As Bethel University faces a second round of faculty cuts in the past two years, students, faculty and administration question the future of the institution.
By Molly Wilson, Sarah Bakeman and Makenzi Johnson
When Amy Poppinga started at Bethel University in 2005, being an adjunct history professor meant proposing new courses, assigning papers and connecting with the students in her classes: pre-pandemic millennials who viewed college as a natural next step.
Now the chair of the history department, 2022 brings some of the same for Poppinga – teaching, assigning and students – plus some extra. Setting up tables at admissions events alongside other history, philosophy and political science professors. Limiting the courses catalog. Connecting with prospective students.
“[We] have to focus on getting kids here, and I’m not sure we’re trained for that,” Poppinga said. “A number of my colleagues say quite a bit, ‘the job I do is very different than the job I was hired to do.’”
After her 1999 graduation from Bethel and her 18 years of being a professor at the university, Poppinga has seen a shift occur. She now teaches a post-Zoom cohort of Gen-Z students who made a choice to attend college amid a national decline in enrollment – a decline that has hit Bethel in noticeable ways, from increasing tuition, to the loss of study abroad offerings and the spring 2020 wave of faculty cuts.
The 2020 cuts saw the loss of 24 faculty positions and 13 majors. Poppinga remembers the sense of finality that came alongside it.
“On the surface, that looked very preemptive. Like, ‘Hey, this is awful, but we’re gonna go ahead and do this in a way now that really, really creates stability,’” Poppinga said. “But here we are again.”
Of the 24 cuts in 2020, some faculty remain at Bethel as a part of phased retirement; these remaining faculty members will finish teaching after the 2023-24 academic year.
In an Oct. 12 email to all CAS undergraduate students Provost Robin Rylaarsdam announced that 11 faculty positions were cut. Not mentioned in the email were four retirements separate from those with phased retirement. Across the graduate school and adult undergraduate programs eight additional faculty positions were either laid off or will not be replaced after retirement. Five degree programs were cut in those schools as well. In CAS, eight majors and minors were eliminated.
Administration and faculty leaders could not disclose who had been cut from each department, only sharing which departments were affected out of privacy for the individual cut. Many faculty leaders also do not know the entire list of cut faculty.
Per the Faculty Handbook, administration must inform the community that the university is under financial stress. Faculty had to be notified by Oct. 15 whether their contract with Bethel will be renewed. A group of faculty leaders must also be consulted. Rylaarsdam put together a group of five faculty leaders from across the university to establish criteria for deciding cuts.
Department of Languages and Culture
Like most departments, languages and cultures was asked to look at what possible changes could be made to their department and curriculum, but ultimately four programs were cut: teaching English as a second language, teaching English as a foreign language, teaching English to speakers of other languages and Spanish education.
Prior to the announcement of program and faculty cuts Oct. 10, department chair Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco and department professor Laura Sánchez González considered the what-ifs for languages and cultures.
“I’ve been at Bethel for 15 or 16 years and over the last 10 years, we’ve had several rounds of cuts. This one, to me, feels very different,” Tahtinen-Pacheco said. “It feels like we are looking at ways of cutting [what]… from my perspective, have been a core of Bethel’s values.”
Tahtinen-Pacheco expressed her concern for rumors of losing class offerings and faculty-student mentorships within the Spanish department, but also what a loss could mean for native Spanish-speaking students.
“[Native Spanish-speaking students] are coming in and they have a place that’s safe. We know them, we recognize them, we know their culture — and that’s a gift,” Tahtinen-Pacheco said. “But if [Bethel] doesn’t keep that, I worry, how will that work moving forward?”
Sánchez González mentors several native Spanish-speaking students and expressed how she had been navigating the upcoming news of cuts to these students.
“I had four students of color come into my office the other day [to ask] what’s going on. Someone said, ‘So they’re actually taking our language away from this institution? Now even our language is being wiped away? So we’re not seen as important. Our language is not seen as important,’” Sánchez González said.
The Spanish department declined a follow-up interview after the formal cut announcement was made.
Department of English & Journalism
When the administration announced upcoming faculty cuts to department chairs and program directors in spring 2022, the English & Journalism Department offered a counter proposal. The English & Journalism Department first heard they would lose two positions, which has since happened; various faculty in the department offered plans for how they could save money to prevent losing two faculty members.
Department chair April Vinding proposed cutting some of the least-registered courses, as well as giving some willing professors a “reduced load” of courses. This plan aimed to prevent the “cold turkey cut” of existing faculty. During the 2021-22 academic year, the English and Journalism department had faced impactful changes, such as the indefinite cancellation of England Term and the retirement of long-standing faculty member Daniel Ritchie. The previous summer, former Department Chair Susan Brooks left Bethel for another job.
“The answer that we got to [the proposal] is, this is not a viable alternative because it does not save cash now,” English and Journalism Department Chair April Vinding said.
Due to the two cuts, E&J has had to rearrange certain classes and reevaluate each person’s work load, as well as advising load. Other English and journalism professors will have to take more students to advise due to the loss of two faculty. Beyond the logistics, the English and Journalism Department lost two valuable members, who Vinding says are like family.
“The faculty is a body, we’ve lost limbs and we’re kind of crawling into a closet, bleeding,” Vinding said.
Amid the grieving process, Vinding was looking for an “effective form of protest” to express her disagreement and sadness about the faculty cuts across the university. She thought of the phrase, “I dissent,” and made a large poster with that phrase handwritten on it, which she then taped to her office door. Vinding later received an email from an administrator that asked her to remove or cover the sign on her door for Family Weekend in October.
“I find [that] deeply problematic for two reasons. If it’s a problem for there to be signs of disagreement or discourse, that seems to me to be a real problem with identity and mission and vision,” Vinding said. “The other issue is that we’re inviting students to come here, talking about these claims that when they come here, they’re going to be transformed into salt and light, world changers and reconcilers. How is that going to happen if we don’t have the capacity or the will to let disagreement, displeasure, grief be seen?”
While Vinding is mourning the loss of two colleagues and the censorship of her door, she also expressed that a time of crisis should not be wasted, but rather used to evaluate and celebrate values.
“A university should be a banquet, not a bunker,” Vinding said.
Department of History, Philosophy and Political Science
11 faculty positions were eliminated Oct. 10 alongside two more majors. This was the fifth wave of faculty cuts that Poppinga has seen in her time at Bethel. The HiPPoS department accounted for two of the faculty cuts – a number that hit exceptionally hard for multiple reasons.
For one, Poppinga identified the history department as an anomaly in the sense that its enrollment is growing. Those numbers felt like an encouragement to keep setting up tables and showing up for prospective students, as well as a positive forecast for future classrooms. However, despite doing better than many national trends in regards to enrollment, Poppinga was told her department was being right-sized. In other words, schools of Bethel’s size typically have two fewer professors than Poppinga’s department. Therefore, they would need to make cuts.
“That was hard for history to hear because we believe we’ve been successful, and the data we were presented with suggests that we’ve been successful,” Poppinga said. “I don’t know how to motivate people to do better or work harder when they did, and the results were there.”
Beyond the numbers, Poppinga values the relationships built between faculty members in the HiPPoS department. Some began teaching before they were married or had children, and Poppinga feels they have come into adulthood together. They’ve also experienced the hardships brought by continuous cuts and the death and illnesses of members of the department.
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth. We are a family,” Poppinga said.
When it was announced that two positions would be cut, Poppinga volunteered herself to be let go. Administration accepted this request, but Poppinga will teach through the academic year before returning as an adjunct next year.
“I felt like my position could be reduced and we would still be able to preserve the integrity of what is needed for a history department,” Poppinga said. “I feel tremendous sadness because the loss of any member means more work for others.”
While professors at Bethel are expected to teach seven courses, the loss of faculty members may mean taking on an eighth course without a pay raise. Poppinga will be teaching five courses next year, but she worries about the impact these cuts will have on student-faculty relationships.
“Relationships take time. Something, at some point, has to give. You only have so much time,” Poppinga said. “I’ve been saddened, but completely understand, having heard several faculty in the last two months express true stress and dismay, asking ‘How am I going to maintain the types of relationships that are most meaningful for students?’”
Poppinga believes that boundaries will become important for professors to maintain as their workload has the potential to increase. As she moves into her adjunct position next year, Poppinga has accepted that she won’t have the ability to be as present with students. In remembering her own time as a student at Bethel, Poppinga feels that professors are what made the experience positive.
“I had amazing professors who cared about me, who equipped me, who invested in me,” Poppinga said. “That, to me, is a worthwhile college experience, if you came away with that level of encouragement and support. At that time in your life, if you have one person that you feel really saw you, that has a lot of value.”
The Z-tag course community work hours requirement sent senior Trinity Butruff to a downtown Minneapolis high school, where she worked with students who primarily spoke Spanish. After that, Butruff felt a calling to “help the nations as Jesus did,” and decided to add TESL to her degree. In Butruff’s current practicum placement, she said the school has received over 10 students from Latin America in the last month and a half alone, with the students speaking very little English.
“Minnesota, especially, has immigrants coming in every single day, from all over the world, but specifically Latin America… So if we’re having all of these students come in, and we’re not producing enough TESL teachers, you can’t give the students what they need. The world needs TESL. Specifically, Minnesota needs TESL,” Butruff said.
Following the recent program cut, she feels like her passion isn’t being cared for by Bethel. To Butruff, losing the TESL program feels like losing a part of Bethel’s core values and heart.
“If we are followers of Christ, like we say we are, and we are people that are trying to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, why are we not listening to what the Bible is telling us? Jesus sent his apostles to go out and spread the word to all the nations of the world. I don’t feel like [Bethel is] doing that,” Butruff said. “We’re spreading the word to people of science and people of business, but what about the people of different cultures?”
The Bethel that Butruff knew when she first began as a student here is not the Bethel that she feels she has been living in for the past year. While she recognizes that changes are necessary, the disappointment of this change is real to her.
“Bethel is not the college that I first came to. It’s just not anymore. And in some ways, that’s a good thing [but in other] ways, that’s something that really hurts because I love Bethel so much, and I want to see it thrive. Everything that I care about here at Bethel is changing and it’s not growing. It’s being cut down,” Butruff said.
President Ross Allen, Provost Robin Rylaarsdam and Vice President of Student Experience Miranda Powers discussed student reactions with Student Body President Blake Birno, Vice President Katie Storlie and Executive Chair of Student Senate Laura Charlotte Underwood following the release of the Statement of Opinion from Student Senate.
Following this meeting a forum was held Oct. 19 for students to ask those three administrators questions about the process and reasoning behind the decision and what comes next. Students questioned how Bethel can continue to identify as a liberal arts college if the scope of study continues to narrow, as well as how diversity, equity and inclusion can be upheld with the discontinuation of reconciliation studies and language courses.
“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,” Rylaarsdam said. “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.”
There are currently three groups of staff and faculty meeting to make decisions about $1 million in additional cuts to the academic affairs budget. Academic affairs encompasses all faculty administrators and academic support staff including but not limited to the Bethel University Library, registrar and CAS advising. Each group is responsible for finding 75% of those cuts and then the provost will decide which of the various options from the two groups will be used to make up 100% of the cuts.
“Needs are different in 2022 than they were in 1992 when I finished my undergraduate degree, and they were very different in 1962 when my mom finished her undergraduate degree,” Rylaarsdam said. “And they’re gonna be different in 2032 and 2042.”
The first modeling group is looking at workload changes such as asking faculty to teach more courses. The second modeling group will provide options for reduction in anything other than workloads. The third group, led by Rylaarsdam, will give feedback to the two other groups to help refine proposals and provide context for how cuts will affect various groups.
According to Rylaarsdam, some programs which were being considered for cuts are being asked to revise their curriculum before interim. Rylaarsdam said there “might be” cuts in the spring.
“And there might be every year,” Rylaarsdam said “Higher education, broadly, is now moving toward more regular consideration of what that whole menu of programs looks like at any institution and regularly looking through what we should keep, and what should we invest more in.”