In this wide-ranging interview, experienced educator and administrator Andrea Luxton tells Spectrum what it is like to sit in the president's chair at Andrews University.
Question: You are partway through your first year as the president of Andrews University. What do you like most about the job so far?
Answer: Definitely the people. I love being on campus with students from such diverse backgrounds. Each person brings a richness to the campus, and we are the better for it.
Then I work with a wonderfully professional and committed team of administrators, faculty, and staff who are here at Andrews because they believe in what we can do together.
And I also am privileged to have a strong and yet supportive Board of Trustees.
Each of these elements means that I come to work each day energized by the possibilities. Of course, that doesn’t mean we always agree on everything; but the different perspectives are vital to the strength of the university.
You are no stranger to Adventist higher education, having served as president of Newbold College and Canadian Union College (now Burman University), as well as working in church administration in the area of education. You have served as Andrews' provost since 2010. So how is being the president of Andrews different from your previous roles?
In some ways, being president of one institution is the same as another, but every institution is also unique, and that outlines the difference in the positions.
At Andrews, the worldwide constituency of the university means I must spend considerable time connecting with the world church, and global engagement is critical to the mission of the university. Compared with being provost, the president’s job is less demanding on an everyday basis. A provost makes hundreds of decisions daily (literally). As president, while my work is more strategic, and I must engage with more external as well as internal groups, I have more time for reflection and thoughtful consideration of directions.
What are the most important things you have learned in your previous jobs? Would you say that your leadership style has changed over time?
I will just pick two things. I have learned that the people you work with, as well as students, have amazing creativity and talents and they want to use them. Taking a team approach to leadership, and encouraging the talents of others, is by far the best way of developing an engaged and successful campus community. I have also learned that the “presence” of leadership is as important or more important than efficiency and strategy.
I am not sure my style has changed significantly over time. I think I do better now at dealing with issues that need to be dealt with, rather than “bridging” challenges and moving on without dealing with the cause of the challenge. I think I also do better at looking after myself nowadays, as perhaps I understand better what I need to do to remain positive and focused.
What do you find the most difficult about serving as Andrews' president?
Nothing specific. I have a wonderful group of people to work with. Higher education as a whole, however, is in a challenging environment, so finding the best way to respond to the current situation is probably the most difficult.
Your undergrad and Master's degrees are in English with a Ph.D focusing on early modern literature. How has your English-major training helped you in your job?
I learned early in my career that it is critical to know your own “voice” and to be authentic to that voice. That understanding came, I believe, from my English background.
I also believe strongly in the power of story, whether of an organization or of people within an organization. Story is dynamic, with a range of possible endings, and is not scared by complexity. I think I am helped in finding solutions and in understanding the team I work with when I approach my work through the eyes of “story.”
And then early modern literature. My period was the Renaissance, and in that period, there is a lot of writing that is fundamentally religious. Literature explores faith in a very natural way. That has become a good model for me as I look at ways of integrating faith and biblical (Adventist) beliefs and values into the life of a university. Oh, and by the way, I also completed an undergraduate degree in theology. That has additionally given me a strong foundation of biblical understanding and interpretation.
What are your major plans and goals for Andrews? What would you like to accomplish that, if successful, would “change the game” in some significant way? What could the university do better?
The answer to this could take up several pages. Conceptually, I would say that my goals and plans would require us to become even more flexible, innovative, and responsive. It is not always easy to say what particular idea is going to be the game-changer, but I do think it has to do with looking at education K-doctoral level in a more fluid way.
It also has to do with finding the sweet spots between marketing our strengths and our mission. Right now that likely means continuing to expand our health professions and increasingly support programs that are in high demand. It will also mean creating demand such as we are seeing in our new department of Visual Art, Communications, and Design or in our unique programs for students undecided on their academic path.
Finally, collaboration — that is what we could do better and, I suspect, will be vital to changing the game for us, and maybe others also.
Andrews University has faced financial challenges in recent years. I believe that enrollment has declined and budgets have been cut, leading to faculty and staff lay-offs. What plans do you have to increase financial stability? What is your current enrolment (FTEs)? How can Andrews increase this number?
We have had some struggles in recent years, along with many other institutions. We certainly face challenges, with less students in Adventist academies, a move to cheaper community colleges, a desire by students for more flexible options for education, and many other things.
We now have around 3,400 students, about evenly split between graduate and undergraduate. On the whole our graduate numbers have remained strong, our online courses and programs have seen growth, and regular undergraduate numbers have declined. This last year, however, our freshman numbers increased nicely, and we saw a retention rate of 87%. So there are some good signals there for growth.
Creating seamless transitions between K-12 and undergraduate and between undergraduate and graduate is one good way of building numbers. Putting resources into areas of growth such as health professions, engineering, and computer science (to name a few) also is likely to bring growth. And, of course, really ensuring we just do an outstanding job and that Andrews is irresistible!
Where are your main recruiting efforts focused? Do you focus on recruiting undergraduates? Are non-Adventist potential students a part of the equation?
We recruit quite widely, both on our own and working with other Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities. There is no shortage of places to recruit; what stops us doing more is only our limitations of time and money. We do recruit non-Adventist students, both through partnerships internationally and through local Christian college fairs. However, because we are rural and residence-based at undergraduate level, undergraduate non-Adventist students do sometimes feel intimidated by the Adventist campus lifestyle. It is often easier to recruit students to our graduate programs.
Adventist colleges were started as a way of training students for service in the church. Do we still need church-trained church workers? Or church-trained church members? What do you see as the primary function of an Adventist college?
We absolutely still need church employees who have received an education at an Adventist college. We also need educated laity who have also experienced Adventist higher education. Why? Adventist education is fundamentally about priorities and wholeness: priorities in that it encourages a mindset of service to God and others; wholeness in that it encourages students to see their spiritual commitment as an integral part of their discipline, their professional life, and their relationships.
No education is delivered in a vacuum. The underlying philosophy and its impact on students is huge — so the choice of studying in a place where that underlying philosophy jives with personal values and perspectives is very important.
What plans do you have around changing methods of education delivery? Is distance education growing at Andrews? What other methods are you trying?
Yes, there has been considerable growth in distance education at Andrews — online, blended learning, some delivery by video, and some through cohorts that meet in different venues in the U.S. and internationally. I would say we are becoming more and more flexible according to need. We are also piloting some programs that would have us delivering degrees collaboratively between institutions.
The seminary at Andrews is the Adventist church's flagship institution for training ministers. How involved are you in creating policy and deciding how theology is taught? Statements in recent years from the seminary have not necessarily harmonized with the statements from the General Conference. Is it the job of the seminary to advise the world church on policy and teachings?
We are fortunate at the seminary to have some of the greatest theological minds in the church and individuals who are also very loyal to the church.
The major role of the seminary is, of course, to teach students. However, the seminary has also traditionally taken a leadership role in the church when it comes to theological issues, believing that this is a responsible way of sharing its gifts and opportunities with the wider church.
In recent years the seminary has put out a number of statements on difficult issues, and most have been well received. I hope that when these conclusions have not always mirrored the conclusions of all church leaders that the seminary's statements can be taken for what they are: an honest (and often passionate) sharing of perspectives and beliefs on issues not part of the fundamental beliefs of the church.
Do you find that there is a constant struggle at Andrews between conservative and progressive elements?
No, I haven’t sensed a struggle. Not everyone always agrees, and that you would not expect, or even want, in a university setting. But I have experienced a very strong ethic on campus of dialoguing respectfully and listening to the perspective of others.
I believe that, on the whole, the campus is pretty unified in its underlying goals, and that unified core means that there is a high degree of synergy across the campus. Faculty and staff are then highly committed to making a difference in the lives of students so that students leave campus ready to face the professional world as committed Christians and Adventists.
That doesn’t mean other issues become irrelevant, but they certainly are seen in this broader context.
As the Adventist church becomes increasingly international, what challenges does this bring for Andrews as it educates future church pastors and administrators for very different parts of the world?
I am not sure this is a challenge as, to some degree, that has already happened. Andrews has always had a mission edge and has educated multiple pastors, educators, treasures, and administrators throughout the world.
Of course, education does not do its job if it doesn’t teach individuals with sensitivity how to live out their profession in different environments. Some of Andrews’ most successful distance education experiences is teaching, say, a Doctor of Ministry degree in an international context where students work on projects in their own environments.
What changes do you see Adventist colleges and universities undergoing in the near term? Does Adventist higher education have a future?
I strongly believe Adventist higher education has a future. Without it, I am convinced the church would be much the poorer, and we cannot afford to do that. However, we do need, in my view, to become increasingly collaborative and flexible. We need to think outside the box a lot more often. So “watch this space” on that one.
Read an interview with previous Andrews University president Niels-Erik Andreasen here.
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