The Accreditation of La Sierra University: Tampering with Financial Consequences

Here are a few reasons why abiding by secular standards is important. La Sierra University, as well as other Adventist schools, has taken on long-term debt through municipal issued tax-exempt bonds to support capital improvements. Like the others these bonds have prohibited use covenants that commit LSU to separate secular activities from sacred uses of the bond proceeds. [i] The bond amount collectively for all North American colleges is somewhere on the order of $686,955,602; mostly for capital improvements on Adventist college and university campuses. The tax-exempt bonds also contain a provision that requires the borrowing institution (such as LSU) to maintain secular accreditation throughout the life of the bond (usually decades). Losing accreditation could throw the bonds into default. LSU has a $24,805,602 tax-exempt bond, half of which was used to refinance the science building on campus. [ii] According to the prohibited use covenants in the bond the science building is therefore off limits for religious purposes.

Another and equally compelling consideration is the potential loss of the revenue from local, state and federal student loans and grant programs obtained by complying with regional accreditation standards. In 2010 the collective gross amount for all Adventist colleges amounted to $142,336,433 for both federally-based student loans and Pell grants.[iii] In 2010 LSU received indirect governmental aid through student loans of $13,872,816 or about 50 percent of the total tuition and fee revenue; not to mention additional training and research grants. 

Can AAA Accreditation Trump Secular Accreditation?

There is at least one more conundrum. If secular accreditation standards threaten the “spiritual goals” in an Adventist college or university the Church has already anticipated a policy that could trump such a threat. The AAA handbook reads (although watered down from the original NAD policy):

It is essential that all Adventist institutions operate within the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church, clearly reflecting the Adventist identity and ethos. Accreditation and governmental approval can also be important to the ongoing health and credibility of educational institutions and their financial viability. These institutions must consequently work within the requirements and parameters of the local and national policies and goals, while affirming the calling to be true to the mission of the church. [iv]

Church leaders who take a narrow interpretation of this position could have an interpretation that AAA trumps secular accreditation. That could drastically change Adventist higher education in North America as we know it today. At the center of Adventist philosophy of education is a theological premise that secular influences, including generally accepted understanding of the connections in science, are only useful when they harmonize with a literal reading of the Bible. Faith in the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White will eventually triumph over science falsely so-called where there is disagreement at present. These doctrinal sentiments remain at the heart of creationism.

In the meantime, WASC is also currently beefing-up its standards and positioning to exercise a stronger hand  Two of these new standards appear to specifically address the situation at LSU. These become effective in March 2013.  From a preliminary look at the proposed changes, the usefulness of AAA accreditation may be more challenging in the future.  Two of the most important are the following.

Standard 1.5. Even when supported by or affiliated with governmental, corporate, or religious organizations, the institution has education as its primary purpose and operates as an academic institution with appropriate autonomy.

 

Standard 3.8.  The institution has an independent governing board or similar authority that, consistent with legal and fiduciary authority, exercises appropriate oversight over institutional integrity, policies, and ongoing operations, including hiring and evaluating the chief executive officer.

Beyond governance issues and outside interference, how will Adventists come to terms with not just biology, but all of higher education?  This will be problematic if the church’s traditionalists continue to maintain that Scriptural authority has absolute priority over history, science, psychology, social science, philosophy as well as theology — that it is infallible and cannot be circumvented and is above challenge by methodological naturalism or scientific data or evidence. If this policy is going to be used to cast off outside approvals or accreditation commissions recognized by USDoE and CHEA the church could then face closing down its academic colleges and universities and transforming them into unaccredited Bible colleges. 

If the church decides in its zeal to protect a so-called educational blue print at all costs, including only half-hearted acceptance or implementation of secular accrediting standards, it could jeopardize the student loan and grant financial backbone, threaten training and research grants and the ability of students to transfer credits to other institutions such as Loma Linda University School of Medicine. Loss of accreditation could also threaten outstanding bonds and bank loans supported by accreditation. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” This applies the governance of a college or university as well. The diversity at the college level in Adventist higher education is staggering and our schools increasingly serve not only the Adventist community, but the world as well. As we enter a new era for Adventist education, it is only when church leaders, administrators and constituents really understand all the implications of accreditation that they actually have the best interest of the institution at heart.

—T. Joe Willey, received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla University and La Sierra University. He was a fellow with Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.


[i]Typically the prohibited use covenant reads as follows. “No portion of the proceeds of the Bonds were or will be used to finance any facility, place or building used or to be used primarily for sectarian instruction or study or as a place of devotional activities or religious worship…” 

[ii]T Joe Willey.  The Prohibited Use Covenant: Tax-Exempt Bonds & Adventist Education. Manuscript Submitted to Spectrum Magazine. 2012.

[iii]T Joe Willey.  Discounting the Sticker Price of Adventist Education.  Whose Bread I Eat, His – Laws I Keep.  Pre-published manuscript.

[iv]Adventist Accrediting Association.  Handbook.  2012. p. 10.

This is the final installment in a four part series on The Accreditation of La Sierra University. See part one here: "Background Differences Between Church and State Accrediting," part two here: "Creationism Goes Extreme," and part three here: "A Formal Notice of Concern."

Weniger Society Meeting on February 15

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