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School's Quaker Spirit Challenged : New President, Layoffs Spur Protests at Pacific Oaks College

May 17, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

From its beginning in 1945, when seven Quaker families in Pasadena scraped together a down payment for a nursery school that stood for peace in the midst of war, Pacific Oaks College and Children's School has been different from most schools.

Quaker principles of individual worth, social justice and resolving conflicts through consensus guided its founders and their successors as Pacific Oaks grew to include a college that specializes in early childhood education and into national recognition.

Now those same principles are at the core of a controversy that has shaken Pacific Oaks and that some say has become the school's worst crisis.

Graduation ceremonies today, in which 43 of Pacific Oaks College's 250 students will receive bachelor's or master's degrees, indicate to some that the college remains a viable alternative, a non-traditional school that offers innovative programs and methods of teaching. But others worry that Pacific Oaks may never be the same again.

Changes Urged

The tumult began when Pacific Oaks College received stinging criticism from the Accrediting Commission of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges in 1985, saying it must make "profound changes in attitude and process in order to seek resolutions" to financial, personnel and academic problems. Although the college is in no danger of losing its accreditation, the commission has scheduled a review of the recommended changes for next April.

The first step by the board of trustees was to hire Katherine Gabel as president of the schools in September, 1985.

But the choice of Gabel, her salary and her firing of key teachers and administrators that began three weeks after she was hired has outraged teachers, parents and students. Several teachers have resigned in protest.

Claiming that Gabel and the board had violated the spirit of Pacific Oaks, protesters in March picketed the school and circulated petitions seeking the reinstatement of two teachers and "implementation of a fair and professional evaluation process for all employees."

The controversy expanded as the faculty, for the first time in the school's history, demanded higher pay.

"I was changing things," Gabel said in a recent interview, adding that she has already raised faculty salaries and started several new programs. "You can't run an institution forward with a consensus model, although I'm 100% in agreement with Quaker values.

"We're refocusing," she said. "In the last few years Pacific Oaks was broadening into women's studies, gerontology--we're getting back to early childhood.

"But we have not changed our philosophical goals. I think there's a feeling of energy and excitement and challenge. I think hard times are over."

Ralph Wolff, associate executive director of the accreditation commission, agreed, saying, "This is an institution in transition, with real problems, but we're confident the problems are addressable and the school will be in a much stronger place."

At a meeting in April, the board reaffirmed its commitment to Gabel.

"The board wants Katherine Gabel to get things on an even keel academically and financially, like a new broom coming in and looking at the cobwebs," said Asenath (Kennie) Young, the only founding member to remain on Pacific Oaks' board of trustees. She laughingly describes herself as the board's "token Quaker."

"She has done it in her style," Young said. "That is not my style. She was hired to straighten things out and that's the way she did it."

Olin Barrett, president of the board of trustees, said Pacific Oaks' Quaker-inspired "commitment to a humanistic approach" is a major factor in the turmoil. The school's traditional emphasis on individual needs over those of the institution, he said, had resulted in "a loss of focus, with the result that the institution gets lost in the shuffle."

"I think we went too far that way. Things slid to some degree," Barrett said.

'Lack of Academic Rigor'

The accrediting team's report used stronger language, saying the focus on individual worth and consensus in decision-making "produces endless self-examination and self-consciousness . . . prolonging talk probably to the point of exhaustion and even paralysis."

Of the schools' belief in open communication, the report said, "there is in fact no real communication going on; the all-important coming together, the meeting of minds, is not now occurring."

The commission recommended that Pacific Oaks correct "lack of academic rigor," low teacher salaries, financial instability, absence of long-range planning and "inbreeding," which it said was the result of more than half of the faculty receiving degrees from Pacific Oaks.

"The college's expectations of a new president are overwhelming," the report said, referring to Pacific Oaks' effort to replace Libby Herrick, who retired in August, 1985, after heading the school for eight years.

The school turned to Gabel, Barrett said, because of her record as a strong administrator, something he and other board members felt was essential.

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