Members of PAC32 stand with the Crest Advisory Board in October 2021. PAC members said the disagreement between students’ control over the organization contributed to the pause, while Advancement said the pause was to prepare PAC for a period of growth. Photo by Sahej Bhasin
Pepperdine Ambassadors Council did not return for the 2022-23 academic year.
For the past 32 years, PAC had been a student-run organization composed of 20 undergraduates. They served as a bridge between Seaver College students and the wider Pepperdine and Malibu communities, according to the website.
However, since the start of the fall 2022 semester, there have not been students in the traditional navy blue blazers greeting at events — such as Founder’s Day — or presenting at President’s Cabinet meetings.
PAC — an organization students and alumni said they took part in to help represent students to the administration and wider Pepperdine community — is “pausing,” former adviser David Johnson wrote in a March 22, 2022 email to members of PAC.
Advancement and PAC students disagree over the nature of the pause. PAC members said the pause was the result of disagreement over how much control members would have over the selection process.
University Advancement, however, wrote that the pause has been a time to reimagine the future of the organization.
“It really is a shame to see a student organization that is made up of students who love the University and want to give back to the University to be completely disregarded and shoved to the side by the University we love so much,” said Josh Leow, Seaver alumnus (‘22) and former chair of PAC.
PAC began in the 1989-90 academic year under the Office of the President, according to the PAC website and PAC alumni.
In 1992, the University moved PAC under Advancement, according to PAC’s website.
In 2021, Johnson started as a new adviser, succeeding Meghan Lervold. Johnson’s appointment coincided with the change of Advancement’s relationship with PAC, PAC members said.
In the spring 2022 semester, Advancement proposed a decrease in student voice for membership selection PAC members said.
“To accomplish this reimagining and growing of PAC, we will be pausing the recruitment and selection processes in order to plan a new vision for PAC with your input, as well as the input from the 428 PAC alumni from the last 33 years who now live all over the world,” Johnson wrote in a March 22, 2022 email to members of PAC.
PAC’s pause is projected to last though the 2022-23 academic year, with the organization set to restart in fall 2023, wrote Lauren Cosentino, vice president and chief Advancement officer, in a March 14 email to the Graphic.
Gash declined to comment on the future plans for PAC but said he enjoyed his time with the organization in the past.
“Each year, I look forward to meeting and interacting closely with these talented and motivated representatives of Pepperdine,” President Jim Gash wrote in a March 14 email statement to the Graphic.
There will be interviews in spring 2023 for PAC membership for the 2023-24 academic year, Cosentino wrote.
“I am eager for PAC to resume this next fall,” Gash wrote
The Graphic reached out to Johnson regarding the reasons for PAC’s pause, but he did not respond to requests for comment.
Founding of PAC
Christine Grimm, Seaver alumna (‘90) and founding chairperson of PAC, said she founded PAC with Lisa Kodama, Seaver alumna (‘89) and GSEP alumna (‘91), in her junior year. At the time, Grimm was Student Government Association president and founded PAC in response to an absence of tradition she felt at Seaver College.
“Pepperdine wasn’t then what it is today,” Grimm said.
Kodama said in speaking with undergraduates from other universities, she learned different programs had student organizations representing the student body who reported to the president.
“I realized that we didn’t have a student organization that represented the wide diversity of students,” Kodama said. “International students had an international club, but everything was siloed and not just something that was representative of the diversity of the student body.”
At the time, Pepperdine did not have national fraternities or sororities or other similar legacies. Grimm said former President David Davenport and Benton paid for Kodama, Grimm and other students to explore the organizations at different universities and write proposals in response.
Most organizations at Pepperdine at the time, Grimm said, were small clubs. While advisers knew of the students on the club, these students often flew under the radar of the President’s Office, meaning the University would not ask them to represent the school.
“We saw at other schools that there were ambassadors that were diverse, that represented all of their student body, not just a handful of student leaders, whoever that might be,” Grimm said. “So that was really the beginning of PAC.”
Creating a Community
Benton said the founding PAC — PAC1 — and its successors were “great representatives” for Pepperdine.
“It was just an extraordinary group, and when I took them with me for donor meetings or to represent Pepperdine at the associates dinner, law school dinner, they just sparkled,” Benton said.
The formation of PAC, Kodama said, was quick, taking only a few months — in part because of the trust the administration had in the students.
“Admins, they were really open to students and student ideas,” Kodama said. “We earned trust. So they trusted us.”
In total, Kodama said the founding PAC had 20 students.
Kodama said the University gave members blue navy blazers that they wore at University events.
“They had an emblem created for us,” Kodama said. “So that would be this kind of identity.”
PAC, Kodama said, was about student empowerment.
“I remember one student, and I never asked him why, but he said it saved his life at Pepperdine,” Kodama said. “It gave him that sort of confidence that he needed, the networking that he was seeking, the opportunity to represent the University in a different way.”
The most important aspect of PAC, Leow said, was acting as a student voice directly to the President’s Office. It was also traditional for PAC members to provide updates at the Board of Regents meetings.
“We would represent the University as student liaisons at events, such as fundraisers out in L.A.,” Leow said. “We would frequently appear in Malibu city events so that Pepperdine could have a good relationship with the city of Malibu.”
Senior Baily McCutchen, operations coordinator for PAC for the 2021-22 school year, said she mainly helped out with events.
McCutchen said she had three older brothers who served on PAC and spoke highly of the organization.
“They kind of inspired me to do it,” McCutchen said. “And they were like, ‘It’s a really cool thing to be part of, not many people get to do it. You should just go for it and see if you get it.’”
McCutchen said her brothers told her about having a close relationship with then-president Benton and the network opportunities PAC afforded students. However, McCutchen said her experience on PAC did not reflect that.
Gash wrote he worked to interact with PAC and its members.
PAC met with Gash and Danny DeWalt, vice president and chief of staff, to speak about Gash’s vision for Pepperdine when Gash became president and met with both Gash and Benton at dinners, according to PAC’s website.
“I very much enjoyed my interactions with PAC during my first three years as president,” Gash wrote. “I have hosted PAC in my home on numerous occasions and am eager for PAC to resume its important work on campus.”
Ryan Brinkman, senior and former Graphic photo editor, said he served as one of the two external communications liaisons on PAC, acting as the go-between for local organizations, PAC and Pepperdine as a whole.
Brinkman said he initially joined PAC because of Leow, who was recruitment chair during the 2020-21 academic year.
When Brinkman thought about applying, he said PAC appeared to be a good way to give back to Pepperdine.
“[Leow] basically pitched it to me as if PAC was kind of the intermediary body between the administration and the student body, kind of performing an advisory role on non-policy, kind of substantive issues,” Brinkman said.
Dawson Foster, senior and one of PAC’s two recruitment coordinators for the 2021-22 academic year, said being a Theatre Arts major, he often does not have enough time to run for student government or sit on the Student Programming Board; however, a friend nominated him for PAC.
“This might be that medium for me that allows me some flexibility while also giving me a really cool insight into leadership at the school,” Foster said. “And I love Pepperdine. I have felt supported here.”
Foster said he “jumped” on the opportunity and became a part of PAC.
After joining PAC, Foster said he received a PAC Constitution that went over the inner workings and goals of PAC. These inner workings, Foster said, eventually shifted.
Maxine Li, Seaver alumna (‘22) and former external community liaison for PAC, said she joined PAC because she wanted to be a voice for the student body and act as a bridge between students and faculty.
With returning from COVID-19 and switching to a new adviser, Li said members’ expectations did not match up to reality.
“The issue with that was we kind of became like free labor,” Li said. “Where we were working a lot of events instead of talking to donors or like people inside the Malibu community, which was supposed to be our job, but instead we were going around handing out raffle tickets.”
A Shift in Structure
In summer of 2022, Cosentino reorganized Advancement to help align the department with Gash’s Pepperdine 2030: Ascend Together plan for the future for the University, Johnson wrote in the March 22, 2022 email to PAC members.
PAC had “a lot of work to do” Johnson wrote in the email, so that PAC could “have an even more important and larger role in the future partnering with University Advancement.”
Brinkman said PAC over the 2021-22 academic year was different from what he expected when he applied.
While members were aware PAC was available to network and represent the University to donors, events started becoming more last-minute, with the administration calling on PAC less, Foster said.
Cosentino wrote that PAC members had to attend seven events per semester, but often exceeded this amount.
Gash wrote that he continued to work with PAC.
Alongside the new adviser came changes, such as opening PAC up to Pepperdine’s graduate schools, McCutchen said.
An area of “growth or change” for PAC was expanding the organization to represent all five schools, in the upcoming years Johnson wrote in his email to PAC.
Advancement planned on having a “restructuring of roles and responsibilities of members, which will include shared leadership between the undergraduate and graduate PAC students,” Johnson wrote in the email.
“It kind of went from being like an ambassador to Pepperdine to becoming like a worker for Pepperdine but you weren’t paid,” McCutchen said.
Administration has Stronger Say in Selection
Foster said he was responsible for running the 2022-23 academic year recruitment cycle. In the spring semester, coordinators would reach out to applicants, receive recommendations and set up interviews.
While the students would still have some say on appointments for the next Council, PAC members said they learned in the spring 2022 semester administrators wanted more of a say in PAC membership and leadership decisions.
Brinkman said everything PAC learned about the changes to selection came from Cosentino and Johnson, who then either told PAC directly at weekly Wednesday morning meetings or communicated it to the chair and vice chair, who then told the rest of the members.
While Li said she understands the difficulty in recruiting 20 members, not consulting with PAC left room for miscommunication.
“Each PAC member kind of represented a different aspect of Pepperdine, in a lot of ways, and that almost seems like it was being taken away,” Li said.
Benton said historically PAC members chose who would be on the next year’s Council.
“I never was asked to help in the selection process,” Benton said. “I didn’t want to. I wanted students to own it, and own it they did. And they held themselves to exacting standards.”
PAC had been in charge of choosing their own leaders for 31 years, Leow said.
“That’s how it’s always been,” Leow said.
In March 2022, Leow said everything was going “smoothly,” with several “sharp” candidates applying for chair.
All 20 members contributed to the nomination and voting process, Leow said.
“There were other administrators in play and advisers who also wanted to give their opinions on who should join the Council, on who should lead it,” Brinkman said.
Grimm said if it were up to her, the best idea would be a hybrid model — with both students and administrators having control over selection — but she is still not sure about the best way to go about selection.
In the original application process, applicants were free to apply as long as they met PAC’s basic requirements, and members would choose the next Council, Li said.
The basic requirements for PAC, according to the PAC Constitution, were:
- A 3.0 GPA
- Completion of 60 units before the semester one would begin their position
- Junior or senior standing
- Attendance at Pepperdine for one year prior to starting their position
- Being at the University for two semesters while a member
- Involvement in at least three areas of student life
- Not holding top executive board positions in more than one — or two related — organizations
- Not being a member of organizations that conflict with the Wednesday morning meetings — such as SGA or HRL
Li said she was concerned because Johnson said legacies may have an advantage in the selection process.
“If their parents were on PAC, that would give them an advantage,” Li said.
Being an ambassador for life was something Advancement wanted to focus on, Johnson wrote in the email.
Many PAC members, Li said, were first-generation college students or did not have family who went to Pepperdine.
“Basing selection off of [legacies] was something that was really concerning to us and kind of diminishes our idea of the diversity that PAC was trying to create,” Li said.
Move Away from the Constitution
Additionally, PAC would move away from its Constitution, utilizing “operating guidelines” instead of a binding contract, Brinkman said.
Cosentino wrote PAC would be using the original charter, which calls for membership to be jointly decided.
Cosentino did not respond to request for follow-up comment on whether the charter was the same as the Constitution by the time of publication.
“PAC has had a charter from the original year of inception, and that is the charter that will be honored going forward,” Cosentino wrote.
“It started to feel very fake and fabricated, which was not the intention,” Foster said.
The Constitution, Li said, protected PAC members and provided an outline for what recruitment and roles within PAC looked like.
Getting rid of the PAC Constitution, Li said, also would have removed a framework and guideline for PAC’s operation.
However, while the Constitution encourages the adviser to sit in on selection — and gives him one vote — and for faculty to take part in interviewing applicants, the Selection Committee is responsible for all member selection, according to PAC’s Constitution.
“The Selection Committee shall consist of graduating senior Council members only,” according to the Constitution. “There must be at least nine members on the Committee. If fewer than nine graduating seniors are available, the Executive Board may recruit PAC alumni to serve on the Committee.”
Fitting a Mold
The changing of the application process, Foster said, points to a larger issue — a disconnect Foster feels between students and administration.
As administration moved to have more control over PAC’s selection process, PAC members said they felt the administration would not choose students representative of the University population.
Most people he has met at Pepperdine, Foster said, have been non-religious and very affirming of different sexualities and belief systems.
Approximately 40% of students at Pepperdine are somewhat or very politically liberal, according to a fall 2022 Office of Institutional Effectiveness Diversity Equity and Inclusion report.
Another 40% of students either have no or “unstated” religious affiliation, according to Pepperdine’s At a Glance Admission statistics.
“The diversity that PAC had was supposed to represent the diversity within the student body because obviously Pepperdine has a pretty wide variety of students,” Li said.
Foster said he was the only student on PAC who was a member of the Churches of Christ. Pepperdine is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, according to the University’s website.
“[PAC’s diversity] probably could have been better, but we had multiple ethnicities, we had different beliefs, we had different religions and different sexualities,” Foster said.
Foster also said he has been openly gay since his first year at Pepperdine and was out to PAC at the time he was running — originally unopposed — for chair.
“I obviously didn’t want [PAC] to just pick me because I was the only one [running for the position],” Foster said.
Eventually, another student decided to run for chair, and Foster said he was excited to begin the interview process. From there, Foster said he learned about the changes facing PAC, specifically that Advancement leaders would decide the next year’s chair.
Foster said he believes his sexuality played a role in why Advancement did not select him as chair — something he called “heart-wrenching” and “silencing.”
Cosentino did not respond to request for comment on Foster’s specific concerns regarding his sexuality.
In response to Advancement selecting the chair, Cosentino wrote “that is not the case.”
The lack of approval regarding a candidate’s sexual orientation, Leow said, prompted long conversations among PAC members and with Johnson regarding next steps for PAC.
From there, Leow said it was hard to move forward.
“That was probably the last straw that we were like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t gonna fly,’” Leow said.
Despite Advancement’s concerns, PAC was happy with their candidates, Leow said.
While Li said PAC members understood Pepperdine has a Churches of Christ background, saying that everyone within PAC had to fit a certain mold ran contrary to the initial mission of PAC.
Seaver College’s Sexual Relations Policy states the University’s understanding of Scripture is that marriage is only between a husband and a wife, according to the website. However, the University also states it will not tolerate “harassment of LGBT students,” and students cannot lose their scholarships or face disciplinary action because of their sexuality.
Students have protested this policy, according to Graphic reporting.
Leow said he had multiple conversations with former members and people within PAC32 about the boundaries and duties of PAC.
“Regardless of what the University was going to say about the orientation of our students and whether they could have a voice because of their orientation or not, we were just going to stand firm and fight for what we believed in,” Leow said.
This lens, where sexual orientation determines the ability to fit within a Pepperdine mold, was concerning, Li said, because it could be applied to any demographic.
“The fact that was even brought up as a problem became really, really concerning to us because there’s a lot of minorities on PAC,” Li said. “There’s a lot of first-generation college students. There’s people from different religious backgrounds.”
Going Over the Changes
Li said PAC initially tried to discuss various concerns with Johnson in numerous meetings — such as the selection process and changing of the Constitution — but said she felt Johnson “bulldozed” them.
Most PAC members, Leow said, were graduating, with only five or six returning for the 2022-23 academic year.
Johnson wrote in the March 2022 email Advancement would be reaching out to members to “help plan the new, more robust structure of PAC with University Advancement.”
The University told PAC they would reach out to former members about how to proceed, but Leow said he never learned what the outcome of that was.
“We pushed back, and the response that we got was, ‘Well, this is the direction that we’re taking,’” Leow said. “‘This is the direction that the University is taking, and this is what we’re going to do, but we’ll consider your push back.’”
Foster said there was a general response of “frustration and anger” and that “a shift” occurred after speaking with Johnson.
“The chair and vice chair have faced the brunt of it for us, and I will forever thank them for being responsible and brilliant and smart and kind and compassionate people in that situation,” Foster said.
Li said PAC believed the best course of action would be to select a different adviser.
“Eventually, it seems like they chose for us,” Li said. “But obviously, with how things went, like when the new adviser was put in place, that was supposed to start this year and never happened.”
PAC would be working closer with Cosentino as the organization was “moving past these pandemic challenges,” Johnson wrote in the March 22, 2022 email to PAC.
Advancement would seek “the input from the 428 PAC alumni from the last 33 years,” to decide the organization’s future, Johnson wrote in the March 22, 2022 email to PAC members.
No Word on What Comes Next
McCutchen said she was under the impression applications would be pushed back but would ultimately continue. However, she said she has still not heard anything about applicant’s status.
The last PAC event, McCutchen said, was in February 2022. As PAC members needed to attend a certain number of events, once McCutchen said they realized PAC was breaking down, they stopped attending.
“I had decided, kind of midway through the year, that I wasn’t going to return,” McCutchen said. “I was just like, ‘It’s just not really worth my time.'”
McCutchen said she has still not heard from Johnson — and there is still frustration and emotions left over; however, she does not think Advancement had any ill-intention toward the members of PAC.
“You can tell that the Administration had a very clear vision of where PAC was going, and it wasn’t the vision that students shared,” McCutchen said.
Cosentino, Johnson wrote in the email, reorganized Advancement over summer 2021. Johnson wrote she also asked him to work on expanding PAC’s role within the Pepperdine community through areas of change.
“We were just upset and frustrated and disappointed that this club that’s meant to be a privilege — and you’re supposed to have a voice in administration — was turning out that they actually didn’t care what our voice was,” McCutchen said.
While Brinkman said he is “pragmatic” and understands the changes being made to an extent, it is disappointing after the independence of PAC for 32 years.
“I love my school,” Brinkman said. “I love volunteering for my school, and kind of giving back to Pepperdine. But again, I think anyone would be disappointed when you have this idea of what you are signing up for or volunteering for and putting your time and effort toward and then having it be another thing.”
In fall 2022, Brinkman said Cosentino told him PAC would be restarting in a month or so before ultimately saying the organization was on a hiatus.
“It’s just very disappointing to see that things are the way they are because I’m pretty sure if you asked any professor or administrator over the last 20, 30 years, they would probably know what PAC is and the impact that PAC has on the University,” Leow said.
In fall 2022, Li said Johnson sent her an email about the possibility of PAC restarting for the year, but Li explained she would graduate in December, so she could not take part.
“[PAC] just faded off,” Li said.
The email to applicants, Foster said, went out April 22, 2022 — the day after PAC met with their adviser — and was honest about the uncertainty surrounding the future of PAC.
“In summary, the Pepperdine Ambassadors Council will look different than what was advertised moving into next year,” PAC wrote in the April 22 email to applicants. “These changes are yet to be determined, but rest assured, the current ambassadors are here to advocate for you and the integrity of the council moving forward.”
If PAC Comes Back
Benton said the dissolving of PAC saddened both him and his wife, Debby.
“I haven’t heard from really anybody on this, and so I must trust their judgment,” Benton said. “It just disappoints me that the PAC as I knew it, and the organization that is held in such high esteem, doesn’t seem like it’s going forward.”
If PAC were to restart, McCutchen said she would not have any say in how it operated.
“It’s kind of disappointing because it used to have such a strong legacy and was such a positive thing,” McCutchen said. “I don’t think it will carry the same weight that it used to because of this breakage.”
Li said it is important for the University to include the 30 years of PAC history and the growth that comes with it if they were to restart PAC.
“If they were just kind of to wipe out everything and just make a new one, I feel like that destroys the legacy of it and the purpose of it in a lot of ways,” Li said.
While it depends on whether the University would reach out to former members, Li said, if Advancement removed the Constitution, it would look as though they disregarded members’ concerns.
“That shows to us that what we’ve told them and what we’ve communicated doesn’t matter,” Li said. “And just what we’ve built PAC to be doesn’t matter.”
Leow said the University would need to clearly explain the role PAC was expected to fill.
“If whatever PAC they come up with mirrors what they wanted to force us to do back in 2022, no, I don’t think that would be a good thing,” Leow said.
The new direction of PAC, Leow said, undermined the goals of the institution and organization the students hoped to serve.
“I love the University so much, and I want the best for the University, and, as somebody who hopes to be involved with the University in the future as a potential donor even, it is very sad to see things, and some of the changes that are happening go against what I know to be Pepperdine,” Leow said.
These issues, Foster said, are not indicative of the whole of Pepperdine.
“I do not think it defines the school by any means,” Foster said. “And my intention here is by no means to badmouth the school. My goal is to share an experience that I had and hope that it makes Pepperdine a better place for students to come.”
The core foundation of PAC — being an intermediary body between the students and administration — is crucial to the University, Brinkman said.
“I might be biased, but I think the PAC students are some of the best and brightest examples of the value of an education from Pepperdine,” Brinkman said. “And so, selfishly, I want the best examples of the University to be shown to the Malibu community.”
Discussions of Change
Pepperdine and its Advancement team, Grimm said, have tried to “crack the code” on how to bring alumni back to the University.
“That’s not good for any of our stakeholders to be upset, right? I don’t want anybody to feel like the University isn’t clearly explaining what’s happening because we don’t need more disenfranchised people,” Grimm said.
PAC — and what will happen to it — Grimm said, should be thought of in the larger context of maintaining a lifetime relationship with alumni.
“Some people thought we [Grimm and Kodama] were going to be banging down the doors,” Grimm said. “Like, ‘How dare you change PAC?’ I think we’re smarter than that.”
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Contact Samantha Torre via Twitter (@Sam_t394) or email: email@example.com