CSICS students protest direction of school

Forum addresses frustrations over staff changes and focus of department.

Kathryn Watson, Writer

More than 50 concerned students and alumni of Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies gathered in Bardwell last Wednesday night, May 5, to dialogue with leadership over growing tensions within the department.

Doug Pennoyer, dean of CSICS, hosted the “fireside chat,” spending almost an hour and a half answering student questions about recent events and the future direction of the department.

“Some student voices have been very strong against the direction the school is going,” said Brian S., a member of the CSICS Undergrad Representative Council that set up the meeting. “We were trying to present the whole picture and let students see from there.”

Pennoyer thought the meeting, which he called a family discussion, went well. He voiced his frustration that he couldn’t answer all of the students’ questions due to privacy constraints related to specific personnel situations.

“It’s always so hard to stand up in front of a group and there are things you can’t say,” Pennoyer said.

One event that impelled the need for this meeting was the announcement several weeks ago that Len Bartlotti, an ICS professor who has been instrumental in developing the Islamic studies program, will not be returning next fall. Brian said the meeting was called to address rumors surrounding this event and give administration the opportunity to respond. While this was not the only issue raised by students, Brian said the dean’s decision not to renew Bartlotti’s contract was the proverbial “cherry on top.”

According to students, Bartlotti was a professor who embodied CSICS’s vision for holistic missions. His being let go has renewed concern about the school’s commitment to the centrality of missions in its program.

“What’s happened in the school of intercultural studies is that missions has become one of many good pursuits,” said Chris Reeder, a senior ICS major.

This is a significant claim against a department that is Biola’s self-described missionary conscience, as President Corey has termed it. Pennoyer echoed Corey’s statement that CSICS is a key component of the university.

“No matter what your major is, the heartbeat of Biola is being able to be salt and light in the world in general, using the different professions as a way to communicate the Gospel of Christ,” Pennoyer said. “I think CSICS has a unique role within the university, but not a solitary role. We are the historic heartbeat of world missions for the university.”

Students agree, which is why they are urging others to take the current issues within CSICS seriously.

“If Biola will point you towards intercultural studies as being the mission’s conscience of Biola and that is an area of the university that is in disarray, it’s like having your own conscience in disarray,” said alumus Wes Zitnay (’08). “And that’s a problem.”

RESTRUCTURING

Students point to a major restructuring of the school last summer as evidence that missions is being marginalized. The restructuring divided CSICS into four distinct departments: intercultural studies, international affairs and intercultural education, anthropology and applied linguistics and TESOL.

“What this does is it organizationally enforces a dichotomy between missions, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the working out of the Gospel,” Reeder said. “Missions is just one spoke on the wheel where it used to be the hub.”

Pennoyer assured students that the reorganization had nothing to do with decentralizing missions.

“Restructuring is just a simple way of people getting together to accomplish common goals,” he said.

Pennoyer also said that the change did not affect any of the courses offered or the professors teaching those courses. He said the details of the transition will smooth out in time and that the school’s vision is still being strongly carried forward.

Two new minors – missions and social justice – were added during the restructuring. While administrators say that the missions minor demonstrates a stronger commitment to that field, students say that it implies someone can navigate through CSICS without focusing on missions.

“By splitting up the school, by creating the social justice minor, the message being sent is that you can do Gospel-less service or you can have Gospel-centered service,” said Reeder.

Many students perceive missions as being separated from other areas of the school, even if that is not the administration’s intention. Brian said that in the minds of some students, missions is being sidelined while other branches of CSICS, such as physical anthropology, are being strengthened.

“We believe that church planting is not being attended to, whereas development and anthropology are being very attended to and very addressed,” he said.

Pennoyer and Doug Hayward, the dean and associate dean of CSICS, respectively, say that attention to practical fields such as anthropology isn’t detracting from the school’s treatment of missions.

“You get all of these other programs that we offer here that are tools that will allow us to fulfill the requirements of the Great Commission,” Hayward said. “This core we believe has been sustained right from the very beginning of where we were and the rest are the tools.”

Interim provost Patricia Pike echoed Hayward’s statement that the school has not strayed from its original vision.

“I think it’s an understandable misperception, but it’s a misperception,” Pike said. “We want to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Students, faculty, and administrators all agree on this vision, but not on the details of how it is being implemented within the department. While theologically, there is no divide promoted between missions and other areas such as anthropology and development, students say they feel it practically in the classroom.

CLASSES

Reeder said that in the four development courses he has taken during his time at Biola, only one class addressed missions, and in a somewhat hostile manner.
“There seems to be one thing being said and another thing being followed through with,” Brian said.

Students pointed to course offerings and content as one tangible means of identifying a perceived shift in focus.

Of the nine missiological and ministry classes added in the past five years, two of them are taught by adjuncts in unspecified semesters and three are taught by the departing Bartlotti. Five new courses were anticipated to be added in the Islamic studies track, according to the university catalog.

Of the nine new anthropology courses offered, professors Kevin Pittle (hired in 2005), and Paul Lengenwalter (teaching at Biola since 2001) are teaching all of them. The nine new anthropology courses are being taught by full-time professors.

HISTORY OF COMPLAINTS

Students began to vocalize their apprehensions in June 2009, when they wrote a letter expressing their concerns to the faculty. They received no response for several months.
Pennoyer said he didn’t respond because he had no chance to convene with the faculty over summer and discuss the matter. Students say they should have at least been acknowledged.

After forwarding the letter to Corey, students received a response saying that their points had been noted, but that the school would be moving forward with the change. Students say they felt “blown off” and their concerns “dismissed” without being taken into consideration.

“Concerns are either straight up dismissed or contradicted, or dealt with rhetorically and not really answered,” Reeder said.

Many details of answers to students’ concerns cannot legally be explained because they are personnel-related, Pike said.

Last month, about 15 students launched another letter campaign expressing their dissatisfaction with the direction of CSICS.

Although the fireside chat was a tangible step towards addressing the problems raised by students, many say they are not satisfied with the results and that further action is necessary.

Senior ICS major Elyse Sanchez, who was involved in the letter campaign, said she felt a greater amount of frustration after the meeting for what she sees as a “lack of ownership” on the part of the administration.

“I don’t feel like my voice is being heard at all,” she said.

Pennoyer said he can understand why students are frustrated, and is sorry he cannot provide concrete answers, particularly relating to recent faculty changes. Pike echoed these sentiments, saying in correspondence with one student that the essential issue at hand is one of trust. Pike brought up the analogy of Job, in which God doesn’t explain his reasoning to Job. In a similar way, the administration can’t explain things to students because there are “laws, ethics and regulations.”

“The president is listening to the students,” Pike said. “The president has told the provost, me, what he wants done. I have done what he’s told me to do. If the students are looking for an action, a specific action that they want, and that’s not the right action for the university to take, then that’s going to look like we’re not acting.”
But the lack of communication in terms of plans isn’t satisfying to students. No further events like last week’s discussion are slated for this semester or next.

See the second part of the two-part CSICS story in next week’s issue of The Chimes.

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