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BSG holds faculty and program cuts open forum

A BSG hosted event allowed the University President, Provost and the Vice President of Student Experience to answer student’s questions about the recent cuts.

Wednesday, Oct. 19, evening in the Underground held a small crowd of Bethel students eager to ask questions to President Ross Allen, Provost Robin Rylaarsdam and Vice President of Student Experience Miranda Powers about the program and faculty cuts which were released on Oct. 10 and 12. 

Following a Student Senate Statement released by BSG on Oct. 10 addressing the “effects these [faculty and program cut decisions have] on the student body” and how “the Student Senate, along with the majority of Bethel students, feel that the information being released… is inadequate,” BSG members worked to facilitate an informational forum for students. 

Students in attendance were encouraged to enter questions via an online Q & A submission forum that they wished Allen, Rylaarsdam and Powers would answer. The submission forum was monitored by Jenna Holst, Director of Student Activities and Campus Engagement in Student Life, and Laura Charlotte Underwood, Executive Chair of Student Senate, then the approved questions were sent to Student Body President, Blake Birno, and Student Body Vice President, Katie Storlie, who acted as hosts on the panel. 

Student Body Vice President, Katie Storlie, and Student Body President, Blake Birno, hosted the Open Forum Q & A as student’s questions were submitted then addressed to the panel. | Photo by Mild Du.

“We feel that students are feeling a little bit on the wayside in terms of the way they’ve been communicated with,” Storlie said. “We wanted to make sure that students had an opportunity to hear the thoughts and experiences that went into the decisions of [faculty and program cuts].” 

Birno echoed Storlie’s statement saying that BSG’s “number one job is to be the voice of the students” and that “sometimes the best way to be that voice is to provide a medium in which students can be their own voice rather than myself sitting in an office with [Allen], then having to explain to 1,775 students what he said.” 

After Allen opened the night in prayer, the three administrators started the panel discussion with a brief explanation of how and why they made the decision to cut certain programs and faculty. Storlie read the monitored questions out loud to the panel and allowed them to answer during the hour and a half time period. The panel of Allen, Rylaarsdam and Powers addressed the following questions:

How can Bethel claim to value diversity, equity and inclusion when half of the majors involving DEI have been discontinued? Similarly, why were the majority of the cuts to the faculty of color and to diversity based departments? 

RR: “I’m not sure that’s an accurate statement. The number of faculty who receive notice are across the university in all divisions. But the other part of the question is how can we say we’re committed to DEI if we’re no longer going to offer majors like reconciliation studies, teaching English as a foreign language and teaching English as a second language? I want to be very clear that students who want to learn foreign language will be able to keep foreign language as their major or minor. The three educations of Spanish Education, TESL and TEFL were discontinued because there were so few students majoring in those programs. We saw that same instance with Reconciliation Studies, there’s just very few students majoring or minoring in that area. Our commitment to diversity goes far beyond a curriculum that we teach in a classroom and as a university we want students to be engaging with different cultures and people who come from different backgrounds — which we know happens in certain courses. Some courses within the reconciliation studies program will continue to be offered for students who care very deeply about it. And a part of your general education is dedicated to taking courses that give you a global perspective or perspective of others, so every student still has that opportunity.” 

Will Bethel continue to consider itself a Liberal Arts College with downsizing and cutting the discipline’s core to Liberal Arts? 

RR: “We are continuing our Spanish major and there are other areas that we are revising. We are revising the philosophy major so that we can continue to offer that. But the reason that we consider ourselves a liberal arts college is because every single one of you, whether you are majoring in philosophy, history, English or any of the classic liberal arts disciplines, or whether you’re majoring in business, nursing, engineering or education, all of you are getting a liberal arts education as the core of the general education. You are learning to think about the whole breadth of God’s great world in many different ways that we humans have learned to enhance that experience.”

Is there a reason why the Christian Formation and Church Relations staff who were cut were made to leave their position so quickly rather than finishing up the semester or year?

MP: “We can’t comment on specific people or positions, but I will say that staff [at Bethel] are at-will employees meaning that, unlike faculty who have to be notified by a certain date, in other areas like Advancement, Christian Formation, IT, Marketing or the President’s Cabinet, those are staff employees who are at will. In a business setting it’s really common for people to be done the same day, and that is certainly not a great thing all the time, but we would often never want to reduce employees in the middle of the school year; we acknowledge that that is difficult. But sometimes the timing of these things is not what we would choose and it sort of is what it is. I think I just want to acknowledge that it’s all very hard and difficult.”

RA: “Our primary focus on this certainly was the student experience, but there’s also the reality of the human that is being affected and how we treat them with the utmost respect. My view is that we let the person know as soon as we decide. There is no perfect way to do this. We balanced on the fact that we decided and we’re going to let them know as soon as we can — I think that’s fair.”

In this time in which students and faculty are being asked to make sacrifices, what sacrifices is the leadership team making?

RA: “What we are not asking us all to do is to not work harder and stretch ourselves. I think we need to balance our work and recognize what we can and cannot do. So what are we doing? We’re looking at things that we’ve been doing in the past and were valuable, but frankly going from 2,800 students to 1,800 students, we need to do things less than what we have been doing. We don’t have the resources of 2,800 students paying tuition, we need to adjust what we do. We’re not saying we need people to work more hours, but we need to figure out how to stop doing things. We are in the process of evaluating and assessing how we go about the next step.”

One of Bethel’s core values is being reconcilers, how will we continue to support those values while cutting the reconciliation department? 

MP: “Dr. Rylaarsdam repurposed a faculty position this year to get all of our faculty trained. Dr. Sara Shady is working on a three-year training cycle with all of our faculty on inclusive excellence. Dr. Rahn Franklin is also working on all things inclusive excellence happening at the Cabinet and Board level and also across faculty training — we are making that effort for students. So this is a priority and it’s also a priority in action that you will be seeing here shortly.” 

RR: “Part of our continued collaboration with the Office of Inclusive Excellence is that we have added what we call ‘search advocates’ to every search for every faculty member. This year we hired 16 new faculty across the University and 47% of them were people of color. So we are doing things deliberately to make sure that we have candidate pools that are diverse, that we are putting our job ads out in front of people who might not have heard of Bethel or considered Bethel in the past. [Powers] mentioned how Dr. Shady is working with every single department in a  three-year cycle that ensures the curriculum is what it should be and what it can be.”

Why is Bethel able to receive donor money for a new track but not able to prevent cuts such as the ones we are experiencing? Is there anything that can be done to change or prevent these differences in donations? 

RA: “We have operated for [several] years in a position where we have spent more than we have taken in. And I think we have been fairly public about that and have acknowledged that we’ve been spending 2 to 5 million dollars more than your tuition or donation dollars. To go to a donor and say, ‘I’m not able to balance my checkbook, I’m spending more than I’m taking in,’ is pretty tough to say. To go to a donor and say I want to put in a new science building because it’s going to be a transformational experience for our students, or a new track that will attract students and give them a significant experience, that’s different than saying, ‘Hey, we’re not able to balance our budget.’  With the track, those donors are usually alumni who had a great experience and want to provide that for the next generation and have a lasting impact for people. 

Were faculty and staff cuts truly a last resort? What other alternatives were examined prior to making these decisions?

RA: “I will say that we did cut disproportionately to other functions: IT, Facilities Management, and other support functions. They definitely got a more significant cut than the faculty. So was it disproportionate? Yes. But to say that faculty are more important than paying the payroll or having a Banner Center or Moodle site is unfair.”

RR: “I want to finish his sentence to say that [we were] disproportionate in protecting faculty lives. Last resort is a hard phrase to use, and a part of the reason why faculty reductions were announced right now is because faculty hiring is seasonal. If we told them in May that they wouldn’t have a job in August, they would be unemployed and unemployable for the next year so we absolutely, ethically and by contract, needed to tell faculty earlier than staff. We have worked really hard to cut dollars that weren’t associated with any positions in academic affairs and then saw that the people, the faculty, were cut last.”

Bethel University Provost Robin Rylaarsdam, Vice President of Student Experience Miranda Powers and President Ross Allen answer questions about the program and faculty cuts on an Open Forum Q & A panel hosted by BSG on Oct. 19 in the Underground. | Photo by Mild Du.

Why were announcements made around faculty and department cuts but not around staff cuts such as those in the Christian Formations office?

MP: “[Dr. Rylaarsdam and I] actually sent a joint email around those. But sometimes with staff there are various notification processes and it’s really difficult when reducing staff to honor those people, if you have permission to share things, whether or not to do one thing or another. It’s a difficult question and a difficult process.”

RR: “In terms of the program closures — and I really want to emphasize that if you were in any of those majors, you will be able to finish your major at Bethel. We are just stopping new students from entering those programs. Our creditor, which allows [students] to have Federal Financial Aid, has rules for how we do those notifications. So that’s why for program closures in academic affairs for major discontinuations, you got a very specific email from me or if you’re in those majors you’re going to be getting some specific emails from Dr. Barrett Fisher about your academic plan.”

Regarding the Spanish department, how can we get a quality education with only one professor?

RR: “That’s a tough question. But I would first say that you are going to have more than one faculty member because the remaining faculty cannot teach all of the classes that’s required. But yes, when you have very small numbers, you’re going to rely on a couple full-time faculty members and a few part-time faculty members to finish that entire curriculum. When you have those smaller majors, you just inherently have fewer faculty to teach.” 

Professors seem to be experiencing a pay cut by having to increase their required course load while not increasing their pay. Are there other employees receiving proportional pay cuts? 

RA: “I think this goes to the point of needing to restructure in some way, and we haven’t solved that yet. And just to be clear: we need to acknowledge the fact that our system is complicated, it’s not equitable and we need to look at it. We need to do that in a way that proves the work environment and equity. But yes, we’re stretching everybody and as [Powers] indicated, we eliminated staff in other areas and that means that work has to be spread to somebody else. The solution is not that everybody works harder, but that we look at and evaluate what it is we can stop doing.”

How does reducing the number of staff in the BUILD program, already small, benefit students who bring such unique diversity to Bethel University? 

RA: “BUILD is a fantastic program that obviously brings a unique diversity to this place, but if you look at our various staffing ratios and the infrastructure we put into that, it’s disproportional. We need to assess that and reevaluate that. BUILD is not an exception. When we go to IT and say, ‘We need to figure out how to do this with less people,’ we’re [also] going to BUILD and other departments to evaluate and look at what we are doing that we could be doing more effectively and efficiently. I’m not sure why this area is called out, but not others, because we’re looking at them all.”

Layoffs are short term solutions to budget problems, what are some discussions being had around long term plans for Bethel’s spending issues?

RA: “I am convinced God is a God that wants us to grow the kingdom, to spread the gospel and [Bethel] is a place that does that really well. We are aggressively looking at various partnerships with Christian high schools. We are also aggressively expanding our PSEO options, and that’s to say that we want to offer this experience for students, maybe for some who aren’t believers yet. In addition to all the other efforts, we need to be clear about who we are, who Bethel is, why it’s special. We need to get clear about that and be able to have that message clear on our website and message with others. This doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to look at every area we have — it’s a dynamic, fluid environment where we will continue to evaluate what’s the infrastructure, what’s the resources and what’s the investments in these areas. We can’t guarantee that we won’t have a season like this [again], but we do want to be in a place where we have an ongoing process that is very methodical and thorough so we can analyze each program.”

How will Bethel continue to teach students to be reconcilers? Hiring people of color does not seem to be sufficient for this goal.

RR: “I think that one of the things that I most look forward to about the work of Dr. Shady is asking faculty in every department and discipline to think about what shalom looks like. But also, I don’t think that reconciliation is something you learn in your head, it’s something that is a relational doing, not just a reading about it and talking about it. I think that community-engaged learning, and a lot of the work through the student experience that gives them the opportunity to serve and learn will be keys to [reconciliation] work. One thing that excites me is how collaborative Dr. Franklin is and how he really wants to pull everybody in and engage everyone – it’s an encouragement to us all that reconciliation will be a multi-faceted approach.”

MP: “The other thing I will say in terms of students of color and diversity in general is that as we think about diversity, it’s not just one area. Our Cabinet is engaged in listening with a number of students who would say, ‘I feel marginalized here. People aren’t like me,’ and that’s been a part of our learning together. It’s opened our eyes and we are always trying hard to understand what students are experiencing.”

How do you justify the lack of quality food in the Dining Center? It’s extremely difficult to have a well-rounded and nutritious meal despite the cost?

MP: “First of all, there is always a salad bar option — and I feel like that’s pretty good because it has protein and other [food] groups there. But we are all in the DC regularly and we are monitoring that and working with Sodexo closely to figure out healthy options, how to keep lines open and how to provide consistency. I would encourage you to keep filling out the comment cards and — I don’t want 100 emails about this — if there’s a specific issue, you can always email me. Just know that we see you, we’re monitoring it and we know how you feel about these things.”

RA: “As a fellow diner in [the DC], it’s not worth keeping, we know that. Powers is working hard to fix that, and I know it needs to get better.”

Did [Bethel] ask anyone to take a pay cut?

RA: “No, we did not and are not asking anyone to take a pay cut. You may be being told that, but we are not asking that of anyone. With faculty, we’re advising the workload and the activities and not asking for a pay cut. We need to get in a more financially healthy position and need to quit operating at a deficit. We’ve also been through a period of time where we’ve not given raises, but we need to change that by reevaluating the work and restructuring it so we can afford to give raises.”

Is it possible that the lack of interest in diverse majors falls on admissions failing to diversify the student body?

MP: “I would say that that is always a possibility, but I don’t know. Our enrollment strategy is taking into account speaking different languages, communicating in ways that all families can engage, so I would say that I don’t think that is the case. I also think that the pandemic has shifted how people look at jobs because they look at a degree and think if I get that degree, I’ll get this job.”

RR: “I think this question also assumes that your ethnic background determines what interest you have in a job but I don’t think that’s a true statement, either. You need people from all walks of life in all types of jobs because it makes our workforce and our churches better.”

RA: “I also want to address the question of the diversity of our student body: we are actively working on that. [Oct. 18] we had an event for the Karen population. We have a relationship with them, we’ve been partnering with them for a while and we’ve created a scholarship for them that was announced last night. So we acknowledge and recognize that we need to do that, and the good news is that 20% of our CAS population are people of color, prior to this year — and it’s a step. We’re making efforts and making actions and it’s clearly an area of improvement but we’re focused on that.”

As a Christian University, where is the line for standing up for what is right versus balancing a budget?

RA: “I’m not sure what you meant by doing what’s right. Does doing what’s right mean we’re going to offer a major that maybe only one person enrolls in? And then does that mean that the rest of us are going to be paying for no one to be enrolled in that? What’s in scripture doesn’t say whether or not to offer these programs. We have evolved and adapted to how we meet the needs of the community, we can’t dictate what you choose to take as a major or what your interests are. And we advertise in the areas that we see interest, we can tell what you’re all looking for. If there are students asking about nursing, we’re going to make sure they know about our nursing program. If they’re not asking about athletic training or something else, we’re not going to advertise that. So is it one thing or another? Yes, it’s both. With TESL/TEFL, it breaks my heart because I would love to have more [students] go out and teach a second language, that’s a great thing, but if you’re not expressing interest in that, I don’t think it’s prudent for us to say that we’re going to choose those. But we’re still offering a liberal arts education because that we know is what’s going to prepare you to go out and have a mind that can influence society whether you’re a doctor, a nurse, an accountant or more.” 

In the final moments of the night, Storlie allowed an open mic style round of questions which allowed students in attendance to break anonymity and ask questions directly to the panel. Sophomore Spanish and Political Science major, Allison Magnuson, tearfully approached the mic to ask about how can [Bethel] assure students that they will receive a quality education in the major that they’ve chosen when the faculty is significantly reduced. 

RR: “We need to acknowledge that things are not going to be the same. When we went through this discernment process particularly around the Spanish major, again, all the Deans and Associate Provosts at Bethel spoke into this and we really wrestled with if it’s better or not to keep or discontinue the Spanish major. We wanted to keep that Spanish major and we think that’s important and that’s something we will continue as long as we can. It will not be the same, but we are confident that with some really good revisions that the department is working through that students will still be able to achieve all the outcomes that the department wants them to meet.”

Amy Ruiz Plaza, the Executive Director of United Cultures at Bethel, also asked how Bethel will value diversity when the programs such as Reconciliation Studies, Teaching English as a Second Language and more — which academically teach diversity — are being cut. 

RR: “All students at Bethel need to engage with diversity as a part of the core curriculum and as a part of everyday life. These majors are not touching very many students at Bethel, and I want to be very clear that the students in these majors are deeply and profoundly transformed in powerful ways. None of these decisions were made because these majors are not doing good things. But all [students] are part of the Kingdom of God, so we can’t relegate learning about differences to a couple particular majors. We are working with every single academic department to really wrestle with what it means to teach in an inclusive way within the curriculum, which I think is the most important thing.”

Junior Reconciliation Studies and Social Work double major, Ayomide Adesanya, was the last student to approach with a question regarding why any reconciliation classes are not a required tag despite reconciliation being a core value. 

RR: “I think you have a really good point there, but again, those courses within reconciliation studies are impactful and powerful for all students. The faculty absolutely have the ability to put that tag on a reconciliation course in order for it to touch more students and I agree that [a reconciliation study tag] would be a great addition to the general education curriculum of students. This is an outcome that would not be impossible to see in the future.” 

Any individual or further questions can be addressed to BSG at bsg@bethel.edu or directly to Birno and/or Storlie at blake-birno@bethel.edu and/or katie-storlie@bethel.edu

Editor’s note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

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