(RNS) — Meredith Mead, a conservative Christian with a love of words, enrolled in Cornerstone University three years ago, choosing the 83-year-old nondenominational school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over other top Christian schools because of its creative writing major.

When she received an email from the university on June 13 announcing her major had been cut, she said, it felt like a gut punch.

“The more I read it, just the more sick I felt,” Mead told Religion News Service. “I’m looking at a list saying you are enrolled in a major that no longer exists, and just trying to wrap my mind around, what does that look like?”

Adding to the confusion, a report began to circulate that all humanities and arts programs had been cut. Then a local news outlet reported that while some humanities programs had been combined, they hadn’t all been eliminated. Students turned to social media to find out what they could.

On June 19, an anonymous Instagram account called Voice of CU emerged, offering to pass the Cornerstone community’s concerns along to the administration. Since the initial announcement, however, the university still hasn’t publicly confirmed which professors have been impacted.

Heidi Cece, vice president for enrollment management and marketing, maintained that there were no terminations, but “some positions were eliminated tied to very low or no student program enrollment,” and all individuals were “offered extensive severance.”

RNS confirmed that at least six professors left involuntarily: Cynthia Beach (English and creative writing), Michael Stevens (English), Jason Stevens (English), Martin Spence (history), Desmond Ikegwuonu (music) and Ken Reid (seminary theologian). Five of those six had already seen their department, humanities, merged last year with several others to form the School of Ministry, Media and the Arts.

Several former Cornerstone faculty told RNS that all six of those who left were tenured and had already signed contracts for the forthcoming school year when they were informed in June that their roles were being ended — likely too late to be able to obtain a similar spot elsewhere.

Andrea Turpin, a historian of religion in American higher education and professor at Baylor University, said Cornerstone’s cuts are in line with those at small institutions across American higher education. “Many institutions nationwide, including mostly secular institutions, are downsizing humanities programs,” she said.

But Turpin added that Cornerstone’s timing raised ethical concerns.“Terminating tenured faculty who have already signed a contract that was offered to them in the late spring, given knowledge of the academic hiring cycle, would be unethical in the absence of absolute dire financial emergency,” she said.

The last-minute cuts also come as Cornerstone has lost more than 150 employees, including 38 faculty, since the arrival of President Gerson Moreno-Riaño in 2021. 

Gerson Moreno-Riaño is the new president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Video screen grab

Gerson Moreno-Riaño is the new president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Video screen grab

While the majority of those who left resigned or retired, at least 15 employees were terminated, according to several sources. Some former faculty said the wave of departures is linked to discontent with Moreno-Riaño, who received a 42-6 vote of no confidence from the faculty shortly after the 2021 school year began.

In addition to the no-confidence vote, 22 full-time faculty members and 19 staff submitted written testimony to Cornerstone’s board at the time that included reports of bullying and intimidation, threats of dismissal, unilateral decisions in hiring and opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The board responded by voicing support for the president.

“Anyone who disagreed with president, or tried to just speak up for dialogue, anyone that had any disagreement or deep concerns, they got either pushed out, fired, or pressured to leave,” said Julia Petersen, a former assistant professor of creativity and innovation at Cornerstone. Though she moved to Michigan for the position in 2019 with plans to stay through retirement, she resigned in June 2022, citing patterns of abuse.

Petersen said she wasn’t surprised by the recent departures. “The list of people who were terminated were all people who were deeply concerned about what the president was doing.”

In October 2023, the faculty senate was reportedly disbanded and replaced by an “academic senate” of approved faculty and administrators and chaired by the vice president for academics.

“I’m concerned that especially over the last few years, we have lost leadership and gained management,” said former chemistry professor James Fryling. He told RNS that though he has loved teaching at Cornerstone, he retired this spring after routinely teaching 16 to 18 credits each semester, rather than the typical 12. He said that in recent years, he has grieved as faculty struggled to feel heard and cared for.

Some former Cornerstone faculty have expressed concern about the recent treatment of their peers. In an April 1 meeting with the professors in the School of Ministry, Media and the Arts, two members of Cornerstone’s executive council reportedly said all contracts would be renewed and anyone who wanted a job next year would have one, according to Cameron Lewis, a former assistant professor of film and video production who resigned this year. Five of the six now-terminated professors, Lewis said, were in that meeting.

In mid-May, Cornerstone released a revised employee handbook that adds tenured faculty to the list of employees who can have their employment terminated with or without cause. Also removed is a statement preventing tenured faculty from being terminated “if non-tenured faculty members are retained in the same discipline to teach courses the tenured faculty member is qualified and capable of teaching.”

The new handbook was sent out on May 14, several sources told RNS, with signed employment contracts due from faculty by June 7. By June 13, the sources said, the six impacted faculty were told they would not be returning.

Cornerstone told RNS the revised handbook was updated with support from academic senate, academic deans and faculty members, and is board-approved.

John Fea, a distinguished professor of American history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who has written about Cornerstone, told RNS: “I’m guessing at Cornerstone, the numbers of people majoring in these disciplines was very, very small. So, you know, if the college is driven by a kind of bottom line, we need to keep the doors open and we need to come up with majors that people want, it’s a business decision that these presidents are making.”

But while nursing and business programs are more lucrative, Fea added, “It is in the humanities, and largely the liberal arts … philosophy, English, history, theology, those disciplines are the ones that carry the burden of delivering the Christian mission of a university.” 

According to the school faculty directory, the departures leave Cornerstone with no full-time history professors, one full-time music professor and one full-time English professor — a linguistics professor who had been demoted from his position as dean of the School of Ministry, Media and the Arts.

With the departure of Matthew Bonzo, who taught philosophy at Cornerstone for 26 years and told RNS in May he had been pushed out after refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the president, the faculty directory is also lacking a full-time philosophy professor.

Several humanities division majors, meanwhile, including creative writing, literature, publishing, linguistics, philosophy, music, and history and civic studies, are no longer listed on Cornerstone’s website.

Cece told RNS that the creative writing, literature, publishing and linguistics majors are being merged with the English major, and students will still have the option to concentrate in these areas. History and civics courses are being integrated into the social studies secondary education program, according to Cece, and the general music major has been discontinued, though Cornerstone will offer majors in music production and worship ministry as well as a music minor.

But the students in affected majors remain concerned about who will teach the remainder of their requirements. Several students told RNS they were disappointed by the swiftness of the changes, which barred the community from celebrating the departing professors, who have been teaching at the university for seven to 30 years.

“I get that Cornerstone has to make decisions based on what they can accommodate and what they can do, but I just feel so sad that they had to do it so quickly. They had the whole next semester lined up,” one science student and incoming senior told RNS. “All these specialized classes these professors have handmade from scratch, are they going to just hand it to adjunct and say, teach this?”

All students in the impacted majors will be able to complete the degrees they enrolled in, said Cece, who added that Cornerstone’s enrollment is growing and is now at 1,800 students.

Moreno-Riaño, meanwhile, told WoodTV in June, “The humanities are still very central to who we are, deeply integrated into our general-ed core program.” 

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