, as I believe, a rainy-day fund on which to draw during an emergency, why isn’t the endowment being tapped during the deluge that is engulfing us?

While my first college’s endowment was pledged to banks or donor-restricted, my second institution was better off financially, with an endowment of $90 million when I arrived and $300 million when I left. Much of the growth came from adding unrestricted bequests and budget surpluses to the endowment each year, so there were liquid funds available to keep people in place during COVID-19.

Of course, another approach would have been to reduce salaries for the pandemic’s duration. If, for example, presidents had slashed their own salaries by 25 percent, cut salaries for vice presidents and deans by 15 percent, and reduced salaries by 10 percent for faculty and staff earning more than a specified amount, presidents might well have avoided layoffs.

If either or both approaches had been taken, colleges would have lived up to  their self-proclaimed distinctiveness. Now, though, it will be difficult to say with a straight face how special the college is and how different it is from other places of employ.

Unfortunately, that claim has now been shown to be nothing more than hyperbole. Nevertheless, if COVID-19 comes back with a second wave, leadership needs to rethink how members of the college can be protected.

Rather than thinning the ranks of those working to improve the college as a for-profit corporation might do, colleges should, for the duration of the pandemic, increase the draw on their endowment or reduce salaries (or both). If people are doing the jobs they were hired to do, they shouldn’t be made casualties of COVID- 19, so long as there are viable financial alternatives.

Naïve? Maybe. Contrarian? Definitely. Still, all pulling together, harambee, can work for the benefit of all—and it should.

Roger H. Hull, SJD, is the former president of Beloit College (1981– 1990) and Union College (1990–2005). 

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