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Board: Recent mergers diversify offerings to meet changing student needs

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Noah Dantes


Graphic by Mary Wang.

The Willamette Expansion project is a series of articles from the Collegian about the fundamental ways Willamette University is changing as an institution to survive the future. The project aims to highlight these changes, diving into why they are happening and how they affect the Willamette community.

Willamette President Stephen Thorsett is “the source of the vision and drive” for the acquisitions of Claremont School of Theology (CST) and Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA). According to [Board of Trustees] Chair [Lynne Saxton] (‘76), Thorsett had the Board think through how to respond to changing student needs, and the Board has been “supportive in his efforts.” Chip Kruger, chair of the Board’s Academic Affairs and Enrollment Committee said: “The moves that Steve’s [Thorsett] pushed have all been about creating a more holistic experience and opportunity for students.”

With the mergers with CST and PNCA, new educational opportunities are being provided to students across all institutions involved. While neither the PNCA or CST merger is official yet, cross-school programs are already being planned: Kruger said that there will be a Computer Science class offered at PNCA in the fall. Cross-listed classes with CST [will start in Fall 2021]. Another benefit, Saxton said, is that students are now able to access a broader range of programs without needing to go to graduate school, which “isn’t monetarily feasible” for many students. The mergers have also helped Willamette learn and adapt its procedures—CST was doing global, distanced education before the pandemic, which helped Willamette adapt to distanced learning.

[Willamette’s enrollment fell 20 percent] from 2015 to 2019, and annual expenses outpaced operating revenues by $14 million. Willamette’s drop in enrollment is not unique—[it is part of a nation-wide trend across higher institutions]. When asked if falling enrollment affected Willamette’s decision making regarding the mergers, Saxton said: “As enrollment starts to fall, you have two choices: one, you become the institution that the students need you to be to fulfill their career goals, or two, you cross your fingers and hope it works out well. There is that enrollment challenge, but our mission requires us to address that challenge and not be passive.”

Saxton said that the acquisitions of CST and PNCA “are first and foremost an educational strategy.” She said: “Willamette is not immune from the market forces. But that being said, the experience we [alums on the Board] had of a university that prepares students for a whole host of challenges—that requires more educational opportunities, not less.”

However, the educational needs of students are constantly changing. Kruger said that course offerings have to shift as humanity’s body of knowledge grows. “People go to university for many reasons, but the main reason is to get prepared for the rest of their lives,” Kruger said. “If you don’t keep up with how society, knowledge and the economy are changing, institutions start to lose their way and purpose.” In response to the changing needs of students today, Saxton said that the Board has spent at least the last five years on “addressing the academic need to support changing career objectives.” The central question that has guided the Board in its process has been: “What can we bring in to round out the student experience?”

Both PNCA and Claremont were [in debt and far below enrollment goals] prior to their mergers with Willamette. When asked how Willamette would be able to cover the debt of both institutions, Saxton said “our goal is always to be responsive to student needs and only take acceptable levels of risk.” The financial team conducted an analysis and saw “tremendous opportunity” in the mergers. Enrollment “matters to everyone” moving forward, Saxton said: “Even though these merger actions will carry some risk, without that risk it is hard to see enrollment going the way we want. We’re positioning ourselves as the most attractive institution in the Pacific Northwest. There are more things coming that you’ll hear about soon.”

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1 Comment

Inez Nieves
Inez Nieves
Apr 15, 2021

"...our goal is always to be responsive to student needs and only take acceptable levels of risk." Right, but what are the details about the financial risk that we're not hearing? $16 million in debt will only double the net negative rate if we're already running into the ground $14 million each year of operations.

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