Oakwood Personnel Cuts Reveal Troubling Trend in Adventist Higher Education

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Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education in North America is in trouble, as yesterday’s announcement of personnel reduction at Oakwood University reveals.

Adventist Review News Editor Andrew McChesney wrote Thursday that the Hunstville, Alabama institution announced a plan to eliminate 46 positions in order to save $2.8 million in the near term, and an estimated $11 million over the next five years.

On Friday morning, Oakwood University President Dr. Leslie Pollard delivered the institution’s first ever virtual town hall meeting from the Peters Media Center on the Oakwood campus. In the broadcast on Livestream and Periscope, Pollard spoke about the university’s recent successes, and then responded to questions from virtual audience members. Conspicuously absent from his remarks was direct mention of the university’s budget and personnel cuts.

“One of the things that keeps us going here at Oakwood is the wonderful quotation by Mrs. Ellen G. White,” Dr. Pollard said as he opened the virtual meeting. “She said, ‘We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history.’”

Pollard said Ellen White’s statement “speaks to the comfort and the confidence, as we look back at the history of Oakwood University, of how God has blessed us.” He cited renovations and additions to the university, including the women’s dormitory, a $2M gift for a new wellness facility, and the completion of the Peters Media Center as examples.

After listing a few other bright spots for the university, Pollard took questions from online viewers.

The first question pertained to enrollment. “Given what’s happening in Adventist Education, how do you plan to increase your enrollment?” Pollard read from a screen.

“Something is happening in higher education in North America,” he said. “Across the last five years, there are some alarming and disturbing trends that are getting in the way of, I believe, Adventist Higher Education.” Pollard said that during that time, the Adventist Church’s thirteen institutes of higher education in North America have seen a combined 15% loss in enrollment. “That’s a cause of deep concern for those [interested in] advancing the mission of Adventist Higher Education,” Pollard said.

Pollard also noted that 2015 alone saw a 5.2% enrollment decrease “across the board, a loss of about 662 students collectively.”

The president offered his explanation for the decline. “Adventist Education is tied to how the church performs in other areas. Evangelism and Church growth is the basis for Adventist education.”

Pollard suggested that a decreased emphasis on evangelism can be blamed, at least in part, for the slide in enrollment. He called for a commitment from local conferences and churches to “grow the base of people, thereby growing the pipeline for Seventh-day Adventist Education.”

To help buoy enrollment, Pollard said that Oakwood has increased its recruiting team, and has commissioned faculty and staff to participate as “first-person recruiters.”

“We’re keeping Seventh-day Adventist Education at Oakwood extremely affordable,” Pollard said, noting the university’s flat tuition rates for the past two years. Oakwood University’s website currently touts a report from the BestValueSchools.com website that named Oakwood the 13th best value of colleges and universities in Alabama for 2015.

Pollard named a range of other initiatives aimed at keeping the university affordable and attractive for prospective students.

A second virtual audience member voiced a similar concern: “How will Oakwood move away from tuition dependence?”

Pollard responded that Oakwood in its inception was a self-reliant institution. “I believe God is moving us through these times of hardship toward being independent and self-reliant,” he said.

Pollard referred to the university’s “Industry Recovery Strategy,” which is to take businesses deemed “mission compatible” with Oakwood and place them in main thoroughfares in and around Huntsville to generate revenue for the university. The Edible Arrangements franchise is one such example.

Pollard spent 45 minutes addressing audience member questions, then offered a final statement thanking viewers for keeping Oakwood University “in the center of your prayer life.” He added, “We are seeing spiritual warfare at Oakwood campus at a level that I believe is rare.”

“By the way, finances are never the problem with the people of God,” Pollard said in closing.

Oakwood’s budget and staff reductions are not unique among Adventist colleges and universities in North America. Andrews University, on the heels of three years of declining enrollment, has undergone two rounds of budget cuts at the recommendation of its board.

Atlantic Union College closed in 2011 over its financial problems and a loss of accreditation. It reopened in 2015 after hiring Dr. Avis Hendrickson as its president in a bid to regain accreditation. The newly reopened AUC offered B.A degrees in Religion/Theology, a B.S. in Health Sciences/Biology, and a handful of certificate degrees. Dr. Hendrickson noted in a Spectrum interview that the college needed more students to survive. 2016 will provide a critical test of the institution's viability.

Many Adventist institutions are relying heavily on adjunct faculty memberswho receive far less pay and no benefitsas a strategy for staying in good financial shape. That reliance on contract teachers is not unique to Adventist schools. The Atlantic wrote about the problem, which has made it harder and harder for adjunct faculty members to make ends meet. Their story, published in September, was called “There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.”

For Adventist education, enrollment drops and financial stability plague leaders at all levels. Dr. Larry Blackmer, the North American Division Vice President for Education, told delegates at the 2015 Year-end Meeting that during his time in charge of the Education Department, the division has lost a net 271 schools, equating to some 16,000 students. Perhaps the most notable of those losses was Mt. Vernon Academy, the denomination’s oldest boarding academy in operation, which announced its closure in 2015 after a long period of mismanagement and insolvency.

The North American Division is mulling consolidation plans on a number of levels, not least of all the prospective restructuring of the division itself. This era within the North American Division seems likely to be characterized by belt tightening and consolidation, even as Adventist membership in the Global South accelerates. 

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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