1:33 p.m. PST February 21, 2016
A couple hundred students stood outside the Montag Center on the northeast corner of Willamette University’s campus Friday at noon in the rain and wind.
They stood in silence, protesting the recent changes to the Willamette Academy program that helps first-generation college students.
Many held signs with phrases such as, “College access for everyone,” “Students are not statistics,” “We’re not investments,” and “What about the other 185 families?”
The university’s board of trustees was meeting in the Montag Center for a luncheon at the same time.
“This was done in hope to (reevaluate) the changes,” said Shamir Cervantes, president of the student government. “They were decided on too hastily and don’t reflect well on the university and its motto.”
The university’s motto was written on posters as well, reading, “Non nobis solum nati sumus,” which translates to, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”
Cervantes said he hopes to see the proposed changes revisited.
The academy, created by the university in 2001, is an after-school program for middle- and high-school students that helps historically underrepresented, first-generation students reach college.
But with a college graduation rate much lower than expected — with one third of students not completing the academy itself, and only about 22 percent of students graduating from college — the university and academy are trying a new model.
Instead of enrolling about 225 students into several programs, the academy plans to serve 40 students in 10th through 12th grades beginning in the 2016-2017 school year.
The new program will require students to attend Willamette University; previously, students could go on to any college. The academy will also provide two additional years of support to academy students once they attend the university.
“It feels like the reforms to Willamette Academy are yet another money grab on the part of the administration at the expense of serving the community which they purport to do,” said Lucas Immer, a senior at the university.
Steven Wynne, chairman of the university board, spoke to the students toward the start of the protest, saying board members will discuss the concerns at a meeting on Saturday and will have community members who represent the opposition present at the meeting.
In addition to the protest, Willamette University and Willamette Academy students, alumni, donors, and others collectively wrote a few letters opposing the changes to administrators, which were circulated this week via social media and email.
The Willamette Student Academy Supporter Letter said the changes are “hypocritical” to the university’s motto and lacked transparency from the University.
“Willamette University students from different backgrounds have found a safe space at the Willamette Academy; a place where they can connect with hundreds of younger students and build nurturing relationships,” the letter reads. “Therefore we cannot stand idly by as this University makes decisions that go against a motto that is at the heart of our institution. Our students deserve better.”
In the letter, they ask for a handful of goals, including to maintain the size of the academy at 225 students, hire a full-time executive director, and commit two years of bridge funding until the hire.
The letter is signed by the president, vice-president and various senators of the university’s students government, the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU).
Many of those opposing the changes said they have personal experiences with the success of the academy.
Alfredo Zúñiga and Natividad Zavala are both Willamette Academy and Willamette University graduates.
Zúñiga said his original thoughts about the announced changes were optimistic.
“The university stopped investing into the academy long before (the announcement),” he said. “I was optimistic they would do more to help.”
But once he learned what the changes were, he was surprised and said, “it seems it would be a huge loss,” for both the students who will not be able to participate with the academy in the future, as well as the parents who rely on the academy for resources and support.
Zavala said he was confused, upset and angry, but didn’t want to jump to a conclusion when he first heard.
He was upset because he knew “how big and influential the program was for (him).”
For Zavala, the first few years of high school were a huge transition. His parents were no longer able to help him with his school work and he said it was a time he could have gone down the wrong path.
“I can’t say for certain that without the academy I wouldn’t have slipped through the cracks,” he said. “They (academy workers and mentors) played a big role while I was transitioning into high school, as I was getting a better sense of myself and the world.”
According to Pell Institute statistics, only 10.9 percent of low-income, first-generation students attain a bachelor’s degree within six years, as of 2011 research; those who are first-generation students, but not low-income had a rate of 24.9 percent. That compares to the 22 percent graduation rate for Willamette Academy students.
Administrators said that while the academy helps many, it is failing others.
“Maintaining the status quo would be easy, but it wouldn’t be responsible,” said Adam Torgerson, a spokesperson for Willamette University.
Torgerson said the university has demonstrable evidence the model they will be using works. “We have an obligation to go where the evidence lies,” he said.
In response to those who oppose the changes, Torgerson said the university will take all the concerns and input seriously.
Zavala said these conversations, concerns, and even changes all come from the same place.
“Everyone wants to see the best possible outcome (for the students),” he said.
The short-term goals asked of the administrators in the letter were to:
- Issue an apology letter to Willamette Academy students and families for the way they were treated at the information session Feb. 6 and for announcing these changes without the input of the academy students and their families.
- Fully support the continuation of the Willamette Academy program through June and the summer program through the end of August.
- Reinstate full hours to all student staff members.
- Reinstate the internal web system for Willamette Academy Students and Staff to continue day-to-day operations.
- Keep the Willamette Academy Center and Annex open as vital sites for the program’s success.
- Authorize the Multicultural Affairs Committee to appoint a third party mediator to address staff concerns of a hostile work environment.
- Return daily operations of Willamette Academy to their previous state prior to August of 2015, and have daily operations remain unchanged unless approved by a majority of staff that have been employed for six months or more.
The long-term goals asked were to:
- Preserve Willamette Academy composed of all existing programs, serving 225 students.
- Honor previous commitments made to students and staff, providing confidence that their program and jobs will be protected and maintained.
- Hire a full time Executive Director who is adequately paid, has an indefinite contract, and is knowledgeable of the Salem-Keizer community. They should be selected by a hiring committee with Willamette student and Willamette Academy family representation.
- Commit two years of bridge funding for Willamette Academy to ensure proper funding as the Executive Director is selected and established.
- Rescind the requirement that students only be allowed to attend Willamette, and continue providing resources for students to be able to compare colleges and universities.