The Ecology of Higher Education and Fresno Pacific

by Steve Varvis on October 12, 2014

Trends over the last twenty years have changed our academic environment and the population of students we serve.  This is sometimes referred to as the new “ecology” of higher education. These trends have increased in speed and extent. It is not uncommon to hear one of us say that we have experienced more change in the higher education landscape in the last five years than in the previous twenty or more combined. We have both adapted to and resisted these trends as part of our mission as a Christian University, and as consistent with the ideals of the FPU Idea. We have always balanced both our mission with our market. We have found a way through it all with other sister institutions across the state and country. Let me offer my summary of these trends and something about how FPU has embraced them, adapted, and/or resisted:

  • We have seen consistently growing expectations at all levels, including traditional undergraduate students that the academic value of a university education is measured by completion of degrees that offer entry into or movement within professions. What was once considered primarily a feature of adult education (e.g. Degree Completion and Graduate) has move to the traditional undergraduate populations. This is true of first generation students, whom we enroll now in greater proportions than previously, and of second and third generation students. It is also true within Christian higher education nationally. Where offered programs do not meet students’ expectations for professional entry or growth, they enroll elsewhere. And often the better prepared and focused student, the student with greater options, the ones who might in earlier decades have sought a more general “liberal education,” enrolls elsewhere. We have experienced and adapted to this trend in the expectations of students.
  • Students have gradually taken on the character of customers at the application/enrollment stage of their association with a university, and also when they are in contact with university service offices, or in their academic work. We hear about it when they feel that an academic program is not leading them to their goal, or when an office seems not to serve them as expected, or a professor does not return assignments when expected. In extreme forms this attitude among the public and students seeks courses on demand, and designer or streamlined majors. We continue to adapt to this trend. We have pursued customer service, and have developed policies on how we serve our students.
  •  In California particularly and also in other states as well, student populations have become more ethnically diverse, with greater proportions of first generation students. This has brought to FPU a new population of bright, energetic and intelligent students. Hispanic students especially have become a central population within all degree levels. They bring with them particular expectations and needs for support that must be met for their success. This is true at all levels of our degree programs. We have increasingly learned to meet these needs, and we will continue to gain greater facility in addressing them. FPU began active recruitment of an ethnically diverse student body more than 20 years ago. We are now among the top 10 Hispanic Serving universities in the country for graduation success.
  • Christian higher education has gained in professionalism and stature among American higher education in general. This trend ranges from more competitive athletics, to a greater proportion of professors with terminal degrees, to distinctively Christian institutions developing both professional and research doctorates, to more developed student/spiritual development programs, and more specialized facilities. Professors are expected to engage more consistently in recognized forms of scholarship, and to participate in the extension and application of knowledge. FPU embraced early some aspects of this professionalism with its highly developed School of Education, with multiple credentials and master’s degrees with a clear and distinctive Christian character. The anti-intellectualism sometimes characteristic of evangelical higher education has unfortunately persisted in some quarters, and continues to shape the public perception that Christian institutions might not be academically credible. Increasingly Christian Higher education is done and demanded in a multi- or inter-denominational setting. Single denominations are often perceived as narrow and restrictive. We have seen our student body and the demands placed on us shaped by these trends.  We have embraced them in our development. Christians through the ages have been some of the deepest and most respected thinkers of their ages. It’s more than time that the depth of the Christian intellectual tradition, and the contribution of Christian faith to all fields of scholarship be renewed and recognized.
  • Colleges have become universities with multiple schools, for the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple delivery systems and types of programs. With our Degree Completion programs, Regional Centers, and online courses and majors, we have participated actively in this trend. We moved in this direction earlier than most with Continuing Education and Professional Development courses and workshops. These provide multiple revenue streams. And the multiple types of programs and delivery systems have allowed us to extend our mission to other populations than our traditional graduate and undergraduate populations. We have adopted this extended mission.
  • The professorate is changing, marked by specialization or the “disaggregation” of responsibility. A “subject matter expert” creates courses; some primarily research; others primarily teach. Professors follow alternative career paths with increased program management responsibilities. Universities set by policy a lower proportion of tenured positions than in the past, or discontinue tenure systems. In traditional programs whether graduate or undergraduate mentoring now often takes place through faculty-student research, professional mentoring, and increased use of internships. Administrators and professors are now required to verify that their academic programs produce students prepared for professions and with demonstrated capabilities through standardized, institutionalized assessment systems. Some of these trends are difficult to accept, and require kinds of effort and energy that we might not want to expend.  We have taken on the best of these trends—those that help us be better at what we do–and with other institutions resist some of them. Some of them we resist at great expense, perhaps expense we cannot bear. We will see what the future offers and requires of us.
  • These changes require re-articulation and new understanding of how we construct our majors and programs, how we accomplish our mission, and how we include or blend the best of the liberal arts and Biblical tradition with professional programs. While the public noise about higher education touts vocational outcomes, surveys and reports of the success of liberal arts graduates continue to show greater accomplishment than those trained merely technically or professionally. However, even liberal arts colleges prominently include professional degrees in their curriculums. Our task is to understand, articulate and adapt to this environment while pursuing our mission and the superior form of education we have practiced. Our task is to take the best of what we have been, and ensure that students receive a deeper education while meeting their professional expectations.
  • Because of the demands of the changing educational environment (or ecology), universities increasingly partner with other organizations, including other universities, international agencies, service providers, systems providers, and even academic content providers. WASC (or WSCUC) is developing a policy on what may be “outsourced”—I served on a small committee just his month working to finalize this policy. Universities now cooperate through electronic transmission of student records, in academic programs and in co-curricular opportunities. This trend has increased in intensity as the need for economies of scale, and technical expertise has become more and more evident. It is often no longer possible to create our own system or program. The rate of change and expectations for professional service continue to push us to partner with service providers and other institutions which offer what we need or cannot provide ourselves. We have been slow to adapt and adjust and will have to look carefully at our own capacity and expertise, and engage in partnerships where it is advantageous.
  • Especially in recent years regulatory and reporting demands have increased, much of it tied to institutional eligibility for federal and state financial aid. This is sometimes pushed through accrediting agencies and sometimes directly by state and federal bureaus. Regulatory requirements are widely expected to continue to increase in level of demand and cost, with federal agencies creating their own alternative accrediting procedures and requirements. We have suffered through this ongoing trend, and will continue to develop, comply, and adapt as needed.  We have entered a phase of our history where we are invited to assist in shaping the developing culture of higher education state and nationwide.

When an environment or ecology is characterized by rapid change and new expectations it may appear as daunting, even threatening, and as something to be avoided and resisted.  However, for all of its history Fresno Pacific has adapted to the changing environment and developed new programs and schools that have allowed it to grow and continue to serve our region, communities and churches: Education credentials, MAs, and Continuing Education in the 70s; “Broadening the Base” in the 80s; Degree Completion in the early 90s; growing diversity and becoming a University from the 90s on; regional centers, online programs, BS degrees, and MS and MBAs, more research and other scholarly engagement, and more competitive athletics in the 2000s. We have moved from being an expansive Liberal Arts College to a developing, competitive medium sized Regional University, with sphere of service through multiple centers or campuses, and with our foundation or core in the liberal arts, offering education in the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple degree programs and at multiple degree levels. We are a full and complex organization. All of this experience, the expertise we have gained, the knowledge of our faculty and staff, and our programmatic resources provide us with strength for continued development. We have consistently adapted to this changing environment while remaining rooted in our faith, a long tradition of liberal education and history of service. We will continue to do so with our mission and the aspirations of the FPU Idea guiding us, with commitment to excellence in Christian Higher education, and with faithfulness, wisdom, passion, and creativity.

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Sunbird Athletics

by Steve Varvis on October 2, 2014

Questions about the purpose, status, and level of support that an athletics program in a university ought to have are raised periodically and the answers may change with the growth or development of a particular university. Universities and colleges sometimes have distinctive missions; they serve within an educational and social environment which place expectations on them; students choose schools with certain expectations; and the realities of resources of time, energy, and funds are always part of the questioning. So what is the place of athletics in the environment in which we serve, and at FPU?

Let me outline a few thoughts. This is part of a new round of discussions that never really end, but which have surfaced once again.  More could be said, and some will say I should say less.

  1. Athletics is part of the educational program at FPU, almost exclusively for traditional undergraduate students. Athletics have a long history in higher education, in ages when the university prepared leaders for government and the military, but also as part of the educational program generally. As universities became co-educational, athletic opportunities for women to compete and perform expanded. Leadership and teamwork are taught on the field or on the court. They cannot be learned without doing. Athletics is about doing and learning.
  2. This raises the further question. What is it that student athletes learn, that perhaps others do not or at least not as intensively? On several occasions I have had the chance to meet a group of business people many of whom have been student-athletes. They show certain characteristics that are admirable and are often learned on the court or field. The know how to work as a team. They understand that different members of the team play different roles. They are focused on goals (winning, achieving), and know that they will only attain those goals if each member plays his or her role well, and supports their teammates in doing the same. They hold each member of the team accountable, and expect to compete with energy. They also know that the game plan may have to change in response to a new condition that has arisen. They bring a sense of exhilaration, camaraderie, and fun to the work. These are all important lessons. Athletics teaches not by outlining and testing on these qualities, but by putting the student into stressful, public situations in which hundreds of their peers, parents, and instructors have the opportunity to watch and see how well they have learned those lessons. I suppose we should say that they also learn to live with public scrutiny and to bear the pressure of public review with equanimity. Most of this is unspoken. Some do not handle that pressure well, but all learn to work under it.
  3. Many athletics programs are values driven. This is an important element of a university athletics program. The NAIA has its Athletes of Character, and the NCAA II, Life in the Balance emphases. To compete one must do so fairly (play by the rules), respect ones opponent, and practice good “sportsmanship.” The game or contest involves others whose lives, abilities, egos, and reputations are on public display. We expect to see athletes compete with respect for their opponents–they shake hands after a match, and congratulate the winners for their win, and the loser for their competitive drive and ability. We do not enjoy watching arrogance or taunting. When it exists within a team, it can destroy the team’s cohesion. Those values are often driven home when the team or individual suffers a loss or a string of losses. It or the single athlete must rise above that loss, draw on or build strength of character and overcome the loss. By the way, for those who love the humanities, one of the most profound depictions of athletics in literature can be found in the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. It includes a powerful scene on the limits of human power, skill, enraged energy and glory as old warrior, Entellus, weakened and grown wise through his years, takes up the challenge to box the young, strong, and brash Dares. Aeneas wisely stops the fight, and then “his loyal shipmates took Dares by the hand,/ Weak-kneed, his head wobbling side to side,/ Spitting out teeth mixed with gobs of blood./They led him to the ships…”   We do not have a boxing team at FPU.
  4. Athletics also provides a place where communal solidarity and pride are encouraged. We are most prominently “Sunbirds” when we are at a game or meet. It is not the only place where this may happen–music, drama, and service provide other venues, as well as student government. But it is highly public, as a large part of the community gathers to enjoy the competition, feel the adrenalin surge with our athletes, and experience defeat or prevailing over our opponent. “We won last night” is spoken not by an athlete or coach but by a student or professor the next day in class. Together we leave the field, stadium, or our events center, then travel individually to our homes feeling catharsis, pain, or exhilaration. Or we head out together for pizza to celebrate. Who can sleep right after a good game?
  5. Athletics provides public awareness for the university. Sports, we know, engage so many of the public that one of the most consistent ways that a university is known is through the regular reporting on the sports page of it contests and achievements. For this to happen the university’s teams must be competitive at their level, conference, and league. A losing program’s coverage gradually diminishes, as does its attendance, along with the quality of experience for the student-athlete. A Division II school will never get the same coverage as a Division I. If there are Div I schools in the same town, and pro or semi-pro teams as in Fresno, the recognition may get buried, or simply not be as visible. I love it when a friend comments on our win over a UC team. For positive public recognition, as well as for good competition to occur, the university must support and resource its athletic program to allow it to compete and when the time and team are right to be conference champions. Teams and athletics departments push for more funds, raise funds on their own, and like to point out the PR value to the university–it is real and consequential. A friend who becomes a donor may first hear of the quality of the university through its athletic program. The program symbolizes the quality, character and success of the university. It is an important contribution to the university as a whole, but it is not the whole of what symbolizes the quality of the university, nor the only program that encourages the growing of friendships and supporters.
  6. An athletics program must fit with the size, scope and mission of the university. FPU is now a Division II, NCAA school. We outgrew the declining, small school NAIA which had served us well for many years. The public and our students expect in a university of our type to see competitive teams that exemplify the success of students, and offer those students the chance to pursue it at a highly competitive level. They expect to see a thriving communal life made up of performances of all kinds, athletics prominently among them. We are not one of the elite academic institutions that has only club or non-scholarshipped athletics (Div III). We are not a Div I university where all too often athletics seems to dominate the stage. In an age when professionalism is valued as one of the goals of a university education, the athletics program must exemplify that value and expectation. But it also must be pursued within the limits of university resources (and new resources sought specifically for it). It is always a balancing act. Public recognition and resources come with quality and successful programs; athletics is one of the most publicly noticeable programs; it is not the only one–others must be resourced and allowed to teach in their way and exemplify that same high quality.
  7. What about us as a Christian university? Well, we are a university, and Christian universities compete as well as do others. As a university we exist within a culture that values and teaches professional accomplishment which is symbolized by athletics. We exist as a university subject to that expectation. Christian universities need and enjoy the events and achievements that build solidarity and communal pride, and we need and enjoy friends and donors. We hope that our programs have fewer rules violations that our coaches teach and our student athletes learn better and more integrally the values and virtues that athletic competition and performance teaches (see 2 and 3 above). As a Christian university, we want to be engaged in this kind of education and in this part of our culture. We desire to pursue an education for the body and heart, as well as for the mind. Athletics is an opportunity for this kind of education.

These are just a few thoughts to help us continue the conversation about the purpose, status and support an athletics program ought to have in a mid-sized regional Christian university like Fresno Pacific. We are fortunate to have the athletics program that has been built by a long string of energetic and resourceful Athletic Directors, outstanding coaches, and supportive presidents. We are proud (I know that is not necessarily a Christian virtue) of our athletes and their accomplishments. We are humbled (that’s better) by the support of loyal fans and donors to the university and Sunbird Athletics over the decades.

Tonight Sunbirds Soccer plays at 5:00 and 7:00 on Ramirez field. See you at the games!

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Apologetics at Evidence 2014

March 9, 2014

On February 21-22 Dr. Bruce Boeckel, Associate Professor of English, and Rev. Angulus Wilson, University Pastor hosted at FPU an Apologetics Conference, Evidence 2014. Dr. Boeckel is completing an additional master’s degree at Biola University in a unique academic program in apologetics. Pastor Angulus, as he is often called, explained that each year he and […]

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God is doing a new thing…now what do we do?

February 28, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I was honored to speak at the FPU Biblical Seminary’s chapel, on the topic of the title of this post. Here a slightly briefer version of the meditation. I hope it will afford you a glimpse into what we are doing here and thinking about. I offer a homily from […]

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January 8, 2014

The spiritual discipline of walking and praying through a Labyrinth has become popular among a number of Christian traditions in recent decades, including Evangelical traditions. Some experience this practice as a moving and valued discipline that connects them with God in Christ. However, it is sometimes seen as a foreign or non-Christian innovation or intrusion […]

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Multicultural Celebrations

December 20, 2013

It was a joy and privilege for me to attend our semesterly multicultural graduation celebration last week the day before FPU’s Fall Commencement ceremonies. Many of our departments host special celebrations prior to commencement. Last week I also attended those for the BA in Liberal Studies, the BS in Nursing, and the MA program in […]

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The End of the Semester and Scholarly Pursuits

December 11, 2013

It’s already begun to happen. Each semester as I complete my course of teaching, and move toward completing grading final exams, I experience once again what I think might be a common experience for those of us who pursue an academic life. Into my mind come flooding ideas and topics to pursue, books to read, […]

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The Spirituality of Faith and Learning

November 1, 2013

In a couple of previous posts I have attempted to explain how I approach “the integration of faith and learning.” My conclusion: each of us does this out of our own faith journey, the traditions within which we think, work and worship. This, of course, implies that there will be many ways to do this. […]

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Integration of Faith and Learning II

October 18, 2013

In my last post I argued that the phrase in the title of this post which indicates a certain way of seeing the purpose or distinctiveness of Christian Higher Education is not quite adequate. It is useful. It starts us on a path, but there are deeper ways of understanding our work that are more […]

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Integration of Faith and Learning

October 18, 2013

The title is the phrase that many Christian colleges and universities (see the Council for Christian College and Universities’ list of members) use to describe the difference an education in one of our schools makes, compared to secular institutions, and sometimes schools that were at one time more closely identified with Christian faith or with […]

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