On Sunday, Dec. 1, Chief Financial Officer of Vassar College Bob Walton came to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Council meeting to hold a forum with the VSA in attempt to clear up questions about the College’s finances and respond to some of the claims made by the Student Labor Dialogue (SLD). Walton has only been in his position at Vassar for a few months but has already met with several administration and student groups. Before Vassar, Walton worked with the Claremont College Consortium in Southern California. He also has a background in the technology industry and Silicon Valley.
Walton began the forum with an explanation of his job description and the people and organizations he works with. The discussion then turned to Walton’s interactions to the SLD recently. Walton made it clear he was more than willing to meet and converse with the SLD but that if he disagreed with something they demanded, he would say so. He will also allow a small group of students to attend and observe a forum between the administration and employees in order to make these negotiations more transparent to the student body.
Tewa Kpulun ’15 attended the VSA forum and reflected on Walton and the SLD. She wrote in an emailed statement, “I think that he is trying to get to know [SLD] on a personal level which is a good thing, because the college has to work with them. If not a personal relationship, at least a respectful one where both parties know to be respectful to each other.”
Kpulun continued, saying, “Also, it can be a great way for the SLD concerns to be brought up to union leaders. Maybe it’s just me and my optimistic mind, but I believe that Bob can and will stick to his word about helping the SLD.”
Walton finished the discussion about SLD optimistically, hoping to turn down the tension between groups on campus over this issue. The conversation then moved to focus on the financial priorities of the College. Walton explained that for Vassar, financial aid marks the most important priority for the budgeting.
VP for Student Life Danny Dones ‘16 responded positively to Walton’s outlook on the college’s financial priorities. He wrote in an emailed statement, “As a student on financial aid, I do believe that it is the proper first priority because, when it is carried through at more than a surface value, it helps ensure increased access to human capital for more than the wealthy.”
Kpulun echoed this sentiment, speaking to Walton’s priority to financial aid and Vassar’s need blind statues in general. “As much as I’d like to see everyone in all levels receive the maximum benefit from our finances, it is also hard to request that need blind aid should not be 100 [percent],” she said.
She continued, speaking to the value she gives to Vassar’s financial aid offerings. She said, “I was also glad that the college’s top priority is need blind aid, because without that I wouldn’t be here and I think it’s safe to say that the 60 [percent] of students on campus who receive this aid are very grateful for it.”
Walton also compared Vassar’s finances to the financial organizations of many of Vassar’s peer institutions. He made the point that Vassar’s endowment is much smaller than many other liberal arts colleges. Furthermore, Vassar’s commitment to remain need blind puts it in a minority of colleges. Some members of the VSA expressed concerns at the forum for making the College accessible to students with greater financial needs once they have already arrived on campus. Walton acknowledged that challenges still exist for many students and that the College is still working to fix problems in the system. Walton also clarified that since he has only been at Vassar for a few months, he has a lot left that he wants to do.
President of South Commons Rebecca Bauer ’14 gave her reactions to Walton’s discussion of the College’s endowment. Bauer reflected, “He is very committed to remaining need blind and recognizes that, because we have a much smaller endowment than other schools that are need blind, sometimes that means we need to make sacrifices.”
She went on, “I was very appreciative of how dedicated he was and how eager he was to work with and hear from students.”
Walton also expressed a lot of enthusiasm for working with the college’s labor unions. At one point, he retold the story of how he had organized a meeting with one of the unions on campus, the Communication Workers of America (CWA). When the CWA offered to meet with Walton once a semester, Walton suggested meeting once a week.
Dones commented on this willingness to work with the unions on campus, saying, “[Walton] is highly qualified to deal with union issues and he understands that Vassar does not have the same resources as other institutions when it comes to meeting staff’s needs. I believe that he intends to do the best that he can with the limited resources we have and, in this economy, I unfortunately do not feel that it is realistic to meet union demands and fully fund financial aid for students.“
Many students in attendance expressed gratitude for Walton’s enthusiasm for working with students as well as the clarity with which he explained the College’s finances.
As Dones stated, summing up his views of the forum, “Bob was helpful in comparing Vassar’s financial situation with other institutions he has worked with or researched. I do feel that this forum was informative for the VSA and that these forums are excellent opportunities for the general student body to come to address issues and get their questions answered.”
Kpulun echoed this sentiment. She said, “I feel like we, the students, can use this opportunity to learn about the counter arguments, no matter how much we disagree with them. And hopefully, with the information given at this meeting, we can find a way to work on a better form of action where the majority, hopefully everyone, can go home happy at the end of the day.”