Dartmouth College’s pandemic belt-tightening yields results for its financial health

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 9:56:48 PM
Modified: 7/23/2020 9:56:46 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College finished fiscal year 2020 with an operating loss of about $36 million, well below the $50 million initially projected after on-campus classes and other activities were canceled in the COVID-19 outbreak, college officials said recently.

And while college officials are now projecting a $100 million loss for the fiscal year that started this month, they also said spending reductions — some of them underway — could cut that number in half. But college officials also said they could not rule out job cuts to some Dartmouth staff, potentially starting as early as next month.

In a “community conversation” streamed online on Wednesday, Provost Joseph Helble said a hiring freeze already in place, along with a freeze in salaries and wages and the use of reserve funds, are helping to deal with the looming losses.

“These steps significantly reduced the magnitude of the deficit that needs to be addressed in FY 21, but they don’t completely eliminate it,” Helble said.

Dartmouth has a roughly $1.1 billion operating budget, and division managers across the college are being asked to cut their budgets by an average of about 3.6%, Dartmouth Chief Financial Officer Michael Wagner said via email on Thursday.

Much of that will come from “non-compensation” spending reductions to such expenses as travel, consulting contracts, and materials and supplies. An early-retirement incentive package offered to some workers may also help close the gap, but that is not yet clear, Helble said, and will vary by division.

“In some cases, that will mean simply leaving vacancies unfilled, or permanently eliminating vacancies. In others, there may be personnel adjustments that need to be made,” Helble said of potential layoffs. “It will not be widespread. It will not be pan-institutional.”

Wagner said via email that the various spending reductions could reduce the projected $100 million deficit by about half, and that the rest would be covered in large part by a “revenue stabilization reserve” established during Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon’s tenure using unspent revenue from non-endowment investments.

Dartmouth earlier this month also cut five sports from its varsity roster — including swimming and golf — and permanently closed the money-losing Hanover Country Club, though alumni and supporters are proposing to reopen the club with a nine-hole course and bringing in private donations to build a new clubhouse.

The budget crunch started in late winter with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Dartmouth to cancel in-person classes for its spring and summer terms.

The college is now undertaking a “hybrid” plan where about half of its 4,400 undergraduates will be allowed back on campus for each term, with others taking classes remotely.

The closing of campus to undergraduates this spring cost Dartmouth about $15 million in room-and-board revenue in the fiscal year that just ended, and that shortfall is expected to be about $32 million in the upcoming school year as more students return to campus.

Another $7 million was lost from Dartmouth’s graduate schools, some of it room and board, and other losses came from the closing of the Hanover Inn and loss of athletic and some research revenue.

Dartmouth’s overall $36 million loss in fiscal 2020, however, was less severe than predicted in part because “investment markets improved and remained strong through the end of June,” Helble said.

Wagner said that support for the Dartmouth College Fund, the alumni-supported fund that helps with financial aid and other expenses, also came in “close to expectation for the full year,” softening the expected financial blow.

He said the return on Dartmouth’s endowment, which was last reported at around $5.7 billion, also improved since March but “mostly impacts the operating budget in FY22 and beyond.”

While Dartmouth is allowing undergraduate students to return for two of its four terms for the upcoming school year, they will have to undergo testing for the coronavirus and quarantine for two weeks upon the arrival in Hanover.

Helble on Wednesday said Dartmouth is not bringing more students back to ensure it has “buffering capacity” for on-campus students, including potential isolation and quarantine spaces. And he said the college is remaining “vigilant” and “very attentive to what’s happening nationally” with COVID-19 and is prepared to adjust its plans, if necessary.

“We are continuing to go down the path of planning extensive testing, monitoring, tracing, and quarantine that we believe, given current trends, will enable us to operate as safely as possible in the fall,” Helble said. “But that can’t be a guarantee that things won’t change in the next six weeks.”

As for Dartmouth employees who are concerned about their safety and returning to work, Helble said the college was flexible with faculty who wanted to teach remotely, and would try to do so, where possible, with staff.

“Obviously, we have a challenge,” he said. “There are some functions which are absolutely essential that they be accomplished in person, because of the student-facing nature of what they do. But we want to take those questions on an individual staff member basis.”

News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.

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