Fresno Pacific University announces faculty layoffs, program cuts. Here’s why

Amid dramatic enrollment declines, Fresno Pacific University, a local private Christian school, announced faculty layoffs and the elimination of 16 undergraduate and graduate-level programs, citing cost and lack of student interest.

The school, the Central San Joaquin Valley’s only accredited Christian university, announced Thursday that it would cut 10% of its faculty, or about two-dozen positions, as well as undergraduate and graduate-level programs, including arts administration, biblical/theological studies, chemistry, computer information systems, mathematics, philosophy, political science, Spanish, theater, and master’s degrees in sports administration and Old Testament theology.

“We realize these changes are painful and involve people who have dedicated their lives and careers to support FPU (Fresno Pacific University),” university President André Stephens said in a press release. “We pray for the beloved colleagues who are affected by these changes.”

The university faced similar cuts last year that led to student protests and the reinstatement of a popular philosophy professor. Former students say they’re worried about what these new changes mean for the university’s future, and they’ve raised questions in an online petition about recent university leadership decisions.

In this latest round of budget cuts, 11 faculty members will be laid off and another 12 faculty positions that are currently open, or will become open due to retirement, will not be filled. The university stressed in an email to The Bee that it will still offer an undergraduate degree in Christian Leadership and Ministry.

Student enrollment at the university has dropped 27% since fall 2020—from 4,001 to 2,912 for the current academic year.

In addition to its main campus in southeast Fresno, Fresno Pacific has campuses in north Fresno, Bakersfield, Merced, Visalia and online. It’s unclear how the various campuses might be affected by the cuts.

Universities across the country are grappling with declining enrollment following the coronavirus pandemic. In January, the California State University system announced “unprecedentedenrollment declines.

Eighteen small, Christian colleges have closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nationwide, according to a 2023 study by Higher Ed Dive.

Last fall, Fresno Pacific leaders announced a 4% cut in full-time staff as part of a cost-cutting strategy ahead of an estimated $7.4 million budget deficit, according to an email obtained by The Bee in October 2022.

In January, the university reinstated their last full-time faculty professor of philosophy after a student protest against the decision to lay off the professor.

Fresno Pacific University philosophy students and supporters hold signs while wearing togas to protest the laying off of Professor Nathan Carson amid the college’s budget shortfalls outside McDonald Hall on the FPU campus on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. Carson is in charge of both the philosophy dept. and “Summer Sierra Program,” both of which will be cut without him.

University leaders say these new measures are necessary for student success and financial health.

“FPU continues to look for ways to innovate and plan for what is next,” Stephens said in the press release. “I am convinced amidst the challenges we face that these steps move us closer to the goal of being a financially sustainable institution focused on the success of our students.”

As part of the restructure, FPU will consolidate five schools into two. The Schools of Business, Education, Natural Sciences, Biblical Seminary and School of Humanities, Religion and Social Sciences will be replaced by the School of Arts and Sciences and a School of Graduate and Professional Studies.

The FPU Board of Trustees approved the decision in late October based on data and criteria developed in consultation with a committee of deans, faculty and staff.

What happens now?

It’s not immediately clear how the changes will impact the 88 students that were enrolled in the affected programs.

University leaders say the students will be offered the classes and resources they need to complete their degrees on time and through Fresno Pacific.

Wayne Steffen, a spokesperson for Fresno Pacific, said in an interview with The Bee on Friday that the plans vary by program. He said that many of the classes, such as chemistry and philosophy, will still be offered through the general education curriculum but not through individual program majors.

“The involved faculty in the programs will work out plans for each student to complete their degree,” he said.

Moving forward, Steffen said the university’s admissions department is working on new pathways to boost student enrollment.

In September, the university celebrated a 10% increase in “traditional undergraduates,” defined as 18-22 year olds coming out of high school or transferring from community college. The increase was the first after a decade of declining enrollment.

FPU recently signed an agreement with Visalia Unified School District to create a new pathway for high school graduates to easily enroll in Fresno Pacific. The university also has a partnership with Reedley College for their early childhood education program, so that students can earn their bachelor’s degree through FPU at Reedley College, which “really helps the rural students particularly,” Steffen said.

One program the university is focused on rebuilding is its degree completion program. The program is designed to help students who have some experience in college – and who now might work full-time or have families – complete their bachelor’s degrees at their own pace, with the option of attending FPU’s regional campuses’ in Merced, north Fresno or Bakersfield.

That’s “something that we’re really trying to rebuild because that program in the recent past even has been our largest student population,” Steffen said.

FPU grad calls for more transparency

FPU alumnus Justin St. George wants more accountability and transparency from the Board of Trustees on the recent layoffs and program cuts.

He’s been processing the news with his close friends from FPU, a school known for its small, “extremely tight-knit Christian community.”

St. George said he’s “worried and upset” about how these changes will impact the current students and the faculty that will no longer be able to teach at the Christian institution they love.

On Thursday, St. George – a 2022 business graduate and former member of student government – launched a petition calling for the board of trustees to resign. (St. George has also been an outspoken critic of the university after they denied a student request for an LGBTQ+ club on campus.)

He asked why the school is cutting their theater program a little over a year after unveiling a $15 million arts and culture center, for example.

According to the university’s latest annual report, Fresno Pacific had a $12 million cash surplus at the end of fiscal year 2021. University leaders are committed to growing its unrestricted cash reserves to $10 million in order to “quickly pivot to meet challenges, plan for unexpected needs and pursue new opportunities,” the report said.

The waves of layoffs and program cuts are “really concerning,” St. George said, especially given the university received $5.6 million in one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds.

“That was also supposed to shield a lot of the budget deficit that they were facing coming out of the pandemic,” he said.

Steffen, FPU’s spokesperson, declined to respond to St. George’s petition.