While an hour down the road, Portland Association of Teachers union members recently concluded a month long strike, earlier in the fall educators and faculty at Willamette took a stand of their own. Tempers flared and stern emails were sent in response to a proposed fee implementation for faculty members who wanted access to Sparks Fitness Center. A week after being introduced, the proposal was rescinded.
Since reopening after briefly closing its doors in 2020, the gym has been steadily increasing its notoriously sporadic hours. However, this expanded availability hasn’t occurred without a cost, literally. With more hours comes an increase in the need for staff, all of whom need to be paid. Additionally, in recent years many of Sparks’ facilities have needed repair, including the pool, which was without heating for the start of the swim season. To help amend these issues, at the beginning of the semester administration and faculty at Willamette were told they would be charged for their usage of Sparks.
For the semester, faculty were asked to pay $75 to use Sparks and all its amenities. Broken down, this equates to $15 per month. For comparison, nearby gym Phisiq offers a membership for $20 a month, but has an annual fee of $49.99 and a startup fee of $149.99 and Planet Fitness has a membership for only $10 a month but has a $49 annual fee and a $49 startup fee. Even here at Willamette, students pay a $134 “Student Activity fee” every semester, which partially goes towards their usage of Sparks. Other liberal arts colleges in the area like Reed and Lewis & Clark provide free use of their fitness centers for faculty and staff.
Within a week of the new fee being implemented, the decision was reversed. Coordinator of Student Engagement Quinn Nottage says that during that week he was “bombarded with strongly worded emails.” These emails ranged in assertions from, “How dare you,” to, “You’re not thinking about embracing the idea of promoting health.” Nottage even recalled faculty going up to Waller 3rd, the location of President Stephen Thorsetts' office, in protest, though he omitted the names of participants. When asked to speak on the issue, President Stephen Thorsett diverted the discussion to Vice President for Student Affairs Lisa Landreman, who in turn set a later interview date before directing questioning to Nottage.
According to Nottage, the manner in which the change was introduced may have bothered faculty as well, leading to stronger protests. He explained, “We gave them about a week and a half slash two-week notice that [the fee implementation] was going to happen. Maybe a month or a semester in advance would have been better, or even just polling.” Additionally, Nottage stated, “I understand where faculty and staff are [coming from]. Not having an increase in salary with the increase in inflation definitely takes a toll … so if there’s something you haven’t planned to pay for, it can be really jarring.”
Mark O. Hatfield Systems Librarian Bill Kelm (‘91) has worked at WU for 32 years and claims he has never paid to use Sparks. Kelm has a local membership at Phisiq and mainly uses Sparks to work out during his lunch. Upon hearing about the fee, Kelm decided it was no longer worth it to work out at the fitness center, stating he was “just disappointed that they took [free Sparks] away.”
At least partially due to a lack of funds, Sparks Fitness Center hours for fall break were cut and it will be closed for winter break.