Seattle Pacific University is at a point of pain, according to Shannon Smythe, the assistant professor of theological studies.
In recent years, with the formation of the Justice Coalition, the vocal outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement and even the more recent discussions regarding ASSP, the LGBTQIA+ community and SPU as an institution, the campus is in a state of potential change.
There is potential for transformation and change, Smythe noted, but not everybody is confident in the way decisions are being made, with some — students, staff and faculty alike — questioning the leadership on campus.
There are various different ideas of what it means to be a Christian university floating around, bleeding into everyday conversation and fueling tension on campus. As Smythe said, everything is connected.
The dropping enrollment and budget cuts being made by the university are no different.
The Spring Board of Trustees meetings were held on May 17 and 18, and on May 21, an email by President Dan Martin was sent to staff and faculty summarizing the meetings. Included in the email were budget development reports for the month of February and May.
In the February report, it is noted that the “declining number of high school graduates for the past four years, economic pressures and financial realities faced by families, and the commoditization and competitive landscape of higher education have all contributed to our inability to achieve enrollment projections.”
SPU is not unique; dropping enrollment is a pattern seen in multiple other places across the nation.
The report continues, stating that unlike other “private sector higher education institutions,” SPU has avoided across-the-board cuts by utilizing a combination of unused salary dollars and vacant position. As written, SPU can no longer avoid it.
In the May report, it states that four faculty and 14 staff positions will be impacted in the form of position elimination or reduction. In a follow-up email sent on May 29, Martin stated that SPU reduced its expenses by approximately $2.2 million, $1.7 million dollars in personnel expenses and $0.5 million in operational expenses.
Smythe is among those who will be affected. At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, she will no longer be teaching at SPU.
She joined the SPU family as an adjunct professor in the winter of 2014 and became a full-time faculty member in the fall of 2016.
“When you feel like you’re expendable, then when you look to what’s next, it makes you ask real hard, deep questions,” she said, describing the pain she feel at the news.
Interested in questions about God at an early age, Smythe used to have theological conversations with her father, who was a pastor.
But it was not until she attended SPU that she received what she describes as a different framework in ways to think about God and what God is up to in the world. It was liberating to be exposed to female theology professors, women in pastoral roles and to wrestle with who she thought women could be in ministry.
In the theology department, she had mentors and professors who were pastoral to her.
“My deep dream, even as a college student, was I would love to come back here and do that for students,” Smythe said, but she was not sure if that was going to ever happen.
After graduating from SPU in 2002, she went on to receive her Masters in Divinity in 2006 and Doctorate degree in 2013, both at Princeton Theological Seminary. When she ended back in the general Seattle area while in the process of writing her dissertation and after she gave birth to her first son, she became an adjunct professor at SPU.
When a position for a full-time faculty membership opened up, those in the school of theology encouraged her to apply. She made it through the first two rounds, but when it came to the final round, they told her she did not make it.
“I thought the world had dropped out from underneath me,” she said. “I was in some deep grief and shock and disillusionment, and scrambling to figure out what was next for our family.”
Smythe received a job offer in Pennsylvania not long after, and her family prepared to move. Her husband in particular was happy because his family was lived on the east coast.
But their plans were about to change once again.
“Literally, the morning that I sent my acceptance to that other job, I get a call from SPU,” Smythe said.
In summary, two of the other finalists did not work out and SPU asked if she wanted to be a finalist, their only finalist. She did, and she got the job.
Resettling in the Seattle area, the Smythe family found a home and a church community, who they thought were doing amazing things in terms of addressing issues of race and sexuality, in Burien. As it turned out, members of SPU like Director of the John Perkins Center Tali Hairston, Dean of Multi-Ethnic Wellness Programs Susan Okomoto Lane and Coordinator for Global Engagement and Small Groups Paul Kim also attend that same church.
“It’s been really powerful. I’ve learned a lot from students, I’ve learned a lot from some of my faculty colleagues of color. I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to learn from them,” Smythe said.
As a professor, her goal was and is for students to begin learning about who God is and what God is up to in the world, to know what the good news really is.
So, during week eight of this quarter, she finished a pilgrimage course with Lisa Sharon Harper, author of “The Very Good Gospel.” On this pilgrimage, they traced the spry of the political construct of race in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, etc.
Looking forward to the next school year, Smythe wants to dive deeper into questions of identity and how they tie in with the gospel.
“My goal is to challenge the students deemed white by the state to see the gospel without all of the trappings of whiteness,” she explained. “And my goal for students of color who have been deemed black or brown by the state is to know deeply that God is with them and for them, and their empowerment is actually intimately tied up with the good news.”
But it seems like her time at SPU will be cut short, shorter than she would have liked. She described feeling a sense of calling a providence bringing her to SPU, and “to be let go after three years is disorienting. I’m feeling that very much right now.”