By Jarod Todeschi
Student retention is an issue at universities nationwide. In recent years, retention at Willamette specifically has proved to be a hot spot for potential improvement. But within the ever-complicated subject of retention, there might be larger administrative issues going unaddressed. Recent years have shown dramatic faculty turn over, sweeping across multiple departments causing one to wonder if retention of faculty is directly impacting the retention of students.
On the topic, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Edward G. Whipple issued the following statement: “Student retention is based on a variety of factors, not just faculty and staff retention. Higher education research clearly shows that factors influencing student retention revolve include student academic performance (college GPA, high school GPA, course load and credits earned, and academic self-discipline) in addition a student’s attitudes and satisfaction with the university are vitally important.
“The university has an obligation to provide opportunities for students to engage outside the classroom such as participating in undergraduate research, joining clubs and organizations, engaging in athletics and having a positive living experience. Finally, student retention is significantly influenced by faculty and staff support, family support, a sense of belonging and community and being part of an authentic cultural environment. There is no one factor that affects retention – it varies from student to student and most often is compilation of factors in varying degrees.”
When speaking of prior experiences working through administrative problems, an unnamed tenured Willamette professor said “the response you get from the people putting the patches on the leaky boat will be very calculated and measured.” On academic faculty turnover in the most authentic form — retirement — they stated, “retired faculty are not as readily replaced, and academic programs can either wither or feel the absence of specific faculty credentials.”
The University’s insistence that student retention can largely be blamed on the students themselves is perhaps denial of a much larger issue. The professor believes the current administration has misguided priorities.
“It wasn’t always like this, it’s lost its direction in the last 7-8 years.” They added that “the administration has lost track of their vision for the future,” though they often reason decisions with a future minded approach. They suggested that admin has become more business and fiscally minded. The more recently terminated education program from the grad triangle with law and business becomes additionally interesting when considering the current out-of-left-field partnership with the Claremont School of Theology.
A club president on campus said the inconsistent faculty over the years among departments advising their organization made their job more difficult. “I have to relearn a whole new chain of who is where before I can get access to resources I need.” With frustration, they questioned “why are these departments seeing such turnover?”
Adding a personal confusion on the matter, they stated “as a student, I would not be at Willamette anymore if it were not for meeting with Jackie Balzer and Judith Poutasse,” both positions essential for student support and retention encouragement. “These positions are now vacant. Without them, I would have either flunked out or left on my own accord. I wonder if Willamette’s administration has any intention of filling these spots?”
This anonymous student leader and tenured professor were not the only members of the willamette community questioning Willamette’s financial motivations and decisions. Another student who has worked closely with administration, and held various campus leadership positions stated, “the administration’s goals seem to be fabricating this ideal image of the university in order to get students to deposit rather than focusing on maintaining a good experience once we’re here.”
The student brought up the termination of Bishop Wellness center’s health services, saying “taking away our on-campus health access doesn’t help students’ quality of life, potentially leading to students wanting to leave.” They added that the Universities ever important fiscal priorities are questionable as well. “Apparently spending $300 per student on flight vouchers for on-campus Bearcat Day visits is worth the University’s money. As a student host, I know most of my prospective students had zero intention of coming to Willamette but wanted a free trip to the Pacific Northwest.”
The student added, “We brag about this amazing faculty but a lot of the professors that us students actually love don’t get hired as tenured professors or ever move past the assistant professor title. Willamette doesn’t seem to care what its students want. The administration has created a school that is all smoke and mirrors. Willamette is all talk and no action.”