The projection screen hung largely used above the stage. Fresno Pacific University President André Stephens, Ph.D., brought no slide deck of charts and graphs, statistics and bullet points to his second State of the University address.
Rather, he spoke from the heart—taking faculty and staff gathered in the Warkentine Culture and Arts Center and on Zoom through present challenges, recognizing their pain, reminding them why they come to work and ultimately offering a positive, possible vision. “I still believe in the transformative power of Christian higher education,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, and that’s why you’re here.”
Like higher education nationally, FPU faces external challenges—a shrinking number of traditional-aged students, doubts among some about the value and cost of a degree and lingering effects from COVID—and issues specific to itself, such as the high level of poverty and low levels of college attainment in the Central Valley.
The Chronicle of Higher Education is replete with announcements of cuts and closures at colleges and universities across the country. Stephens has spoken with leaders of institutions that are struggling or have closed. “The common thread that I see is that leaders failed to make the tough decisions. They nibble at the edges hoping that things will turn around and suddenly they are done,” he said.
Stephens announced an academic realignment the week before his November 14 address. To help alleviate a projected deficit, focus on areas of high student interest and provide resources to explore new initiatives, the university will:
- No longer enroll students in 16 programs—13 traditional undergraduate majors, one bachelor’s degree program and two graduate programs, including one from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.
- The 88 students affected, about 3% of current enrollment, will get the classes they need to complete their degrees on time. Courses in many areas will remain available for general education requirements and other majors.
- Eleven faculty, about 10% of FPU’s 109 regular teaching staff, will end their employment in June 2024 when they complete their current contract. In addition, 12 faculty positions that are either term, currently open or opening due to retirement will not be filled.
- Consolidate the current five schools into two: a School of Arts and Sciences and a School of Graduate and Professional Studies. The seminary will continue to exist in the new structure.
Change has not come without pain, Stephens said. “Faculty have dedicated themselves to teaching and service, research and networking, learning and ministry. I want to recognize the varied emotions and the pain that this news has caused in our community.”
Serving students, serving Christ
Two themes formed the foundation of Stephens’ hour-long address: serving students and serving Christ.
“Our renewed focus must be on providing an excellent, holistic, biblically integrated education for individuals who attend our campuses and Zoom classrooms. Our mission is worth our efforts,” Stephens said, adding, “I want to be clear that we are a Christian university pursuing truth and beauty and wisdom found in the person of Jesus Christ.”
Today’s FPU students come mostly from the Central Valley, a region with college-going and college-completion rates and family incomes below state and national averages. Many work—sometimes in the fields—to help their families pay the bills. They are also first-generation students, unfamiliar with higher education. “The chances of graduating from college if your parents didn’t go to college are small. So, we must invest in student success. Their ability to persist through graduation and go on to jobs, graduate school, etc. is the measure of our success,” Stephens said.
Despite the statistics, these students are assets to the community with potential, capacity and dreams FPU can help fulfill. To many, these students are unseen. Stevens called them “beautiful.”
Campus leaders are revising enrollment projections and budget assumptions, Stephens said. Special attention will be paid to restoring degree completion enrollment, developing new revenue sources, increasing retention and graduation rates, investing in the main campus and renewing curriculum so students can more easily navigate from enrollment to graduation to careers or further education.
Already much is happening that is positive and life-giving, according to Stephens. After losing over 1,000 students since 2020, both traditional undergraduate (TUG) and graduate enrollment was up this fall. The 10% TUG increase was the first in 10 years. Fall-to-fall retention for first-year TUG students improved more than six points to 79%. Among these, first-gen student retention was 87% and retention for students receiving Pell Grants, traditionally from lower-income households, was 83%.
FPU is making itself the region’s university, Stephens said. “We need to be the first-destination college choice for students in the Valley.”
At the end, the projection screen did come into play, but still not for statistics—Stephens kept the focus on people and faith with for a photo montage of FPU life this past year and the lyrics of a student-led hymn.