JMR Discusses Tuition, Campus Climate, Freedom of Speech in Digital Town Hall

The Gettysburgian's news editor Benjamin Pontz (L) and editor-in-chief Jamie Welch (R) interview Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs (center) on a range of issues facing the campus

The Gettysburgian‘s news editor Benjamin Pontz (L) and editor-in-chief Jamie Welch (R) interview Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs (center) on a range of issues facing the campus

By Benjamin Pontz, News Editor

When Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs agreed to sit down for a half-hour interview to be broadcast live on WZBT and through Facebook Live, she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While the interview, which happened last Thursday, covered some major issues facing the campus community, it also answered some more lighthearted questions including Riggs’ favorite type of Servo cookie (oatmeal raisin) and the origin of her nickname “JMR” (she has no idea).

More serious questions came from three categories — academic/programmatic developments, campus climate concerns, and political issues facing the campus community — and summaries of the exchanges are included below. Full video of the interview is available on The Gettysburgian‘s Facebook page, and segments of the exchanges are embedded below.

Tuition

In light of a recent announcement that the Board of Trustees had approved a 3.5% to the comprehensive fee, which brings it to $65,210 annually, we asked Riggs about the necessity of such an increase, where the money was going, and whether such a tuition increase was just the cost of doing business as a liberal arts college in the 21st century.

She began by noting that she is the one who sends out the letter informing parents, which causes a “knot in [her] stomach” every year as she remembers receiving such letters when her children were in college. In the long term, she suggested that the college’s goal is to bring annual increases in line with the consumer price index (CPI), but that personnel costs — namely benefits — are huge drivers of cost beyond the college’s control.

When changes were proposed last year to the benefits package for employees, it received negative feedback, she explained.

Ultimately, the 3.5% increase in comprehensive fee translates to a 1.2% increase in the operating budget, and, as part of its ongoing sustainable excellence mission, she said, the college is looking “very systematically” at how it spends money. With 70% of students receiving some form of financial aid that amounts to $60 million annually, she added, it softens the blow for many.

Residence Life Staff

A member of the campus community submitted a question that probed the recent decision to eliminate the stipend that resident assistants (RAs) and community advisors (CAs) receive for their work, limiting compensation only to housing credit and dining credit for RAs and housing credit only for CAs. We asked about the potential second and third order effects of this decision, such as the potential need for residence life staff to seek other areas of employment on campus as supplementary income, which may take them away from their residences, and whether the college was concerned about those potential consequences.

Riggs admitted that she was unaware of the change prior to the interview and that she needed more information to be able to make an informed comment. However, she did state, “We want to make sure we’re compensating them appropriately. The students on that staff are absolutely key.”

Sexual Assault

Citing a November report from The Gettysburgian that noted the skyrocketing number of reported sexual assaults and rapes on campus, we asked Riggs to comment on the college’s efforts to combat the problem and whether this was an issue she remembers when she was a student at Gettysburg in the 1970s.

She began by noting how “heartbreaking” it is every time she receives an email that another incident has occurred, and she went on to explain that she suspects the increase in the number of reports reflects an increase in the willingness of students to report rather than an increase in the number of incidents occurring. She pointed to the Green Dot program and campus organizations such as Students Against Sexual Assault as tokens of the college’s aggressive response to the issue.

With respect to the problem when she was a student, she said, “It was an issue, and it was never talked about. When people became aware of a sexual assault, there was a lot of victim blaming.”

Campus Climate & Student Activism

The interview occurred a week after the Student Solidarity Rally and in the same building (Penn Hall) on the steps of which students camped out in the fall to protest an atmosphere of hate and exclusion on campus. We asked about student activism on campus in general as well as what steps the college has taken in response to the student protests that have occurred this year.

Riggs praised student activists for “lifting up the campus consciousness about this issue” (hate and intolerance on campus), and she emphasized the college’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion, noting it is one of the three pillars of the newly-adopted strategic plan.

“Our last strategic plan focused on access, but now we’ve realized that you have to do more than that … I feel like there’s a lot of momentum around this right now — we’ve got a lot of work to do — but people are starting to pay attention to this issue, and that is the first step,” she explained. “We cannot have excellence without diversity and inclusion. It’s that simple.”

Freedom of Speech

In light of protests on college campuses across the country and on the heels of an angry protest that prevented Charles Murray from being able to give a speech at Middlebury College in Vermont, we asked Riggs to clarify Gettysburg’s institutional values with respect to free speech and to comment on whether there were any circumstances under which Gettysburg would prohibit a speaker based on their message.

Riggs emphasized how much gray area exists regarding when free speech becomes hate speech and what the role of the institution should be in regulating such speech; conversations within various campus organizations are ongoing about these issues, she said.

Personally, she said she errs on the side of freedom of expression, but she noted that if something is “clearly hate speech,” it should not be allowed. For example, she stated, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) would not be invited to hold an event on campus. “But then, as you start moving along the spectrum, there are gray areas. These are things we’re going to continue to wrestle with,” she said.

About the Middlebury incident specifically, Riggs, visibly flustered by the reaction of protesters there, said she hoped no speaker would ever be shouted down and prevented from giving his or her speech on the Gettysburg College campus.

“I just find that to be so distressing, and I hope that is never a situation that would occur at Gettysburg College where we would have someone come in, and not give them the courtesy to speak. We can protest those views, but shouting someone down, to me, is not the direction we would ever want to go,” she said.

Replacing Federal Aid for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Students

When The Gettysburgian published an article regarding an email Riggs sent to the college community expressing the institution’s support for students here under the DACA program, which some have speculated President Trump may end, and committing to restoring any lost federal aid, one comment read, “So let me see if I understand. As a single mother fully paying her sons tuition in a straight commission sales job…busting my butt everyday..my tuition is going where??? I’m a nice person. And I don’t blame daca kids. But they need to take loans like the rest of us. This is wrong!” (Quote pasted directly from article)

We asked Riggs to respond.

“The first thing I would say is that no one pays the full price of a Gettysburg education, even those paying the full price that we advertise,” she said. “Every student education is subsidized in some way by gifts and by our endowment. That’s important to recognize. Much of our scholarship support does come from gifts. The fact that we have a strong fundraising campaign supporting endowed scholarship for students, we now have a Gettysburg fund program that directly supports scholarships for students … that all helps. I wouldn’t pick on DACA students; 70% of our students are receiving financial aid. Our number of DACA students is very low, and they are Gettysburgians. We admitted them to Gettysburg because we wanted them to be here. They have the talent. We think we should be providing this opportunity to talented students, not just those who can pay top dollar. We’re committed to that, and that is our institutional philosophy.”

She went on to elaborate that because the number of DACA students at Gettysburg is small and that they receive limited federal aid anyway, it does not represent a large expense to replace that aid should it be lost.

Personal and Anecdotal

We closed the interview by asking Riggs several questions relating to her personal experience at Gettysburg such as what keeps her up at night pertaining to the college, what the biggest change from when she attended as a student to now, the origin of her nickname “JMR,” and her favorite type of Servo cookie. The exchange is below.

Full playlist of the video segments available via YouTube

Editor-in-chief Jamie Welch contributed to this report and was the other interviewer.

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