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Seattle Pacific University Announces Large Budget Cuts

The college has been at the center of a controversy involving its hiring policies regarding people who identify as LGBTQ.

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Last week, Seattle Pacific University (SPU) announced it would cut its academic program budget by 40%.

The 130-year-old Christian university associated with the Free Methodist Church has been embroiled in controversy and a lawsuit regarding its hiring practices. Its policy bars people in same-sex relationships from being hired to full-time positions at the school.

Last year, students staged a weeks-long protest over the policies and sued the school’s board, claiming the policy is jeopardizing the school’s future as it leads to a shrinking student enrollment.

The budget cuts, which will primarily involve steep faculty layoffs, were attributed to declining enrollment. It is likely to result in fewer majors and minors being available to students.

Jeffrey Overstreet, an assistant English professor who is an SPU alumnus, told The Seattle Times, “My heart is breaking. I’m not sure we can come back from what is happening right now.”

However, SPU’s interim Chief Academic Officer Les Steele sounded a more optimistic tone: “There is absolutely no fear of falling off the precipice at this point.”

Steele does not attribute the declining enrollment and planned budget cuts to the controversy over its hiring policy. Instead, he calls it a symptom of a larger problem being seen across higher education. “Does America value higher education anymore?” he posed.

In 2020, Moody’s Investment Service found that nearly a third of public and private universities are operating at a deficit. Often these are a result of optimistic enrollment expectations and building projects based on those assumptions. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicted in 2019 that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.

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For example, 85-year-old King’s College in New York City announced this spring that it was facing a $2.6 million shortfall for the spring semester. In May, Middle States Commission on Higher Education removed its accreditation because King’s could not sustain itself and was “in imminent danger of closing.”

SPU’s student population has been declining for the last several years. In 2015, it claimed an enrollment of  4,175 students, but in fall 2022 only had 3,114 students enrolled.

While recognizing the nationwide trend toward declining enrollment, Overstreet still attributes SPU’s decline to the hiring policy he believes is out of step with the attitudes of the SPU community at large.

Kevin Neuhouser, the faculty advisor to the campus LGBTQ club, said SPU is in a precarious situation. “Progressive students and their families look at SPU as being too conservative, and conservative students and their families look at SPU as being too progressive.”

SPU’s statement of faith, ratified by the board of trustees in 2004, emphasizes its characteristics as historically orthodox, clearly evangelical, distinctively Wesleyan, and genuinely ecumenical.

It also adopted a statement on human sexuality in 2005 that states, in part, “We believe it is in the context of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman that the full expression of sexuality is to be experienced and celebrated and that such a commitment is part of God’s plan for human flourishing. Within the teaching of our religious tradition, we affirm that sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman.”

This statement and the school’s practice of excluding LGBTQ people from full-time positions led to the controversy that began in 2021.

The university’s admissions webpage welcomes LGBTQ students. “Seattle Pacific University is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for our undergraduate and graduate students, welcoming and supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in all academic pursuits, faith practices, and life together in community.”

In the midst of the budget, enrollment, and hiring policy crisis, new leadership will take the helm at SPU. Deana Porterfield will assume duties of president on July 1, following the resignation of former president Daniel J. Martin in 2021.

Porterfield has been leading Roberts Wesleyan University in Rochester, New York. It is also associated with the Free Methodist Church.

“As an academic community, SPU has always led the way, bringing new insights and thoughtful discussion to complex conversations that face us in our society,” Porterfield said in a press release. “The work needed to take on the challenges ahead begins with us, and I look forward to partnering with the SPU community in prayer, deep hope, and confidence that we can move SPU forward.”

Photo: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=159859384106535&set=a.637768771720701

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctorate from Baylor University. She has home schooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.