Rebranding SPU identity

Teresa Tsang

Adjusting, accommodating, changing, demographics

Provost Jeff Van Duzer believes that Seattle Pacific University should be an intersection of faith and education in a city of the future. For him, how SPU should change its approach to Christianity is clear.
“It is time for a bold, fresh expression of coming into our Christian identity,” he stated.
While a majority of students identify as non-denominational Christians, the population of students on campus who identify as having no affiliation with any church is currently at 15 percent, a number that has tripled since 2005. This is not the only aspect of students’ lives that is changing.
The liberal student population on campus has also grown immensely, a percentage that has doubled since 2005. Conversely, the percentage of students who identify as conservative has been cut in half.
This academic year has also seen the highest percentage of first-year transfer students and first-generation students, something that excites a lot of the staff, the Provost said.

“Thirty percent of our first-year students are the first in their family to go to college. That has huge implications for our curriculum and for a lot of the work that you’re doing. This is an increase over just last year,” he explained. “We were at 19 percent last year and were kind of celebrating.”
Besides first-generation students, the student body has also seen changes in terms of racial diversity. Eleven years ago, the percentage of white students was at 81 percent and is currently sitting at 57 percent, Van Duzer pointed out.

“If you compare that to the national numbers, we are more diverse than universities across the board, on average,” Van Duzer said. “We have a vastly different student body now than we had five years ago, let alone 10 years ago. It’s changing really rapidly, and it really is, in some ways, pressing us to see how fast we can keep up with some of these changes.”

On Monday, Oct. 30, Van Duzer addressed the staff council during the fall forum and discussed the changing dynamic of SPU’s campus and population. To him, the 2017-2018 school year is framed by four components: strong momentum, the student body, stress on economic resources and our Christian identity.

The school year began with a strong momentum that Van Duzer believes comes from the school’s new ranking. In addition, there have been a many changes such as revised handbooks and academic policies, new majors, a changed curriculum and new faculty and staff hires.

Van Duzer explained a recent award from U.S. News and World Report, ranking SPU a Best National University. Due to the 20 Ph.D. programs offered at SPU, the university is considered an entry level research university, a different category than what the school was previously ranked in. In this new bracket, SPU ranks in the top 15.

Although this new title is defined by Ph.D. programs and a majority of the student body is studying toward undergraduate degrees, Van Duzer believes that our doctoral advances are affecting our entire academia.

“I think it reflects this changing ethos among our faculty and our campus that we are going up market, if you’d like, in our scholarship. We are expecting more of our faculty and producing at higher levels,” he said. “I think that we’re a stronger university from a scholarly, research standpoint than we have been.”

However, adding to the changes in the student body as a whole, Van Duzer saw that more students than ever are in high or extremely high need of financial assistance and urged the staff to keep in mind how they are adapting to the students’ needs.

“Think of the paradigms that we might have had in our minds that we were operating under 10 or 15 years ago. This is a really different picture,” he said. “If you think back many, many years, it was the elites that were going to be able to afford this high quality, high touch, low student to faculty ratio, residential experience. That’s not who we’re bringing in the door. That’s not who God is sending us now. And so we need to be thinking through, what does it mean to provide academic education at a very high quality, but to a very different need profile of our students.”

There are a number of things that contribute to the financial stress levels of students and staff. The need for financial assistance is growing and minimum wage for student workers continues to increase. Instead of attending university for a full four years, more students are attending community college and transferring later on. All of these cause economic issues for SPU.

One solution to the problem would be to hire more adjunct professors. Adjunct professors are paid significantly less, and SPU’s percentage of adjunct professors to tenured faculty ratio is significantly lower than the nation’s average.

However, Van Duzer feels that this would change the culture and prestige of SPU and “is not what we are about.”

Another suggestion to solve economic stress was to partner with a neighboring community college. This would commit transfer students to SPU without the four year price tag, but this solution would be far in the future.
Compared to ten years ago, SPU’s student body and list of accomplishments and stresses is completely different. And this trajectory does not seem to show signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Due to this, Van Duzer expressed a concern for the absence of a brand for SPU, a brand that explains what truly separates the university from other Christian colleges and colleges in general. He even brought up the idea of changing SPU’s tagline.

As the climate of our country changes, SPU has changed and will continue to change. The struggle is finding the balance between adapting and completely transforming.

It comes down to two big questions, Van Duzer said. The first is, in the current context, “should we be downplaying our Christian involvement?”
“The second question is, in any event, what would an authentic expression of our Christian identity as an institution of higher education, that is, not as a church but as an institution of higher education, what would that look like in our current context?” he proposed.

For example, after the 2016 presidential election, many staff members debated the connotations of the word “Evangelical” and what it means in the context of the political climate and to our school’s mission statement.
Yet, even amidst this changing demographic, Van Duzer said, “For me it’s enough if we will just focus on being faithful to the call that God has given us. If we do that, we will in fact, be distinctive.”