By Sophie Hills
A long-running Principia community discussion about admitting students who don’t identify as Christian Scientists took formal shape this summer when the Principia Board of Trustees announced a pilot admissions program. The announcement came on Aug. 2 and gave few parameters for the admissions program, which is to be developed and tested on the college campus and the St. Louis campus when ready.
Each campus may admit up to 15 students who fall outside of the current admissions criteria. Chief Executive Marshall Ingwerson was very clear: The Trustees have not changed admissions policy. They have simply given the campuses permission to conduct the pilot program. Permission to run the program is, in effect, creating an exception to admissions policy as opposed to changing it, said Ingwerson.
The Trustees stated that the pilot admissions plan is designed to explore how the institution “can effectively ‘enlarge the tent’ of Principia to better fulfill our mission in today’s world.”
No concrete steps have yet been taken to implement the pilot admissions plan, but when they are, they will fall under student planning, said Maya Dietz, dean of Student Life.
“This is a first step,” explained Ingwerson; “it opens the way for the college and the school to now develop approaches for how to go about this.” The decision was made by the Trustees on a general level and is now for the faculty, staff, and administrators of both campuses to develop, he said.
Two recent surveys gauged student sensibilities about the idea of admitting non-Christian Scientists. A student-led poll of the Principia community, done last spring and reported in this issue (page 14), suggests that about a third of this Principia community is against the looser admissions policy, while the majority is either in support of or open to the idea. An alumni panel appointed by college President Jolanda Westerhof last spring to poll and analyze student experience at the college recommended that because not all students already enrolled identify as Christian Scientists, there should be a community-wide conversation about what defines a Christian Scientist and how to best fulfill Principia’s stated purpose to “serve the cause of Christian Science” while educating a range of students with diverse beliefs.
Various task forces were formed to address specific aspects of Vision 2020, the current cycle of strategic planning, and a task force will be formed to consider the pilot program with regard to the enrollment plan within the strategic plan, said Meggan Madden, Dean of Students. Although the decision to grant permission for the pilot program was made at the trustee level, separate from the college’s strategic plan, it will now be assimilated into strategic planning, explained Dean Madden.
Principia College conducts strategic planning every five years, explained Dietz, and Vision 2020 will wrap up this academic year. “We see [the Aug. 2 announcement by the Trustees] as permission to consider it in our strategic planning process, and the college gets to decide if they want to do anything with it,” said Dean Dietz.
No task force has been formed and no steps to implement the program have been taken. “Nothing’s really happened with it. …We’re still working on themes,” said Dietz. Based on this information, there are no short-term effects on students.
The Strategic Planning Committee is generating a strategic plan that will be submitted to the Trustees in February along with an enrollment plan, said Brett Grimmer, director of Admissions. “There is no recruiting around the pilot admissions plan because it hasn’t been implemented,” he said.
The college plans to ask for feedback from and engage with students, faculty, and staff through community forums and an enrollment plan task force. “As a deliberative body…the college looks to all of its constituents…and that’s how a college makes a recommendation for this kind of a change,” explained Grimmer.
“The input from all the stakeholders starts now,” said Ingwerson on the evening of Aug. 2.
That’s what Faculty Senate President Colleen Vucinovich is looking for. “It’s not that we’re unconvinced or that we’re opposed,” says Vucinovich, who speaks on behalf of the faculty. “It’s that we don’t really have a sense of what [the program] actually is and how we can get behind it. We do feel that, in order to make an initiative like this work, we need to have all stakeholders involved,” said Vucinovich. “This impacts every aspect of the college,” she said, so faculty, students, academic staff, administrative staff, and student life all need to be heard.
“I would really like to be able to reassure students that as a faculty we are acutely aware of the impact that decisions…will have on their education experience and the value of their education going forward,” said Vucinovich, noting that the faculty would like to partner with students to make the right decisions for the institution.
That kind of student input has been increasingly considered in recent years, most recently with the open Panel on Student Experience and Success, a group of alumni appointed last spring by Westerhof to survey and study student concerns. The panel’s report can be found in Westerhof’s Sept. 15 Watercooler announcement. The panel returned to campus this semester and held an open forum on their findings in Cox Auditorium on Sept. 20.
“We are considering the student experience in an intentional and active way, which is encouraging for me,” said Vucinovich, pointing to the recent shift in culture.