The front desk for the Hub for Spiritual Life sits vacant in the TCC fall 2021. The Hub remodeled the second floor of the TCC for its office suites and student study spaces. Photo by Ashley Mowreader
It started with a Facebook post.
Convocation Director Gus Peterson announced Feb. 10, 2021 via his personal Facebook page that Pepperdine laid him off.
Then, it was another.
The Pepperdine Volunteer Center shared its final post May 27 via its Facebook and Instagram pages, informing the community it would close unexpectedly at the end of July.
Over the summer, Pepperdine’s Office for Student Affairs closed three departments and laid off six full-time staff members as part of what administrators called a budget and goal reprioritization — all without any public notice. The Convocation Office, the Pepperdine Volunteer Center and Songfest closed their doors July 31.
While these people left Pepperdine by July 31, their job functionalities didn’t.
A new team in the Office of the President picked up service and chapel while Student Affairs redistributed other responsibilities across Campus Activities.
The notices came 11 months after Pepperdine President Jim Gash told the community there would be no layoffs or furloughs due to COVID-19, which the University said remains true — these cuts were not made due to COVID-19 budget impacts.
When the news leaked, community members and employees expressed their disappointment and confusion to the changes, with Freedom Wall posts and outcries online following social media and Graphic coverage.
To Catch You Up – Past Graphic Coverage
“Change is inevitable, and we try to go about that in the most life-giving way possible,” said Danny DeWalt, Pepperdine vice president and chief of staff. “Everything that we’ve done here in Student Affairs and in Spiritual Life is coming out of this incredible vision for enhancement and improvement.”
Since the start of the school year, the community has quietly shifted around changes — slowly learning new names and forgetting old habits.
While members of the administration said they find pride in the reorganization and its effects, community members shared unease and distrust in the University as a whole.
Getting Let Go
Student Affairs let go of Peterson and Convocation’s Administrative Coordinator Anneleise Graf on Feb 6, 2021. Connie Horton, vice president for Student Affairs, sent an email May 25 to some members of Student Affairs that detailed additional positions “let go” due to budgetary and strategic changes.
The names listed were
- Sam Parmelee, Songfest director
- Peter Thompson, Pepperdine Volunteer Center director
- Anthony Rivero, Pepperdine Volunteer Center assistant director
- Stacy Montgomery, associate dean for transfer and commuter students
The May email also mentioned Jesse McCauley, Housing and Residence Life’s systems administrator, as a position reduced to part-time. HRL had two then-open Residential Director positions reduced to part-time roles as well.
The departmental restructuring of Student Affairs came after a review of “strategic priorities, services and budget priorities” designed “to ensure resources are positioned to best meet current and future needs of our students,” Horton wrote in a June 11 email to the Graphic.
“I want people to understand that we, to the degree that it’s affecting individual lives, we don’t take that lightly — like we really don’t,” Horton said. “The heartache and the prayer and the thinking and the rethinking, recognizing these are dear colleagues and friends.”
‘An Incredible Vision’
Pepperdine’s eighth president began his term Aug. 1, 2019, ushering in a new era.
As president-elect, Gash shared his three goals for the University: Faith, fundraising and footprints.
Throughout his first three years, Gash, the Board of Regents and his team of advisers — who Gash calls the Steering Team — have implemented University-wide program changes aligning with this vision. From funding new capital projects to creating a new International Program in Uganda and hosting the Table, Gash’s influence on the student experience at Pepperdine is evident.
Under the proposed 2030 Strategic Plan: Ascend Together, Pepperdine lists six strategic objectives and “numerous goals and initiatives,” according to the University’s website.
Pepperdine’s undergraduate school, Seaver College, has its own 2030 plan. The plan lists capital projects, such as a new student recreation and event center and the expansion of the Swiss IP program at the Château d’Hauteville in Vevay, but also less concrete goals like a “reconsideration of convocation,” to enhance the student experience.
New leadership in a university or organization often prompts changes in workflow and personnel.
President of Daemen College Gary A. Olson wrote a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education detailing the causes and effects of restructuring in institutions of higher education.
Olson helped reorganize Idaho State University in his then-role of provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. Following the 2008 recession, Idaho State strove to make budget cuts without reducing personnel and consolidated some of its academic divisions to do so, Olson wrote.
“We began with three primary goals,” Olson wrote. “To reorganize units in such a way as to increase efficiency and streamline operations; to enable our institution to emerge from a period of fiscal challenge academically stronger, not weaker; and, if possible, to realize a financial savings that could be applied to the state’s substantial and continuing budget cuts for higher education.”
In business, a restructuring can be called a Business Process Reengineering (BPR), which means an organization reshuffles its practices to optimize productivity, reduce costs and improve internal operations, according to management consultants Bain and Company.
The University talked about changing the Student Affairs office for years, Horton said. 2021 happened to be the moment to do it.
“It’s a constant conversation that was particularly intensified this last year to say, ‘What are our priorities?'” Horton said.
University Chaplain Sara Barton said she’s always wanted a team of chaplains since starting at Pepperdine eight years ago. It was Gash’s vision for spiritual life that spurred the creation of the Hub for Spiritual Life and the move to the Office of the President, Barton said.
Administrators opened the Hub for Spiritual Life on May 3, reorganizing the Office of Spiritual Life from Student Affairs to the Office of the President. Instead of reporting to Horton, the office reports to DeWalt.
DeWalt said reorganization is an evaluation of an office and its functions to reaffirm the University’s goals.
“When we reorganize the department, it may mean that we’re going to change out what the positions look like, because the program’s going to look different and we need different skill sets, and we need a different job description, and we need to articulate the role of that department differently,” DeWalt said.
The Cost of a Restructuring
In the past three years, Student Affairs officials have created new roles and offices to meet changing student needs, such as the RISE office in 2021 to educate students on resilience and bouncing back from hardship.
With changes comes the reallocation of funds, Horton said.
“You want to have your money match your priorities,” Horton said.
DeWalt and Horton said the restructurings were not related COVID-19 expense optimization.
“We made a decision as a University, not to lay off anybody or furlough anybody during COVID as a result of COVID and we achieved that,” DeWalt said.
At Pepperdine, the fiscal year follows the academic calendar, with FY21 ending July 1, 2021 and FY22 beginning Aug 1, 2021.
Pepperdine committed to avoiding furloughs and layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic through the 2020 fiscal year, later extended through Dec. 31, 2020 and then through spring 2021.
“Our desire is to take care of our people,” Gash wrote in an August 2020 email to the Pepperdine community. “Sometimes that will be expressed through avoiding layoffs and furloughs. Other times we may be required to implement reductions in our workforce. If that day comes, our desire will be to do it in a way that takes care of our people.”
The Student Affairs restructuring accompanied a University-wide budget reprioritization, Chief Financial Officer Greg Ramirez wrote in a Dec. 13 email to the Graphic. Each area of the University cut 7.5% of their budgets, which senior administrators reallocated.
“The redistribution of funds was determined by senior leadership after much deliberation and allowed us to strategically target high priority areas, such as increased scholarship, fundraising support, athletics and other key areas,” Ramirez wrote.
Several departments laid off other staff to make those cuts. Information Technology, for example, laid off the technology liaisons embedded in academic departments among other roles. DeWalt and Human Resources did not provide the number of personnel laid off during FY21 due to “privacy reasons,” DeWalt said.
Horton did not share with the Graphic how much Student Affairs needed to cut for the FY22 budget. Despite numerous email and verbal requests, the University has not shared its FY21 budget with the Graphic.
Ramirez’s role in the reorganization is to help the University achieve long-term budget sustainability, he wrote.
“In a period of significantly reduced revenue, we must be extremely mindful of our cost structure and, accordingly, may consider a strategic realignment of resources as we did in last year’s budget cycle,” Ramirez wrote.
A reorganization allows Pepperdine to achieve a sustainable model of operation across all areas of the University, Ramirez wrote.
“Our objective as a University is to achieve a balanced budget every year, but how we arrive at this may change from year to year,” Ramirez wrote. “If revenues decrease, then we must have a corresponding reduction in spending. If revenues increase, then we have more to strategically allocate to the University’s highest priorities of which are consistent with the University’s strategic plan.”
Pepperdine holds $1.7 billion in assets, according to the FY21 audited financial statements. The University’s endowment holds $1.1 billion of the net assets, $537 million of which are under donor restrictions, meaning the University holds millions of dollars in reserves that it slowly uses every year.
As CEO, Gash and his office are responsible for orchestrating and increasing donor dollars every fiscal year. In 2019, Gash’s team broke Pepperdine’s record for money raised in a single year.
Lauren Cosentino, vice president for Advancement and chief development officer, said Pepperdine’s expectations for services and fundraising are only getting higher.
“[The 2030 strategic plan] is going to take money, and much much more money than we are bringing in right now,” Cosentino said. “Our goals will increase annually so that we can enable Pepperdine to do these things and every part of this strategic plan.”
The Restructuring – Spiritual Life
Throughout Pepperdine’s history, students attended required on-campus chapel services regularly — initially from daily chapel, to three times a week, to bi-weekly to a 14-credits-per-semester requirement, according to the 2017-18 Chaplain’s Office Program review.
The Chaplain’s Office added Club Convos and Spiritual Mentoring to Convocation in the early 2000s, increasing opportunities to earn credits. Peterson started at Pepperdine in 2015 and worked with Convo in coordinating those programs until his termination.
Coming in, Peterson heard from his predecessor, Sarah Jaggard, that one of his biggest challenges ahead of him would be incorporating instruments into Convocation due to Pepperdine’s Church of Christ a cappella heritage. He got the instruments, but still looked for the program to evolve.
In the past four years, internal and external factors pushed Convo to a turning point, Peterson said.
Peterson and his wife — tenured Art Professor Gretchen Batcheller — spent the 2018-19 academic year in Heidelberg as faculty-in-residence with International Programs. Chris Shea and Eric Wilson oversaw Convocation while Peterson was gone.
Upon his return in fall 2019, Peterson said it was hard to find his footing again.
The office was suddenly reorganized one week before students arrived, Peterson said.
Rachel Collins, originally involved with Convocation programming, moved to Student Ministries. Graf took the program coordinator job and had to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of the office. Shea left before the start of the year and Wilson transitioned out of the office shortly after, becoming an Associate Dean of Student Affairs.
The landscape of Pepperdine shifted too. Following the Woolsey Fire, Borderline shooting and Gash’s inauguration, Peterson and the Spiritual Life Office were responding to changes at all levels of the school, even before the pandemic.
“I did my best from what I had,” Peterson said. “From hindsight, the situation was suboptimal.”
Pepperdine waived the Convocation requirement for three semesters due to COVID-19 — spring 2020 to spring 2021. During that time, the Spiritual Life office worked on proposals for a new program, which evolved into the student requirement today — Seaver 200. First and second-year Seaver students must attend 10 events to earn credit for Seaver 200 — six small group events of their choosing and four program-wide ones.
Barton, Collins, Peterson, Graf and then-Associate Chaplain Lauren Begert pitched ideas for a new chapel program to Gash, DeWalt and Horton in December 2020. The administration didn’t give a clear answer to their proposal until later — after Peterson was gone.
“That was the last meaningful contact I had with Pepperdine before I was laid off,” Peterson said.
For the next two months, Peterson said some of his emails went unanswered and meetings slowly disappeared off his calendar.
Early February, Peterson had a Zoom meeting with Human Resources and Barton letting him know he was “being let go.” At that point — Peterson said it was no surprise.
Peterson recounted sitting at his desk, moments before this meeting began, finally connecting the dots. Over the past six months, something had felt off — emails going unaddressed, interesting interactions with colleagues. It all began to make sense.
Several aspects of Peterson’s life at this moment were tied to the University — most notably his housing. Pepperdine offers limited accommodations to faculty and staff who qualify. Peterson and Batcheller have lived on campus for almost 10 years.
He braced himself when he logged onto the call. As Barton began to read the HR letter, Peterson said he couldn’t feel shock. He just remembers thinking, “Shit — my wife has cancer.”
Batcheller was diagnosed with cancer twice — once as a child and again in 2020 — and this was a well-known fact in the Chaplain’s Office and the greater University community, Peterson said.
The Chaplain’s Office announced the launch of Seaver 200 on May 6 and implemented the programming in fall 2021.
The Hub for Spiritual Life filled seven staff positions over the summer. The top floor of the TCC underwent a remodel summer 2021, rebranding the Sandbar to the Light House and moving the chaplains’ offices to the second floor.
The office onboarded two assistant chaplains, one associate chaplain, a chaplain of worship, an administrative assistant and a director and assistant director of Community Engagement and Service.
“It has been fulfilling to see a team, some new and some existing employees, working to enhance spiritual life at Pepperdine and serve students effectively,” Barton wrote in a Nov. 11 email to the Graphic.
Collins and Barton are the only remaining Spiritual Life staff from 2020.
Peterson still lives on campus with his wife and his two children.
The family never considered leaving, Peterson said. Between the pandemic, his wife’s cancer treatments and the struggles of parenting, the layoff was “the opposite of icing on the cake.”
“I think it’s fair to say it felt like a sucker punch and felt inhumane,” Peterson said. “Who lays the guy off whose wife is battling high-risk cancer?”
Batcheller was undergoing chemotherapy in spring 2021 when Peterson lost his job. While not working enabled him to be there for her during that time, the layoff added strain as well, Peterson said.
“It also put pressure on her to provide, when what she needed to do was focus on healing,” Peterson said.
But Peterson and Batcheller knew it still wasn’t time to leave Pepperdine.
“We’re not done here, and I believe that to be true,” Peterson said.
Since his layoff, Peterson attends the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Caruso School of Law and said he loves having his “new lane” at Pepperdine. No longer is he “the Convocation guy” — a personification of Pepperdine spirituality or the defender of credits. Peterson’s a student taking classes, finishing homework and learning just like everyone else.
“I feel good,” Peterson said. “Now, in November 2021, I feel good.”
Graf declined to comment for this piece.
The Restructuring – Service
Pepperdine’s mission statement affirms students are “strengthened for lives of purpose, service and leadership.” The 2030 strategic plan draft echoes this: “Service is a core value of the University, and Pepperdine affirms that knowledge calls, ultimately, for a life of service.”
Thompson joined the PVC in 2011. During his time at Pepperdine, Thompson said he strove for the PVC to be a “social justice lab” — a place where students could engage with service in a hands-on manner.
“It’s not a one opportunity thing,” Thompson said. “It’s a chance to experiment and connect and realize your place in an overall vision for justice in the world.”
Thompson added Rivero to his staff in 2013, fresh out of his undergraduate program at the University of California, Irvine. In 2018, Rivero became assistant director amid a turbulent time for Pepperdine and Thompson.
“I transitioned in 2018 to assistant director about the time of Woolsey, Borderline and when Peter was diagnosed with brain cancer,” Rivero said. “I was, during that time, the interim assistant director, kind of the acting director while he was on medical leave.”
Thompson and Rivero oversaw a variety of projects, but there were two specific branches to the department — Jumpstart, and everything else.
Jumpstart is an AmeriCorps program that places college students in preschool classrooms to help prepare kids for kindergarten.
Pepperdine’s Jumpstart program began in the early 2000s. Associate Dean for Student Affairs Brad Dudley and Seaver Associate Dean Kindy DeLong — then both in different roles — wrote the program proposal in fall 2001 and the program launched May 2002, Dudley said. Since then, the program has employed hundreds of students and is one of the largest chapters in the U.S.
Thompson and Rivero were the two full-time PVC staff in 2020 before Pepperdine went remote. Stacy Rouse and Savanna Davenport oversaw the Jumpstart side as program and site manager, respectively.
Thompson had a similar experience to Peterson when he was laid off — a strange sequence of events leading to a mysterious calendar event that disrupted his afternoon. At first, he said he tried to reassure himself, “Service is part of the mission — it’s the brand of Pepperdine.”
When he got the call, however, Thompson was convinced it was just him getting laid off. Instead, he learned the entire department would be dissolved and Rivero’s position was eliminated.
“That was the biggest hit,” Thompson said.
Rivero got the same treatment: A 10 a.m. calendar notification of a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled that same day. But he noticed his Jumpstart coworkers had a different 2 p.m. call, talking to Student Employment supervisors instead of Human Resources.
Thompson and Rivero said they received neutral answers from supervisors on why they were being let go, they heard references to budget and strategy. Thompson said he believes that as the director and assistant director, they took the PVC in “a direction the new administration didn’t want service to go in,” which prompted the layoffs.
In the following few weeks, Thompson and Rivero had little to do but meet with the Hub and hand over their work.
“We were still employed, getting paid by the University [but] not expected to work,” Thompson said. “It was very clear that it was not a thought-out process and no one knew what they wanted from me.”
To Thompson and Rivero, it seemed that the Hub for Spiritual Life staff were caught off-guard in the transition as well.
“I had meetings where the Hub would ask me questions, kind of just general questions, because they told me they had no vision for what service would look like,” Rivero said “They gave all of my file access to the new staff, and they currently use it.”
In a June 11 email to the Graphic, Horton wrote that service “remains core to Pepperdine’s identity” and is a “mission-critical priority for the University.”
Thompson said several of the programs and changes to the PVC he’s seeing are changes he advocated for, like elevating service toward the President’s Office.
Rivero echoed his sentiments — he worked on proposals to cut the PVC’s budget and create more sustainable programs, which he said Student Affairs rejected.
“I also created a majority of the systems Jumpstart and the Hub’s service model still use today, whether it’s the partner relationships, organization of resources, structure of trainings,” Rivero said. “I shifted the training programs so that we both have in-person and remote opportunities for students.”
The Seaver Dean’s office and the Hub for Spiritual Life took over service-learning, according to a June 7 email to Seaver faculty and staff.
“Our efforts to detail support for community-based learning are also in their preliminary stages, but they will be ready for the start of the new academic year,” Seaver Dean Michael Feltner wrote in the June 7 email.
Service-learning was a growing pillar of the Seaver experience, Thompson said. Prior to COVID-19, the program had 82-courses taught across the college. Thompson’s goal was to have a service-learning direction within academic divisions to match students’ degree paths. The student would then engage the community within a capstone course, creating real-world impact locally.
When the PVC closed in May, Jumpstart stayed mostly intact, operating as it did before, Rouse wrote in a Nov. 10 email to the Graphic.
“While it is not identical to before, how things have changed are minimal in the bigger picture of the reorganization,” Rouse wrote.
Davenport, current Jumpstart site manager, did not respond to emailed questions.
In the transition, Jumpstart did not add staff positions, but some supervisors in Student Employment received additional compensation to recognize the added responsibilities of Jumpstart, Horton wrote in a Nov. 15 email to the Graphic.
Student Employment has always been a primary partner of Jumpstart, Dudley said, due to the financing of the program, paperwork and background checks that Jumpstart requires. All Jumpstart student leaders receive payment through Federal Work-Study or a Pepperdine work study program.
The Pepperdine Volunteer Center’s webpage is still active on Pepperdine’s website and its Gmail account is still active.
The University has not communicated that the Hub for Spiritual Life has held responsibility for the PVC’s programs since May; the only announcement came from the since-deleted PVC social media account.
“I also think that this happened at a very intentional and specific time as the campus was still closed so the renovations and the reopening of the Light House and the Hub distracted from the fact that the PVC no longer exists,” Rivero said. “I think that that has maybe taken the attention away from the people that have been still reaching out to the names on the website.”
One term of Rivero’s employment was a tuition aid percentage for his enrollment at Pepperdine for his Master of Arts at Seaver. When he was laid off, he had to fight to keep his financial aid to finish graduate classes.
Thompson received a special offer — a one-year contract at Pepperdine starting Aug. 1 as a Jumpstart employee that allowed him to remain in his on-campus housing.
Thompson worked for Jumpstart for about a month, he said, after his Director position ended July 31. He decided to stop working with Pepperdine entirely in September.
“We already thought about when would be a good time for my family to move forward and we didn’t have to overthink that part,” Thompson said. “Once I’m not living on campus, too, there’s like nothing left.”
Thompson accepted a position in the Institute for Human Development at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, as a grant writer and director of program development. Thompson moved his family to Missouri in mid-November, cutting his last physical tie to the University.
Rivero is finishing his grad program and once he’s done, so is his time at Pepperdine. He said this experience revealed to him that Pepperdine created norms for who should or shouldn’t work at Pepperdine, and it’s clear that wasn’t him.
As the only non-Church of Christ employee who is a person of color at the PVC — and the only one not offered continued employment of any kind, he said — Rivero said he believes these factors weighed in his layoff.
“The experience that I have, the identity that I bring, and the connection I have to the work, regardless of how well I knew it, and how well we did it — because I think a lot of our measurables were successful — I felt disposable because I fell out of that Student Affairs Pepperdine mold,” Rivero said.
The Restructuring – HRL and ICA
Robin Gore, director of Housing Operations, wrote in a June 14 email to the Graphic that the purpose behind the HRL reduction was to create collaboration with Intercultural Affairs.
“HRL is proud to be partnering with ICA to support our international students and cultural clubs,” Gore wrote.
Following the restructuring, the Office of Intercultural Affairs received additional “base funding” for programs and added three positions, Horton wrote in a Nov. 29 email.
The office added a full-time administrative assistant, part-time position for international student support and programming and a part-time position for ICA general program coordination.
The restructuring allowed for ICA to have more oversight and focus on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, Horton said. Wilson, after leaving the Convo office, became an associate dean for Student Affairs and oversaw the PVC, Spiritual Life and ICA, before leaving that role to become the University Church of Christ minister.
Terra Hall is the new associate dean of Student Affairs for Diversity and Belonging and oversees only ICA programming and DEI initiatives due to the restructuring, Horton wrote.
ICA opened its recently remodeled lounge in the HAWC in fall 2021 and offers diversity and inclusion presentations on subjects like implicit bias, microaggressions and intersectionality, according to its website.
The Restructuring – Songfest
Two Seaver students started Songfest in 1973 to reclaim a lost tradition from the LA campus — Spring Sing.
Chris Stivers — a Pepperdine alumnus, retired professor of Communication and Songfest accompanist — was a student in ’72 when his peers created the idea. Initially, he wasn’t onboard.
“I thought, ‘Well, this sounds like a silly idea, I don’t know if I want to do this,'” Stivers said. “After the first Songfest, I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing, what is the matter with me?'”
Parmelee, on the other hand, grew up on Songfest as a child of two Pepperdine employees.
Parmelee got involved with the program his junior year after he and his friends joked about participating in Songfest under their unofficial “fraternity,” Gamma Ghkkkket Sigma (GGS, the three friends’ initials, Galen, Geoff, Sam).
“We were like, ‘Oh, if we were really a fraternity, we would do Songfest,’ because back then every fraternity and every sorority were doing Songfest,” Parmelee said.
The joke stuck and Gamma Ghkkkket Sigma and Friends was one of the few non-Fraternity and Sorority Life groups in Songfest, open to all.
“We just never dropped out, we just kept going,” Parmelee said.
Parmelee became the group’s student director, working with Stivers that year, his senior year and his fifth year.
Parmelee graduated from Seaver in 2000 but returned in 2001 after being laid off from his first job. He rejoined the Songfest team as a co-leader and over the next 20 years put on show after show.
The Songfest team varied over the years, Parmelee said, but since he has worked in the office, Stivers and Katie Ebeling McNayr (’01) had been the two constants — despite neither of them actually being employed with Student Affairs.
Others cycled through to support the show, one being Brittney Skinner, now assistant dean of Student Affairs and director of Student Activities, and the most recent hire, Campus Programs Coordinator Danielle Minke.
“None of us created Songfest, we all sort of inherited it and we were all stewards of it,” Parmelee said.
Organizers canceled the 2020 show a week before opening due to COVID-19. Students pulled off a virtual Songfest in 2021, Stivers said, without much help from Parmelee and himself.
For the 2021 academic year, Parmelee opted into a COVID-19 elective furlough. The University began the elective furlough program in fall 2020 to accommodate interested staff and to offer flexibility due to the pandemic, DeWalt said.
“A small handful of staff requested an elective furlough, which could be either a continuous leave or a reduced hour work schedule,” DeWalt said.
Parmelee had been considering his situation since August, he said, because he knew Songfest would be vastly different and not need as much time from himself. But a bigger motivation was concern for his coworkers.
Parmelee had no official reason to worry his Student Activities colleagues would be “on the chopping block,” he said, but he took the furlough to reduce the chance either way.
“To me, it was like, ‘Well, this might be an opportunity for me to scale back what I’m doing, help the office save some money so that we can retain the people who aren’t at the same stage of life,'” Parmelee said. “I was hoping it might protect some people.”
When the University presented the option to all staff in September, Parmelee created a plan with his supervisor and went on leave from Oct. 12, 2020 to April 12, working only when needed.
Less than five other staff members opted into the elective furlough, DeWalt said. DeWalt could not provide what departments the other staff belonged to because of HR privacy concerns, he said.
When he returned in the spring, Parmelee worked full-time for a little less than a month, helping Songfest 2021 in its post-production stages. The show ran April 29-30 and Parmelee went on his typical summer administrative leave May 1.
On May 25, Parmelee met with his supervisors and Human Resources, who informed him that he was being let go.
“I have very mixed feelings about my own layoff,” Parmelee said. “I mean, here we are, months later after finding out, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it. I’ll probably keep turning through that for the rest of life.”
Student Affairs officials attempted to reduce the budget of Songfest for several years, Stivers said, cutting the number of shows and almost dropping the 18-piece band. The show’s expenses come mostly from rentals, including sets, lights and costumes.
“My sense is the cost of Songfest is trivial compared to how the University spends money for other things, especially when you consider the long-term benefits to individuals and the institution,” Stivers said.
Nine months after his layoff, Parmelee is at a crossroads in his career.
“This fall, I’ve been sort of figuring out my next steps professionally,” Parmelee said. “Fortunately, because of how things have worked out — there was some severance package when I was laid off at Pepperdine, that combined with just where my family was at — that wasn’t something I had to solve immediately. I’ve had some time to work with it.”
While spending almost two decades doing Songfest is an interesting line on his resume, Parmelee said there’s no real equivalent job on the market for him.
“When I started this, I was not planning to be doing it for 20 years, it was something I sort of fell into rather than something I chose,” Parmelee said. “But then I was actually choosing to continue doing it because I felt like God had made that sort of a mission field for me, he had provided that opportunity to do it.”
He’s considered returning to his first career in software development, but he completed a graduate program for film and television music in 2004, so that’s where he’s got his sights set — composing full-time.
As the 2022 show date inches closer, the future of Songfest remains uncertain.
“If Songfest were to disappear, that’s far more heartbreaking to me than me not being employed at Pepperdine anymore,” Parmelee said.
Minke is the main contact for this year’s events, said Lauren Whittington, senior director of Songfest Group HOT, supplying her and her co-leaders the only information thus far.
In a Jan. 19 email to the Graphic, Minke wrote that Student Activities will host a formal “kick-off” in early February, with show dates scheduled for March 18-19.
The Restructuring – Commuter and Transfer Students
Following Montgomery’s layoff, Student Affairs is continuing programming for commuter and transfer students, Horton wrote in a Nov. 29 email to the Graphic. Horton did not elaborate on what these programs entail.
Minke and Student Activities now oversee the transfer and commuter programs.
Montgomery declined to be interviewed for this piece.
Feb. 17, The Graphic broke the news of the Convocation layoffs.
May 27, the PVC announced its own closure.
With little-to-no communication from upper-level administrators about the layoffs in Student Affairs, many in the community came to their own conclusions.
Justin Schneider, a double alumnus and former PVC assistant director, posted on the now-deleted Pepperdine Volunteer Center’s Facebook page, expressing his disapproval of its closure.
In a May interview with the Graphic, Schneider said he believed the reorganization was a consolidation of power by the President’s Office.
“By making this reorganization — I can’t say it’s bad on the planning side, because these conversations have gone back and forth for many years — but I will say that the way it happened and the ways that it has lacked information from these experts [former Student Affairs employees], it reveals to me a distrust in the administration,” Schneider said.
Other interviewed sources agreed.
“I have not worked in Human Resources, I have not worked as a general counsel at any corporation or school,” Parmelee said. “But I would assume, from my perspective, that there’s much better ways to do things than the way it was done. And I don’t even just mean, for me, personally, I’m talking about across the board.”
A November Graphic survey of 146 community members — composed of students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents — found 57% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I trust Pepperdine administrators to provide transparent information regarding strategic decisions and organizational goals.”
The largest group of those disapproving was staff — 66% responded they disagreed or strongly disagreed — and students followed close behind at 59%.
“All the decisions that they’ve made, the administration, we have not had any discussion,” Seaver alumnus (’20) Derek Pinto said in a May interview about the PVC closure.
Of the 67 students surveyed, 79% said their trust in Pepperdine’s communication has decreased slightly or significantly during their time as a student.
Fourth-year students saw the greatest plummet — of the 31 surveyed, 90% said their trust in Pepperdine’s communication decreased.
“I don’t think anybody knew what was going on or there was a good explanation of why or how,” Parmelee said.
Of the 36 faculty and staff surveyed, 61% said their trust in Pepperdine’s communication has decreased.
“People want transparency and accountability, but people also want to be involved in the process,” Schneider said. “The perception is that it is less of a process of University improvement as it is a fulfilling of a vision of a certain few.”
About 25% of staff said they agree with the statement: “My opinions and beliefs are respected by Pepperdine administration.” Approximately 42% of staff said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.
“One of the comments that was made by […] an alumnus and former employee was, ‘Whatever happened to purpose, service and leadership?'” Schneider said. “And I joked that, ‘It’s still there, but your purpose is to serve our leadership.’ And that is the sense I get more than ever.”
The Graphic’s survey results were shared with Gash and DeWalt for University comment.
“Transparency and proactive communication is among our top priorities with administration and our deep desire for our community as an administration,” DeWalt said in response to the Graphic’s survey results.
Throughout these changes, Pepperdine installed banners over the summer on its lampposts reading, “You Belong,” “You are Loved” and “Welcome Home.” Peterson said the messaging struck him as insensitive.
“When you’re reorganized and really not given a say on a reason why, that same week to have banners go up that say ‘You are Loved’ cut right to the heart of Pepperdine’s cognitive dissonance,” Peterson said.
When it comes to restructuring, faculty unrest is common, Olson wrote in his column for the Chronicle for Higher Education.
“The reorganization trend in academe has caused a great deal of apprehension, and even anger, among some faculty members,” Olson wrote. “Many faculty members find it difficult to imagine a way of doing things different from what they are accustomed to, despite the promised benefits of a reorganization.”
The effects of reorganization, however, don’t always cause permanent strife, Olson wrote.
“Once the change is in place, many who once opposed it often begin to embrace it,” Olson wrote. “What once seemed so foreign and unimaginable soon becomes a source of optimism as faculty and staff members begin to realize the benefits of the new organization.”
The Rules of a Restructuring
Pepperdine is an at-will employer, meaning it can terminate employees without cause or prior notice, and employees can leave without notice as well, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.
While faculty can be tenured — meaning they cannot be let go without justifiable cause or extreme circumstances — Pepperdine’s staff are generally on annual contracts, renewed at the discretion of the University.
Human Resources Director Kevin Hamlet has worked in HR for 30 years in California, Utah and Washington. Hamlet explained “termination” is the broadest term of use in the field — it’s not a negative term, it just means a person is no longer employed.
Pepperdine’s University Policy Manual notes a reduction in force clause that details the criteria and credentials of these types of layoffs.
Factors of a reduction in force include operational needs — how important the job is to Pepperdine’s functionality — and the person’s demonstrated capability and performance, according to the University Policy Manual.
The policy requires Pepperdine to give employees a reason for the reduction and their effective end date. Employees will receive at least two weeks notice, payment of accrued vacation time and an invitation to apply for a different position, according to the policy.
Layoffs don’t require the same documentation as firings, Hamlet said. They do, however, require thoughtful consideration to avoid wrongful termination claims.
To avoid wrongful termination lawsuits or other legal consequences, the employer must note the performance problems and progressive discipline leading to the termination, according to the California Chamber of Commerce.
The easiest way to conduct layoffs is through eliminating a department, Hamlet said. This reduces liability of discrimination and creates consistency across individuals. If an organization only needs to lay off part of a team, best practice is to first eliminate those with documented performance issues and corrective action, Hamlet said.
Peterson and Rivero said they received assurance from supervisors their layoffs were not performance-based.
Then, organizations typically lay off based on experience, Hamlet said. Those employed for 90 days or fewer are most susceptible to being let go. If more cuts are necessary, he then chooses those employed for fewer than two years.
Montgomery and Parmelee had been at the University for almost 20 years, Thompson for 10, Rivero for eight, Peterson for six and Graf for four.
Hamlet said some managers will try and “pick and choose” who they’d like to keep in a layoff, but this puts an employer at risk because the picking and choosing can be grounds for discrimination.
Companies can avoid this risk by writing severance agreements that benefit the terminated individual — offering financial compensation, an extension of benefits or other valuable incentives in return for an agreement not to sue and sometimes a non-disclosure agreement.
Three interviewed sources, who will remain anonymous for legal protection, said they received severance agreements from the University with benefits and an NDA.
Following a restructuring, some companies choose to offer the affected person a similar position in a different department, Hamlet said, without applications or interviews. However, requiring reapplication for the new roles also helps create more control over who is continuing employment at the institution.
“Letting them apply is probably the best route, right, just across the board, then I reduce the risk to the organization that we’re going to bring problem people over from one area and put them into another,” Hamlet said.
In a restructuring, Pepperdine officials encourage laid-off personnel to reapply for the new roles, DeWalt said.
“Sometimes they get rehired, that happens all the time,” DeWalt said. “Other times they get moved to other parts of the University and are invited to apply to any open positions at the University. Sometimes they decide to move on and seek other employment.”
From a business standpoint, McKinsey and Company recommends reorganizations happen with clear, frequent and engaging communication from leadership to “reduce unnecessary anxiety and unproductive wheel-spinning,” according to a 2016 article.
Hamlet said his advice to executives is to be fair and consistent with all affected employees.
“If you’re looking at it from a long-term viability standpoint of being an organization that you want to be known as being a trusted organization, then some transparency is going to be necessary,” Hamlet said.
Though an organization may need to make budget cuts or reduce their workforce, ultimately it is within the company’s best interest to retain all other staff through clear communication.
“If you’re gonna make a short-term break in this, you have to think about, ‘What kind of trust am I losing in the community and in with the students and the faculty by doing this?'” Hamlet said. “And, ‘How do I ensure that I restore that trust as quickly as I can with them?'”
About 54% of survey respondents said communication regarding layoffs and furloughs negatively influenced their trust in Pepperdine administration. Of faculty and staff, 75% said layoff and furlough communication negatively influenced their trust.
Pepperdine Moves Forward
Under the Hub for Spiritual Life, the Seaver 200 program has seen success in attendance rates.
In fall 2019, 62% of Seaver students reached completion of Convocation credits and 12% failed entirely. For fall 2021, 84% of students reached full completion of credits and less than 1% failed, Collins wrote.
The Light House renovations and the remodel of TCC 250 — the former PVC office suites — allow for intentional one-on-one ministry and a central location for spiritual life, something Barton said she has hoped for for years.
The Hub hired Christin Shatzer Román and Olivia Robinson as director and assistant director of Community Engagement and Service, respectively, to oversee volunteer and service programming. Shatzer Román described her role as “connecting students to community service opportunities,” in an August interview with the Graphic.
“For the first semester, we’re trying to make an impression on campus that service is still a value at the University; that there’s no less commitment from the University being involved in volunteer and service efforts,” Shatzer Román said.
Shatzer Román and the Hub’s Community Engagement and Service division picked up some of what the PVC left behind. The Hub hosted the 2021 Step Forward Day and a Red Cross Blood Drive Nov. 16-18. Project Serve will also continue under the Hub, with two opportunities for spring break 2022, Barton wrote.
Jumpstart student leaders continue to serve in Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District classrooms and throughout the broader LA area.
Songfest student leaders continue to plan for the upcoming March 2022 show.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the results of what we’re seeing happening even in the first couple of months,” DeWalt said. “I would love for our community to understand that these [changes] are coming out of positive movements and exciting movements, and that we’re seeing really exciting results that we had hoped to.”
The Graph: What Happened to Student Affairs?
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Contact Ashley Mowreader via Twitter (@amowreader) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org