By Kari Plog '11
PLU Marketing & Communications
TACOMA, WASH. (Sept. 11, 2017)- Kevin O’Brien, dean of the Division of Humanities, acknowledges that programs in his department could be hit hard when Pacific Lutheran University approves final cutbacks in the coming months. Still, he’s as committed as ever to the institution’s mission.
On the first day of classes Sept. 5, O’Brien was reminded of the impressive students who attend PLU and the faculty members who teach them to ask tough questions, engage in complexity and exhibit great care for others and the world.
“All of that makes me committed to making sure this works out as best it can,” he said.
Several weeks ago the Faculty Joint Committee, which convened late last year to review data and propose cutbacks to programs and faculty positions, released its provisional recommendations. The committee proposed, among other reductions, cutting nine faculty positions across the departments in humanities, including the elimination of the undergraduate classics program.
“I saw evidence that the committee had worked incredibly hard,” O’Brien said, noting that he doesn’t agree with all of the recommendations. “My job as dean of humanities, and as a faculty member who values the liberal arts at PLU, is to fight to make sure classics continues to have a place at PLU.”
Alumnus Ben Dobyns passionately backs that fight.
“Classics is the foundation of our knowledge, our history, our philosophy and how we make sense of the world we live in now,” said Dobyns, who graduated in 2001 and credits his self-directed film major and his overall professional success to the classics at PLU. “Without that foundation, we have no grounding in why the world is the way it is.”
O’Brien and division leaders across the university are now tasked with responding to those preliminary recommendations, part of an ongoing transparent process that is heavily driven by the faculty who are affected.
“PLU has no bad programs,” O’Brien said. “So these cuts aren’t easy to make.”
O’Brien and others say they are impressed and even energized by the innovation, collaboration and creativity exhibited throughout this introspective process, despite the tension and emotion surrounding it.
Acting President Allan Belton acknowledges that it is easy and even understandable to be despondent during this time of uncertainty.
All interested PLU students are invited to participate in forums that will provide information about current enrollment trends at PLU and why the Faculty Joint Committee process was initiated in winter 2016. The events are a partnership between ASPLU, the Faculty Joint Committee, the President’s Office, the Provost’s Office, the Admission and Retention of Students (ARTS) Committee, and the Office for Student Engagement.
The first forum is scheduled on Tuesday, Sept. 12, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in the Regency Room in the Anderson University Center. Speakers include Acting President Allan Belton and Amy Stewart-Mailhiot, chair of the ARTS Committee. Students will have the opportunity to engage with each other and ask questions.
Additional forum dates will be announced as a part of ASPLU’s “Let’s talk about it…” series.
“It’s hard to feel hopeful when you know some will come out of this without a job,” he said. But, he added, he’s confident that PLU will come out of this process stronger and more sustainable. “People have been having thoughtful conversations across departments. The creativity and entrepreneurship has been inspiring.”
Chung-Shing Lee, dean of the School of Business, said PLU has a chance to embrace innovation. He was “surprised and disappointed” with the recommendation to reduce faculty positions by five, including the elimination of two graduate programs: the Master of Science in Finance and the Master of Science in Marketing Research. But he has faith in the system, and he says the School of Business will make a strong case to demonstrate the value of its programs to PLU.
“This is a painful but necessary process,” he said. “It will result in a much more sustainable future.”
Since 2005, PLU’s enrollment has gradually reduced by nearly 600 students. Meanwhile, the number of faculty positions has remained steady. The change in student-faculty ratio was subtle and unintentional, Belton said. Now is the time to address it so the trend doesn’t continue.
“We would love to be all things to all people,” Belton said. “But to continue to be sustainable we have to make these decisions.”
Belton says members of the PLU community can take solace in the “truly unique” emphasis on faculty governance as these tough decisions are evaluated. It would be “completely unacceptable” for administrators such as himself to dictate cuts to faculty members when they don’t fully understand the nuanced intricacies of students’ needs across campus, he said.
Michelle Ceynar, professor of psychology and chair of the faculty, underscored that point.
“The faculty own the curriculum,” she said. “It’s important for us to be involved in what PLU looks like in the future.”
She stressed that the FJC members are under a lot of emotional strain, making tough decisions that directly affect their friends, colleagues and, at times, their own departments and programs. Still, the difficult decisions are necessary, she said.
“Change is inevitable,” she said. “We have to make the changes, but we have control over how we respond to them.”
Ceynar praised faculty members for being gracious during tense times, not allowing the process to tear the community apart. “We’re a big family,” she said. “Ultimately, I think everybody wants what’s best for PLU and its students.”
Ceynar said a key component of the process is offering emotional support for both the faculty members who will stay and those who may depart. Acting Provost Joanna Gregson formed a working group that meets regularly to think of ways to support all people affected by these decisions and the process by which the decisions will be made.
“We’re building a solid social support network,” Ceynar said. “It was one of the first things we discussed when the group was formed this summer.”
Belton said Gregson’s insistence on maintaining that support system embodies PLU’s mission and commitment to care.
From the beginning, even as the committee was being formed, the process has been handled in a “very PLU way,” he said. “These aren’t just positions,” Belton said. “They’re people.”
We’ve received many passionate comments in response to the FJC’s provisional recommendations. Here are some ways alumni can help and have their voices clearly heard:
- Voice support for PLU and faculty. Reach out to the professors who help shaped your life and let them know you support them. Faculty members have hard work ahead as they determine PLU’s curriculum, and there are no easy decisions. Let them know you appreciate the work they do.
- Volunteer. Share your professional expertise with current students and new alumni, engage with the Alumni Board or talk with prospective students about PLU. The world needs more Lutes.
- Financial support. The incredible work by our faculty and students is the direct result of philanthropy. Please consider making a gift in the name of someone who inspired you. You can choose specific schools, departments, teams and programs. (While fundraising to “save a program” will not affect the FJC’s recommendations, an exception might be made if there were enough funds to create an endowed chair in an academic area, which would drastically change how much it costs to deliver that program.) You don’t just give to PLU, you give through PLU.
Cameron Bennett, dean of the School of Arts and Communication, sympathizes with FJC members.
“The joint committee had a really tough task,” Bennett said. “It’s not what they signed up to do as faculty colleagues.”
While he disagrees with the provisional recommendation to cut seven positions in SOAC — including three in the music department and two in communication, among others — he said the mission to maintain first-class curriculum and quality co-curricular experiences for students is paramount. He stressed that many students choose to come to PLU because they can participate in music, theatre, debate or other related programs at a high level without sacrificing their pursuit of other academic interests.
“We’re not going to change being excellent at what we do,” Bennett said of SOAC, stressing that he’s confident the FJC will make informed recommendations with integrity and professionalism. “Our faculty are having important discussions about what we do and how we meet the needs of students now and in the future. It’s healthy to have these discussions.”
Ceynar, the faculty chair, agrees.
“I’m feeling pretty hopeful,” Ceynar said. “We’re going to be smaller, but I think the essence of PLU will stay the same.”
O’Brien said it’s unclear how his department and others are going to respond. After all, he said, “there are traditions that just matter,” no matter what the numbers show. But, he has faith in the process.
“Whatever the joint committee does, every humanities faculty member who works here is going to show up and work really hard to educate students because that’s why we’re here,” he said. “No matter what happens, we’re going to keep showing up, excited to educate PLU students.”
And more simply, the mission of the university is going to remain, Belton said: “We know who we are. We will always be a liberal arts institution.”