"19 Years Smarter:" Retiring Southern President Reflects on What He's Learned

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Published:
June 19, 2016

Gordon Bietz, retiring president of Southern Adventist University, looks back on disappointments and triumphs from his two decades on campus in this exclusive interview. He also looks ahead to potential challenges to Southern's identity in a changing cultural landscape.

Question: You are leaving your post as president of Southern Adventist University after nearly 20 years at the helm. How have you changed since you arrived? How has Southern changed?

Answer: I was a bit like a deer in the headlights when I became president and I had a steep learning curve, rather like drinking from a fire hose.  Fortunately, when I began I had a strong group of vice presidents who I depended on and they helped educate me.  I have commented to others that it is too bad that I leave now being 19 years smarter about higher education than I was when I began.  

I became president just after Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists became Southern Adventist University.  We had only a couple of nascent graduate programs and did not really have the ambiance of a university.  We recently had 375 students present their research on the Campus Research Day.  We have had 14 years in a top tier ranking on the US News & World Report “Best Colleges” list.  We now have 700 graduate students studying 13 different degree areas and a doctor of nursing degree.  In terms of facilities we have had $80 million of construction on creating new buildings and renovating old ones. 

What has been the toughest part of your job? 

- Seeing the future and knowing how to build a strategic plan to deal with the changing landscape of higher education.

- The greatest disappointments come when in my desire to create a great place to work I am not able to make it work for every faculty member and staff and we have to part ways.  Dealing with terminations is hard for me.

- Hearing stories of worthy students who need the Southern education and can’t afford it.

- Of course the single most difficult thing I did was calling the family of a girl who died in a dorm fire.

What did you like the most?

I enjoyed interaction with people the most.  I loved the people I worked with and the students.  I enjoyed representing Southern to the local Chattanooga community and to the SDA church at large.  

Is there a moment you look back on as the best of your tenure? Is there anything you are particularly proud of?

Clearly the physical plant of the campus has been transformed as we have spent a great deal of capital money to have a well-maintained university campus.  

We are in the middle of a capital campaign and have raised twice as much money as we ever have in the history of the school.

I suppose I am particularly proud of the connection that I established with the students and am incredibly honored that the newest (soon to be constructed) building on campus will be named the Bietz Center for Student Life.

You served as senior pastor of the Collegedale SDA Church for 13 years, and then president of the Georgia-Cumberland Conference for three years, before taking on the presidency of Southern. That's a long time for an Adventist administrator to stay in one place. To what do you owe your longevity, do you think?

My family was interested in stability as compared to “climbing the ladder.”  In retrospect I see the significant importance of continuity and stability and the impact that can have on a community.  I love the community and the Chattanooga area is really a great place to live.

You are known for your sense of humor.  Can you tell us about a time when humor diffused or resolved a tense situation or disagreement?I can’t think of a specific situation but do know that life is too short to not enjoy it and I love a good laugh.  Particularly I see committees as places where people can enjoy themselves and get a good laugh as they do work.  I try to use humor that is self-deprecating but when I know a person very well and they know me I don’t mind teasing them in a committee.

You oversaw an academic community, where faculty and student perspectives may align imperfectly with that of church administrators or parents.  How hard is it to manage conflict like this?  What helps you the most in dealing with it? Are there conflicts that cannot be resolved?

People respond when they are listened to and when they feel you understand their problem even though you can’t fix it or have a different opinion than they do.  I always tried to get people together to talk things out face to face when there were disagreements.  It is never good to disagree via email.  Certainly there are disagreements that don’t have resolution but people can live together while they disagree.  

Your view on the ordination of women may not have been the same as many of your constituents. Is it difficult to lead a highly conservative institution while trying to encourage progress in the church?

The issue was very clear to me and that helped.  Those who disagreed understood that I could disagree without being disagreeable.  A university community should be a place where ideas are discussed and challenged.  I never had a constituent confront me in an inappropriate way.  I had a volunteer in my office who disagreed with me and we had many conversations about it – some in a humorous way as we teased each other. 

Secular, or even Christian, thinkers sometimes say that the phrase “Christian university” is an oxymoron — how can you be beholden to a religious institution and yet open to real learning? How does an Adventist university withstand this criticism? As we have seen at some of your sister institutions, academic freedom issues can be divisive. 

Maybe “secular university” is an oxymoron.  I could not say it better than Arthur F. Holmes in his book The Idea of a Christian:

“The medieval university was governed by a unifying religious perspective but education today is rootless, or at best governed by pragmatism and the heterogeneity of viewpoints that makes ours both a secular and a pluralistic society. The result is a multiversity not a university, an institution without a unifying worldview and so without unifying educational goals. The Christian college refuses to compartmentalize religion.   It retains a unifying Christian worldview and brings it to bear in understanding and participating in the various arts and sciences, as well as in nonacademic aspects of campus life.”

 

“A Christian college does not exist to combine good education with a protective atmosphere, for Christians believe that the source of evil is ultimately within the heart, not without. The Christian college does not exist only to offer biblical and theological studies, for these are available in other kinds of institutions, and could be offered through adjunct programs at state universities without the tremendous expense of offerings in the arts and sciences. The distinctive of the Christian college is not that it cultivates piety and religious commitment, for this could be done by church-sponsored residence houses on secular campuses. Rather the Christian college is distinctive in that the Christian faith can touch the entire range of life and learning to which a liberal education exposes students.”

In the secular university where academic freedom is claimed as the holy grail it seems to me that that the social restrictions of politically correct speech proscribe the thoughts of student and teacher alike about as tightly as many denominationally sponsored schools.  

Yet the university is a place where exploratory thought should be encouraged. Ellen White says, “It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men's thought.”  If we are to educate young people to be thinkers rather than mere reflectors of the thoughts of others, students must be confronted with a world of ideas – ideas that may conflict with their own long-held beliefs.  During that process student ideas will change and that is a fearful thing – especially for parents, many of whom send them to private education for the express purpose of forming them in their own mold.  But the danger of a closed system of thought is that it replicates our own dysfunction in the same way that inbreeding produces the malformed.  

Higher education in general is undergoing a lot of upheaval, and Adventist higher education is in a particularly precarious position, according to many. Yet you have overseen almost continuous enrollment increases at Southern, doubling the number of students during your tenure. What is the secret? What do you consider essential to success?

The Southern Adventist University serves the church and it is vital that its identity be supportive of and reflective of the church and its mission.  It may not be necessary if the market we seek to serve to grow enrollment is the general population at large, but the significant support we receive from the Southern Union means that we are focused on SDA young people.  

Does Adventist higher education have a future?

Adventist higher education has a future if the church has a future — and I believe the church has a future.  

What are the biggest challenges Southern faces now, in your view?

Challenges include dealing with issues of gender identity, sustaining the identity of our church-supported and church-affiliated university, the need for a more racially diverse faculty and staff, the necessity of changing and updating some academic programs to ensure academic credibility, agreeing on an appropriate dress code, and the escalating cost of higher education. Of course much more could be said about every one of these challenges than the scope of this interview allows.

But here are some brief thoughts:

On the change in cultural attitudes to the LGBTQ community: It is important that Southern exemplifies a loving open community that is not judgmental of the sexual orientation of individuals but simply holds to the Biblical standard of condemnation of the behaviour. 

On sustaining our identity: We can avoid the dying of the light at Southern Adventist University by maintaining close ties with the church through financial support, having the majority members of the Board of Trustees be church members, and all full-time faculty and staff be chosen from the membership of the church.

I believe that new rules and regulations requiring endorsement of the denomination be applied to faculty through the accreditation process will be counterproductive.  

On diversity: We need to be working aggressively to hire more faculty and staff that reflect the ethnic mix of our student body.

On dress code issues: The faculty, staff, and students need to come to some consensus as to what is appropriate attire and then it needs to be enforced by all (students included) with consistency.

We will not maintain the culture of Southern Adventist University through a muscular Student or Faculty Handbook that raises the punishment for infractions or more narrowly defines the specifics of dress code violations.  It is only when there is general agreement about our goal and the approach to that goal that we will achieve the kind of community we seek. 

What do you plan to do next? I hear you will be working with the General Conference on college accreditation, is that right? What are the challenges in this area, and what do you hope to accomplish?

The North American Division has asked that I serve, on a part-time basis, as Associate Director for Education focusing on higher education.  The NAD college and university presidents have supported that arrangement and I would like to build more collaboration between the colleges and universities in the United States.

I also plan to do some writing as well as take speaking engagements, and most importantly spend a bit more time with my children and six grandchildren.

What do you look forward to in retirement?

It is bittersweet – I will miss being president of Southern but I will enjoy new challenges.  My wife and I enjoy traveling and spending time with family.

How do you hope to be remembered?

He was a servant leader who loved people.

What advice do you have for your successor,  David Smith?

Be a servant leader and love the people.

Editor's Note: We put many of the same questions to the retiring president of Andrews University, Niels-Erik Andreasen. Look for a Spectrum interview next week with Dr. Andreasen.

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