Seattle Pacific University (SPU) currently struggles with reduced student enrollment, and a projected $10 million deficit as six current and former trustees face a lawsuit.
Sixteen students, facility, and staff filed the lawsuit based on breach of fiduciary duty and other allegations. It names interim SPU president Pete Menjares and six current and former trustees as defendants. The plaintiffs seek a new president and board for the university.
The allegations arise from SPU’s discriminatory hiring practices, which prohibit hiring people in same-sex relationships. SPU claims removing the policy will disaffiliate them from the Free Methodist Church
A former board of trustees chair, Cedric Davis, confirms the projected deficit and reduced enrollment but claims fewer young people attend college. Davis resigned from the SPU board in May 2021, claiming he couldn’t stand by the hiring policy.
Last fall, SPU enrolled 3,400 students, which is a decrease from 4,175 in Fall 2015.
The attorney general’s office is also investigating SPU for alleged illegal discimrination. SPU filed counter-claims claiming religious discrimination.
The SPU dispute is part of a growing trend against religious schools nationwide. However, SPU is unique in its campuswide resistance to the hiring policy. Twenty-four percent of students, facility, and staff identify as LGBTQ+, and 80% of faculty believe SPU should reverse its hiring policy.
Plaintiffs fear a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students and staff if the policy continues. Even with supportive coworkers and students, many feel the hiring policy places them in a bad light.
One of the plaintiffs, Kristi Holt, came out as gay last year. She works as a lab coordinator and adjunct professor in the chemistry department. Holt sees her involvement as a religious freedom issue:
“I’m simply afraid that the way that the defendants are choosing to enforce their sectarian beliefs on an entire campus of dissenters is no longer religious freedom. It’s just oppression.”
Holt also picks up on mixed messages of support but also judgment. “On a personal note,” she said, “It’s really tough for me to come to work each day with people who love and support me but within the context of an institution that continues to tell me that I don’t belong.”
The university will not comment on the lawsuit at this time. However, it announced cost control efforts, including reducing faculty by 25%.