Willamette University, considered a jewel and an asset to both the city of Salem and the Willamette Valley, is a school known for its outspoken student body. However, the past five years have witnessed discontent among students and faculty that many non-university residents have struggled to understand. It is generally known that President Stephen E. Thorsett narrowly avoided a vote of censure by faculty last spring and that students continued to peacefully protest his leadership as finals began.
As the new school year approaches, indications are that Thorsett can convince students and faculty that he can and will meet the needs of the diverse community population.
During this summer lull, we provide a brief history.
Thorsett inherits Pelton’s significant legacy – and debt
Thorsett succeeded M. Lee Pelton as president in July 2011 and in doing so, inherited a university with serious financial problems. Although Pelton was known for his positive impact on the University’s prestige and student satisfaction, these goods came at a cost; Pelton’s proposals included reducing faculty teaching loads in the college of liberal arts from six courses per year to five, a change that required the hiring of 25 new faculty members to ensure delivery of the curriculum.
New faculty is expensive, and the financial drawbacks to Pelton’s plan set back the school’s fundraising efforts for years. While many presidents might have resorted to aggressive fundraising efforts, Pelton instead paid for the greater expenses with abnormally large dips into the endowment fund. His overreliance on the fund, especially after the onset of the economic crisis of 2008, forced Willamette to reduce its use of endowment resources and put upward pressure on tuition costs.
Pelton himself represented a great financial loss to the University, including, in 2008, earning one of the nation’s highest salaries for a college president, at $798,454.
Thorsett tackles the financials, but new problems crop up
Once in office, Thorsett took aggressive action to address the budget shortfalls, taking numerous steps that have helped Willamette get back in the black. But his doing so came at a cost; in the years following his appointment, faculty and students within the College of Liberal Arts were alarmed by what they perceived to be arbitrary administrative decisions announced with little consultation.
Then, in spring 2016, student and faculty dissatisfaction came to head with a series of protests and calls for the resignation of Thorsett, as well as, Marlene Moore, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
In February, student frustration spilled over when the school announced drastic changes to the Willamette Academy, an adjunct of the University that supports students of historically underrepresented communities. The administration declared that the number of students enrolled in Willamette Academy would be reduced from 225 to just 40, and also said there would be a new requirement that enrolled students also attend Willamette University for college. The university justified the changes by citing evidence that the new model – although serving fewer students – would lead to better outcomes for those who remained.
But objecting students argued that key stakeholders were not asked for input before the drastic changes were implemented. They also protested that an important program was being cut back and would serve fewer students. The twin objections tapped into a long-standing feeling that minority students’ voices weren’t always heard at Willamette.
Faculty involvement in dissent
Faculty, too, expressed frustration over the changes made to the Academy. Professor of Sociology Emily Drew, who has worked closely with Willamette Academy for over a decade, expressed her disappointment in the University’s decision to make drastic cutbacks. “Education holds a value to be shared,” Drew said, and the administration’s changes to Academy programming have “cut and gutted” the educational value that Willamette once offered to the Salem-Keizer community.
Tension between faculty and administration mounted when the President and Board of Trustees announced changes to the ratio of tenure to non-tenure track faculty positions. The changes would cap permanent positions, including “permanent” but non-tenure track as well as tenure track teaching posts, at 80% of total faculty. The remaining 20% would be part-time, non-tenure track professors. Of the 80% in full-time positions, only 133 would be tenure-track – 17 fewer tenure-track positions than Pelton had promised in previous years.
The professors’ anger was, like that of the students, twofold. First, that the decision allowed the university to employ more faculty without offering them the pay, benefits and institutional stability, and second, that the administration made no attempt to seek faculty consultation in making this decision.
History Professor William Smaldone explained faculty dissatisfaction; “The main problem,” he says, “is the administration’s pattern of refusing to consult with those affected by their decisions.”
Student body president resigns
In response to these cumulative administrative decisions and the University’s reluctance to revise them using student input, student Shamir Cervantes resigned from his post as student body president in protest in late April. At the end of Cervantes’s letter of resignation was a statement by professor of history William Duvall that put the blame for low student and faculty morale squarely in the hands of the upper administration. “I believe I have never witnessed, during my entire forty-five years here, such low morale among faculty and certain segments of the student body,” Duvall wrote. “And I believe the responsibility for this state of morale falls squarely in the hands of the upper University administrators who have demonstrated a penchant for making arbitrary decisions about which they have not been honest.”
Cervantes’s letter acted as a springboard to propel other issues into the conversation. The campus paper devoted its feature section to student dissatisfaction over Willamette Academy, the administration’s choices to move the student center for Equity and Empowerment to a new, smaller location on the margins of the campus, the dissolution of the Director of Educational Equity Assurance position held by Cynthia Stinson since 2013; and the sudden suspension of the school’s food production efforts at Zena Farm.
Over 71 faculty in the College of Liberal Arts signed a letter of support for Cervantes. The letter was published in the school paper and cited the author’s resentment over a familiar grievance – the administration’s alterations of campus policies and groups without consulting student, faculty or community stakeholders. They wrote, “Our sincere concerns about the decisions and decision-making processes surrounding Willamette Academy mirror our extensive and longstanding concerns regarding the administration’s actions in relation to many other matters.”
At that point, the faculty met to discuss options. Some pushed for a vote of no confidence in President Thorsett, while a much larger group supported censuring him. While a vote of no confidence would result in the Board of Trustees choosing whether or not to terminate Thorsett, a vote to censure would simply make clear the faculty’s disapproval of his management of the college. Ultimately, at an unofficial meeting, faculty voted against a no confidence statement by 43-42.
Around this time, in early May, Marlene Moore retired. Her decision, which came as the debate to vote for censure unfolded, was regarded as a major event by faculty and students.
Most recently, faculty and a set of student representatives compiled a list of 11 demands to present to Thorsett and the Board of Trustees. Nearly every item stressed the importance of including the opinions of faculty, students, and other stakeholders in the process of crafting changes to the University. The agreement, which passed in a faculty vote 103-6 with the approval of the Board and President, required that president and other upper administrators undergo performance reviews that include students and faculty, and introduced student and faculty representatives into Board of Trustees deliberations, as well as other aspects of shared governance.
In an interview with Salem Weekly, President Thorsett explained that as it moves forward, the University plans to work diligently to engage with student and faculty on University decisions in a variety of ways.
“People in the Willamette community have felt excluded,” he said, “because we have too many students and faculty to get all their opinions on certain changes. We are working to get more diverse views in student and faculty input.”
Thorsett’s agreement contains particularly good news for those concerned about Willamette Academy; all current students will be invited back to the Academy next year.
Willamette Academy is “the one program that everyone on campus agrees is important,” Thorsett said, and the University is committed to finding a solution that meets the needs of stakeholders. He has promised more than $100,000 per year for the next two academic years to the Academy, and Professor Emily Drew, who has worked consistently with the Academy over the last decade, has been appointed Interim Executive Director.
Thorsett has also announced his commitment to send three school-wide emails over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, detailing the progress his administration has made towards accomplishing the goals stated in the agreement. The first of these, sent to the Willamette community on June 21, described the changes the President will be making in some detail. History Professor Seth Cotlar, who sits on the Faculty Council that helped draft the agreement, says that timelines and checkpoints like these emails will be valuable for students and faculty to help renew trust in the administration.
Willamette University’s Latin motto translates to “not unto ourselves alone are we born.” As the school moves into a new year, students, professors, and community members will be eager to see how the school lives up to this vital standard.