Two people walk through Willamette University on May 15. 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Willamette University will soon have more options for students studying art after finalizing a merger with the Pacific Northwest College of Art on Wednesday.

The college, which has a downtown Portland campus, will maintain its own admission process and be an independent college within Willamette, offering both undergraduate and graduate arts degrees.

Willamette President Steve Thorsett said the two institutions began discussing possible joint programs in November 2019.

The College of Art was looking for ways to serve art students in the 21st century, which required more technological offerings, Thorsett said. Artists who want to explore social issues like racial justice or climate change in their work also want to study liberal arts subjects like sociology and history, he said.

Thorsett said the College of Art had considered hiring their own faculty in computer science and social sciences, but realized joining an existing school with those offerings made more sense.

“It’s easier to join strength than to build strength,” he said.

Willamette leaders were interested in expanding art offerings for undergraduates, but Thorsett said hiring new faculty into existing programs wasn’t financially viable.

“Our program is really small. We’ve only got a handful of faculty in studio arts,” Thorsett said.

While Willamette offers the bulk of its programs in Salem, it has a small Portland satellite campus for graduate business programs. A true college campus in downtown Portland means Willamette can more easily expand Portland offerings, he said.

“Both schools needed the resources of the other,” Thorsett said.

As school begins in the fall, Thorsett said students in both Salem and Portland will see some expanded options because of the merger, with more being added over time.

The expansion of hybrid and online teaching during Covid will make it relatively simple for some faculty to offer courses open to students at both institutions. Thorsett said options for undergraduate art students to spend a semester “abroad” on the Salem campus, or vice versa, are also in the works.

“Those kind of exchanges will come pretty quickly,” he said.

The merger comes at a time when Willamette has seen declining enrollment and has added new programs and affiliations in hopes of attracting more students. That includes a partnership with the Claremont School of Theology, which began offering programs in Salem in the fall of 2019.

Thorsett said both schools are on strong financial footing despite the setbacks of Covid, which saw Willamette lay off employees and cut pay. But the added efficiency of combining some administrative positions was part of the reason for the merger.

Ten College of Art employees, none of them faculty, were laid off and notified May 25, Willamette University Chief of Staff Colleen Kawahara said. No additional layoffs are planned, Thorsett said.

Willamette is now beginning a search for a dean for the College of Art.

The merger comes with a $2 million gift from the late Portland arts philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer, which will be available to the arts college’s new dean to develop new programs and collaborations between the college and other parts of Willamette.

“Our ability to understand the world, to grow as people and to strengthen our humanity hinges on artists,” said Jordan Schnitzer, son of Arlene Schnitzer, in a statement. “The joining of PNCA and Willamette stands to elevate the next generations of artists – and their central importance in society – by reimagining what an arts education can be.”

Down the road, Willamette hopes to develop new programs blending the offerings of multiple programs, Thorsett said. That could be a degree in arts management, drawing on both the College of Art and graduate business school.

For now, he expects the merger will help attract some students to Willamette who are struggling to decide between attending art school or a more traditional liberal arts college.

“This will immediately make us a very interesting place,” Thorsett said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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