The new president, Miles K. Davis, wanted to shift Linfield University’s focus to meet student demand. Liberal-arts professors had other ideas.
Allysia Finley | WSJ Opinion | May 21, 2021
Linfield University in bucolic McMinnville, Ore., resembles other small private colleges across the country struggling with financial pressures. Except its president, Miles K. Davis, isn’t the typical ivory-tower intellectual.
Mr. Davis, 61, has been pushing to change Linfield’s institutionally stodgy and politically progressive academic culture, in part by placing an increased emphasis on career education. He’s expanded his college’s nursing and business programs and eliminated more than a dozen tenured faculty positions in liberal-arts disciplines. His efforts are a case study in the obstacles to change in the long-cosseted world of American higher education.
“The academic world has become increasingly disconnected from the applied world,” says Mr. Davis, the university’s first black president, in a Zoom interview. His effort to counter that trend provoked an ugly rebellion from the liberal-arts faculty. The usually sleepy college, established in 1858, has made national news as Linfield faculty rallied support from academics across the country in their campaign to drive Mr. Davis out.
“If you’re not in the news, then you’re probably not doing enough to adapt in this changing environment,” says Mr. Davis, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent a decade in business consulting before joining Shenandoah University’s business school in 2001. He became dean there in 2012, and enrollment grew 77% before he moved on to Linfield College six years later. (It rebranded itself as a university in 2020.)
When he arrived in Oregon, Linfield’s enrollment had been shrinking for six straight years even as the student body was becoming poorer and more ethnically diverse. A third of Linfield’s 2,000 or so students are the first generation in their family to attend college.
Most colleges “were not set up to have people like me here,” Mr. Davis says. “They were founded by the elite, often by religious orders or wealthy landowners to educate their children. Now, as society has changed and as we have increased the need for credentialing in society, a lot of people are coming into institutions who look more like me.”
Mr. Davis was born in 1960 into a poor inner-city Philadelphia family and, yes, he was named for the legendary jazz musician. Neither of his parents finished high school, but they exposed him to high culture, including opera. They also provided a model of how people with different beliefs can get along: His father is Muslim, his mother Christian. He worked his way through community college, a bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania and a master’s from Maryland’s Bowie State University while helping to support his family. He eventually earned a doctorate in human and organizational sciences from George Washington University.
Four decades later, the idea of working your way through school seems quaint, what with skyrocketing tuition and other costs. “As we’ve increased our price point to enter these fine institutions, people want a return on their investment,” Mr. Davis says. “So the age in which we were able to offer education for the sake of inquiry has passed. It’s passed because we priced ourselves out of that market.”
Students nowadays “want clear career paths,” and he set about reorganizing Linfield to meet that demand. When he arrived on campus in July 2018, he began to “right-size” spending. Some liberal-arts programs had more faculty than students. So he did something unthinkable in academia: lay off tenured professors. “We looked at the 1940 AAUP document about tenure,” he says, referring to the American Association of University Professors, an organization of faculty and professional staff. “It’s meant to pursue academic freedom, not to guarantee employment for life.”
Linfield offered buyouts to 13 professors in liberal-arts programs with shrinking enrollment. “I know it’s unpopular to talk about this in education these days, but you just can’t keep offering things from a ‘field of dreams’ perspective—that if you build it, they’ll come,” he says. “You have to be aware of changing needs in society in order to develop relevant programs that people are willing to pay for.”
At the same time, Mr. Davis pressed to expand the nursing and business programs, which are more remunerative. The average annual salary of a recent graduate of Linfield’s nursing program is $83,349, vs. $20,140 for a Linfield psychology degree, according to the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard. Mr. Davis’s wife, a registered nurse with a doctorate in nursing practice, teaches at Linfield’s nursing campus in Portland.
To those who say liberal arts are essential to developing well-rounded students, he replies: “Yes, students need to learn how to write well, they need to speak well, they need to understand history, they need multiple perspectives. But they also need to understand finance, accounting, management.”
He also argues that schools are failing to encourage open-mindedness. “We have people who are coming into academia with very narrow perspectives on the world,” he says, “and quite frankly they often think that their perspective is right.” The purpose of colleges “is to educate, not indoctrinate. So we should teach people how to engage in the exchange of thoughtful conversation,” which “is in the mission statement—that we engage in thoughtful dialogue with mutual respect. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
He encourages students to find friends with different backgrounds and viewpoints: “It allows you to more successfully navigate the real world. And so that is the maturation process that takes place on a university or college campus. This is what we should be doing in higher education. We should not be canceling out anybody. We should not be telling people, ‘Oh, I’ve got to protect you from this idea.’ ”
A majority of Linfield’s board supported Mr. Davis’s new course. But some faculty rebelled. The designated faculty trustee, Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, opposed it vigorously—and in ways that went well beyond disagreements over policy. Late in 2019 Mr. Davis and the board began discussing an amendment to the college’s bylaws to allot more seats in the faculty governance body to the business and nursing programs, a change Mr. Pollack-Pelzner and many liberal-arts professors opposed.
In a February 2020 board meeting when these changes were being discussed, Mr. Pollack-Pelzner presented a report alleging that there “had been complaints of sexual misconduct” against several trustees. One of them, David Jubb, had resigned a year earlier following allegations of sexual abuse by several female students. He has been charged with eight counts of sexual abuse and pleaded not guilty.
But no allegations against any other trustees, including Mr. Davis, had been reported to the college until after Mr. Pollack-Pelzner made them. Soon after the meeting, a faculty member accused Mr. Davis and trustee Norman Nixon of inappropriately touching her on two occasions at public events. Both trustees denied the incidents. Mr. Pollack-Pelzner also submitted an anonymous letter from a former student complaining that trustee Dave Haugeberg had made an “inappropriate” remark using an “unnecessary subjective adjective” to a group of female students at the same event and hugged her. The remark: “What’s a group of beautiful young girls doing over here by yourself?” Mr. Haugeberg said he regrets making the former student feel uncomfortable, but he intended the remark as a compliment and the hug to be congratulatory.
At a meeting in May, Mr. Pollack-Pelzner, who is Jewish, also accused Mr. Davis of making anti-Semitic comments. For one, the Shakespeare professor alleged Mr. Davis during a one-on-one conversation about “The Merchant of Venice” made an offhand remark about a study measuring the length of Jewish noses that found the length of Jewish and Arab noses were indistinguishable. Mr. Pollack-Pelzner also said Mr. Davis accused him of being “disloyal,” which the professor interpreted as an anti-Semitic slur. Mr. Davis says he recalls discussing stereotypes in Shakespeare’s work with Mr. Pollack-Pelzner, doesn’t remember calling the professor disloyal, and denies any anti-Semitic bias.
Linfield’s Title IX Coordinator decided the former student’s complaint didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment. But it hired two separate law firms to investigate the other allegations, and they issued two reports in August 2020. One exonerated Messrs. Davis and Nixon of sexual misconduct. It found that while Mr. Davis had likely touched the female professor on the arm, the incident didn’t violate the university’s sexual-harassment policy. The law firm couldn’t corroborate the other allegation against Mr. Nixon based on interviews with seven other people at the public event.
The other report also concluded Mr. Pollack-Pelzner’s allegations of anti-Semitism “could not be substantiated,” though the professor might have “subjectively believed anti-Semitism to be behind comments” even if “none was intended.”
That didn’t settle the matter. Liberal-arts faculty continued their campaign against Mr. Davis as he pressed for more changes at Linfield. The uprising came to a head this spring as the trustees prepared to finalize a change to their governance that would give faculty in the nursing and business programs equal representation to liberal-arts faculty on the board. The change was made because two-thirds of Linfield’s graduates come from its nursing or business programs.
On March 29 Mr. Pollack-Pelzner took to Twitter to recite his accusations of anti-Semitism and sexual misconduct and insinuate that students weren’t safe at the school. Mr. Davis, he claimed, “told me that I was putting @LinfieldUniv at risk by reporting claims of sexual misconduct. The President threatened me with personal liability. . . . The Board’s lawyer threatened me with public humiliation if I continued to report sexual misconduct by Linfield trustees. . . . It breaks my heart when students ask me what they can do if they’re upset about what’s happening at @LinfieldUniv. They often ask me if it’s safe for them to report their concerns to the President and the Board. I wish I could reassure them.”
The university fired Mr. Pollack-Pelzner for cause on April 27, saying in a statement that he had “engaged in conduct that is harmful to the university; . . . deliberately circulated false statements about the university, its employees and its board; refused to comply with university policies and, in doing so, has been insubordinate and interfered with the university’s administration of its responsibilities.”
Mr. Davis is anxious to clarify that “the board of trustees did not terminate Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.” He calls the firing “a selective decision made by dean, provost and legal counsel,” who decided the professor had crossed “a bridge that had gone too far.” He adds that tenure under AAUP guidelines “protects academic freedom,” not defamation, and “does not arbitrate how we handle employment.”
Mr. Pollack-Pelzner asserts he was removed for being a “whistleblower.” More than 2,000 professors nationwide have signed a letter to the AAUP to protest his firing. It asserts: “The case is of special import—if Linfield is able to fire faculty with impunity, it will set a precedent that will eviscerate the foundational principles of both free speech and of faculty governance on university campuses.”
The AAUP sent Mr. Davis a letter on May 17 announcing an investigation of Linfield’s firing of Mr. Pollack-Pelzner by an ad hoc committee composed of professors from other institutions. Mr. Davis says the faculty association has no legal authority and doesn’t even have a chapter at Linfield. But bad publicity could tarnish Linfield’s reputation and make it harder to recruit top faculty and students.
Not that Mr. Davis is backing down. Linfield’s enrollment has grown 40% since he took the helm. “We’re receiving a lot of support from students and faculty members,” he says. “Change is hard. And so when you have change, there’s resistance.”
Ms. Finley is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.