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Berea College reshapes its future

BEREA — The main purpose of nine months of Berea College's public soul-searching over the school's future was to produce a blueprint for how to preserve its unique mission while cutting spending amid financial uncertainty.

On Saturday, Berea's board of trustees will vote on a well-debated paragraph laying out the parameters for how to do that.

But throughout the exercise of developing those 65 words — and an additional 10 specific suggestions for changes on campus — the college has rekindled some of the principles that inspired its founding 155 years ago: radicalism, student activism, academic curiosity and idealism.

That hasn't always made for the politest of conversations. But that's OK at Berea.

"You want dissent. You want disagreement," said President Larry D. Shinn. "That's how you learn. You learn most when you don't feel comfortable."

Shinn, who turned 68 last month and is in his 16th year as Berea's president, is at the center of it.

A former co-captain of his Baldwin-Wallace College football team, Shinn can be an intimidating presence with a big personality to match. His leadership style, while firm and decisive, seems to will him to confront every skeptic or critic and explain his views in painstaking detail.

In December, for instance, he led an in-depth presentation about the college's finances to about 140 faculty, staff and students to answer questions and rumors that had swirled across the campus. At issue was Berea's endowment — valued at $1.1 billion before the market tanked — that funds nearly 80 percent of the college's annual budget. Only recently had it begun to climb back over the $900 million mark.

Immediately after the more than hourlong forum, he faced perhaps his toughest audience.

Student Elizabeth Vega, a 43-year-old grandmother majoring in sociology with a social justice minor, approached him to seek permission to address Berea's board of trustees. She wanted to present her petition calling for Shinn to cap administrators' salaries to no more than six times that of the lowest-paid college employee.

Her idea — an offshoot of the broader debate over Berea's future, mission and financial situation — is in line with one of Berea's key principles of plain living, she said.

Shinn disagreed, calling her plan arbitrary and potentially harmful to hiring future campus leaders.

"The question is: How do we put ideals and reality together," Shinn told her, as the auditorium emptied out. "I think we're doing pretty well."

"We could do better," Vega responded.

The dual Bereas

It's that philosophical give-and-take that has defined Berea College, which provides tuition-free liberal arts educations to low-income, academically promising students.

"If that tension doesn't exist, then Berea isn't fulfilling its mission," said Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who will be stepping down from Berea's board of trustees later this year after serving since 1989.

Berea College remains a hybrid of the utopian vision of its founder, John G. Fee, and the cold-hard-cash reality of the modern world. Or, as Berea's vice president for finance, Jeff Amburgey, called it, the balance between capitalism and socialism.

"Berea takes the endowment's capitalistic profits, so to speak, and plows them back into the community, and from a socialism standpoint, providing a benefit to people who couldn't afford to be here," he said. "It's a combination of the two. Without the capitalistic model, Berea wouldn't exist."

And that includes paying people who run the college and teach, he said.

Vega and a small group of students examined Berea's Form 990 tax filings to the IRS and questioned increases in salaries and benefits Shinn and other administrators received. A former journalist, Vega wrote columns to the student newspaper, The Pinnacle, and last fall launched a petition calling for the cap on administrators' salaries relative to the lowest-paid employee.

The 6-to-1 ratio

That debate has been muddied because the IRS's changes to Form 990 reporting meant some of the figures weren't accurate reflections of administrators' actual salaries. In addition Berea will file amended forms to fix a few errors, Amburgey said.

Documents Amburgey provided to the Herald-Leader show that Shinn's 2008 salary was $266,475. His raises, set by the board of trustees, averaged 5.4 percent during the previous three years.

Vega's main point is that such pay is out of proportion with the rest of the college, and that amid a budget crisis, reducing top officials' pay is a place to start. She proposed the 6-to-1 ratio based on a model that the ice cream company Ben and Jerry's tried but ultimately abandoned in the mid-1990s. Shinn has disagreed with the concept. With the lowest-paid campus workers earning about $20,000 a year, Vega's plan would mean Berea College's president would make about $120,000 a year — less than half of the going rate at similar liberal arts colleges.

While Shinn has answered Vega's points — sometimes in responses e-mailed after midnight — he laments that the debate has shifted the campus' focus from the bigger budget picture and other ways to address compensation.

"We got distracted by a sideshow, I would call this, that actually poisoned our community's capacity to have a good conversation about salaries in relation to mission," Shinn said.

Last month, Shinn announced he would take a 12 percent salary cut this year and use the nearly $35,000 annual savings to bump up the hourly wages of the 16 lowest-paid full-time employees. The new minimum wage at Berea will be $10.25 an hour. He had said he would take a pay cut in September — before Vega's petition began.

The lasting lessons

Many on campus say they've been enriched by the salary cap debate.

"My initial reaction was that I felt very proud of her," said Michael Rivage-Seul, Vega's social justice professor who is retiring after being at Berea since 1974. "For a student to take that kind of initiative is admirable. It calls us to task. And that's what Berea is about."

Gray, as a trustee, said he wasn't aware of Vega's request. But he said he wasn't surprised that such discussions were enlivening the campus, especially under Shinn.

"He has allowed the conversation. He does that intentionally and deliberately and almost painfully sometimes," Gray said. "But the results, at the end of the day, is that that dialogue on that issue actually gets vetted."

That's also how it went with the road map for the next few years as Berea continues to trim its budget from $40.5 million to $37.8 million next academic year and to about $36 million after that.

The trustees are expected to approve that road map — called "Scenario D" because it was a compromise approach from three recommendations produced by a task force created last spring. In December, the faculty approved the 65-word directive along with 10 "building blocks" to help the college retool. Those specific pieces include increasing enrollment, changing the academic calendar and reorganizing the academic department structure, the on-campus centers and labor programs.

Shinn said that process, which included countless campus forums and debates, has bolstered Berea's future capacity to be flexible and embrace change in a healthy, deliberate manner.

"It's not comfortable, but I think it's been a very valuable process," he said. "I personally am very proud of our community — very proud."