In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview, the new president of Adventist University of Health Sciences in Florida, Dr. Edwin Hernández, discusses his philosophy of education, his own life-transforming experiences as a student, and the difficulty of filling David Greenlaw's shoes.
Question: You served as provost of Adventist University of Health Sciences before being announced in June as the new president, taking over this month from the university’s founder David Greenlaw. What part of the job are you most excited about as you take over the president’s chair?
Answer: The part of the job that most excites me is reminding myself and the campus daily, of the why of our existence. A special mission brings us together — to develop skilled professionals who live the healing values of Christ. They are then equipped to extend the healing ministry of Christ — a noble endeavor that excites me every day.
My father was a hospital chaplain, a pastor, and a church leader, so I grew up with an understanding that Christ's presence is often most deeply felt in times of illness and suffering.
I am also excited about building on the strong foundation established by Dr. Greenlaw and planning a robust and compelling vision for the future of the University.
What do you think will be the hardest part of the job?
So far, the limitation of 24 hours in a day is the most difficult constraint. There is much to do and too few hours in the day — so pacing oneself is critical. Adopting a new role and understanding its demands takes time and getting used to the rhythm and expectations. But I am a learner and enthusiastically embrace the challenges of my new role.
You are only the second leader of ADU, succeeding the founder — aren’t those rather difficult shoes to fill?
Dr. David Greenlaw is a legendary leader with an extraordinary legacy. Rather than trying to fill his shoes, I hope to honor his steps by staying on the path he laid and building a promising future. ADU grew from very humble beginnings to what it is now: a full-fledged university, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees and our first doctoral program in Physical Therapy. Expansion and opportunity are what lie ahead.
What plans and goals will you focus on as you settle into your new role?
We are beginning with a strong focus on mission, culture, and excellence. ADU has so many talented people and amazing assets — I want to help everyone work at their highest level and achieve their highest potential.
We also want to work closely with our parent organization, Adventist Health System and Florida Hospital, to support, align, and enhance our shared vision and mission. Our culture defines how we work together. At ADU we have many vibrant threads: education, scholarship, clinical practice, mentoring, facilities, faith, worship, learning, research and clinical labs, technology, communications, and resources. While each thread is bright on its own, it is also just a single thread, a portion of the whole. As we weave our separate threads together, we can create a beautiful tapestry of culture . . . of collaboration and mutual respect, of open communication and trust. My hope is that we will create a vibrant, Christ-like culture at ADU.
Excellence in education is what we strive for, not as a goal but rather as our standard. We must achieve excellence in all we do — in terms of educating, clinical practice, research, technology and innovation, academic administration, department management, student support services — but also in terms of honoring and valuing one another’s work, respecting and upholding one another’s human dignity, and maintaining the highest standards for personal integrity, both on and off the job. At ADU, these are not aspirations. They are requirements.
There are many exciting opportunities for the future. As I mentioned, first and foremost is mission. As an Adventist Christian institution of higher learning, ADU’s added value is squarely related to our ability to shape the hearts and minds of our students. I want them to see themselves as healthcare professionals who live the healing values of Christ and who extend His ministry in a way that measurably improves the health and vitality of the communities we serve. We want our graduates to be individuals of extraordinary character who bring purpose and hope to others. Thinking and planning carefully about the educational experiences that are necessary to produce such individuals is a priority in the coming years.
Related to this is making ADU a preeminent institution that advances our research knowledge on the relationship between spirituality and health and how best to train healthcare professionals who are spiritual ambassadors. ADU, together with Adventist Health System, is uniquely positioned to demonstrate scientifically the added value and contributions that a faith-based mission brings to the wellbeing of individuals and communities. In addition, I would like to see ADU develop robust interprofessional learning experiences where each profession learns and collaborates with others — to see faculty and students across the disciplines be part of healthcare teams.
Finally, the increasing complexities of the healthcare environment requires that we be innovative in our practice, thinking, and execution of healthcare education.
What are the major challenges facing the university?
Like most universities, we are always working to attract students who fit the mission, keep education affordable, expand opportunities for our graduates, and maintain high standards.
What makes ADU different than other Adventist colleges and universities? How are you different than other universities focused on healthcare?
Like all Adventist colleges and universities, ADU is a special place. It is unique in its exclusive focus on health professions, its close relationship with Florida Hospital and the career opportunities there, its small but modern and well-equipped campus, and its culture of collaboration and family feel.
We are also different because we are primarily a community regional campus. About 80 percent of our student body come from the central Florida region.
And finally, we have been pioneers in online education.
Despite these differences, we are united in the common mission of leading young people to Christ — shaping their characters to embrace their academic and professional skills as an extension of Christ’s ministry here on earth.
What is it like to be head of a college that is really new among its Adventist sister institutions, having only opened its doors in 1992?
That is a difficult question just three weeks in! Yet, our newness presents mostly opportunities for growth and expansion, including building a robust alumni organization, now that we have enough alumni (close to 8,000) to rally around future growth.
Is ADU continuing to expand? Are you continuing to add programs? Is your enrollment still growing?
Growth will be part of our five-year plan! Like other institutions, we have experienced the ebb and flow of enrollment patterns but are still anticipating solid projections into the future. The healthcare world is constantly changing, demanding professionals who are skilled, innovative in their thinking, leaders, compassionate, and loving people. That is what we are about and why students come to us.
Your PhD is in sociology with a specialty in religion. How does this give you a unique perspective as leader of a university focused on healthcare?
Both education and healthcare are about people working in relationship, so sociology gives me a strong academic foundation from which to draw to understand systems and the role of culture in shaping people’s lives and motivations.
My research and experience will also help guide our growing expectations around scholarship by engaging faculty and students in advancing their fields of study through educational practices and research that improves health outcomes.
How does your previous work experience, and student experience, inform your philosophy of education?
My career has been dedicated to improving education in different ways: through study, research, grant making, writing, teaching, and more. My philosophy of education can be summed up quite simply: I believe everyone is born with unlimited, God-given potential to learn and unlimited, God-given desire to contribute. Education is one of the most powerful catalysts we have for unleashing potential and equipping people to contribute to God’s mission of spreading a message of hope, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
Although you are the president now, do you feel like you still identify with the student experience?
I definitely still identify with the student experience. There is nothing more transformative than developing relationships that have the power to change the life and direction of a student. I can still remember my undergraduate days at La Sierra University when Dr. Richard Rice invited me to be his “reader” for the last two years of my academic program. It was transformative and life-altering. The experience of working alongside an extraordinary talented scholar like Dr. Rice was not only inspiring, but it affirmed my gifts and talents to pursue further academic training and a career as a scholar.
What do you think is the most important part of the job for the leader of an Adventist university?
The most important role of a leader of an Adventist University is inspiring and reminding people continually of our unique mission of restoring God’s image in each of us, of strengthening our walk with God, and making people whole — where our spiritual self is nurtured and allowed to flourish.
At the end of the day, ADU’s mission is more than just excellent academic and clinical preparation; it is about shaping the heart and mind to develop a worldview that sees others as children of God, thus eliciting the highest level of compassionate care and excellence. This is the “why” of Adventist higher education.
The “how” is by: 1. Leading as a servant, as Christ modeled for us and inspiring people to live out our mission of “living the healing values of Christ”; 2. Assessing every decision in terms of students: will it help them achieve their potential and extend the healing ministry of Christ?; and 3. Building a culture in which everyone feels supported and valued and allowed to contribute at their highest level.
If I accomplish all three, everything else — sustainability, collaboration, excellence, growth — will follow.
The healthcare field is evolving so rapidly. What do you do to ensure that the training you offer is up-to-date?
Staying up-to-date is a team effort. Our partnership with AHS/Florida Hospital is critically important here. The constant collaboration with leaders and clinicians there ensures that ADU will never lapse into ivory tower syndrome and fall behind on current evidence-based practices and technologies.
I am very proud of the faculty at ADU. They are gifted, well-trained, and highly committed individuals. Over the last year ADU has inaugurated two new centers of excellence to advance the educational and research mission of the university. Being involved in scholarly and research endeavors is part of what it means to be a faculty member at a growing, maturing, and innovative university like ADU. Yet, ADU will also always be an extraordinary center for teaching and learning.
These two dimensions — teaching and research — are mutually enhancing activities. Increasingly on campus, we talk about our faculty as teacher/scholars — individuals who are passionately gifted in the science and art of teaching while also involved in advancing knowledge in their field of study. Students benefit greatly when faculty are engaged in scholarly activities, especially when students can participate in the creative process of advancing knowledge in their fields. In this regard, we hope to increase opportunities for our students to be engaged in research activities. As the university of Adventist Health Systems, we are increasingly being called to contribute to advancing evidence-based practices and to function as a think-tank for the growing demands in healthcare.
Where do you see Adventist third-level education in the future, and how do you see it changing?
I think our relevance will continue to grow as we keep pace with the evolving needs of a changing world, a shifting workforce, and increasing globalization. Our faith base, our cultural diversity, our academic standards, and our commitment to excellence will all serve us well in the years and decades ahead.
Within the context of Adventist higher education, I see greater collaboration — a merging of efforts and talents — in the future. The greatest challenge is keeping higher education affordable for most of our church members and families that seek a faith-based educational experience.
We can no longer take for granted our value proposition as a faith-based educational system. We must demonstrate it in real outcomes, the most important of which are transformed lives. I am reminded of what David Brooks, New York Times Op-ed writer said related to this question:
“You [Christian Colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion and intellect. . . . Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it.”
The opportunity for us is harnessing our collective assets, clearly identifying our value, embracing, enthusiastically and prophetically the broader culture, creatively and boldly addressing the challenges before us, and convincingly articulating our missional task of restoring God’s image—that is what it will take to thrive into the future.
As you can tell, despite the challenges, I am bullish about the future of Adventist higher education.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
Those hours are limited these days, but I love to spend time with my family, play a game of tennis, go for extended walks, get out on the water, and I enjoy my worship experiences in the Florida Hospital Church community.
I am also still actively (but very selectively) engaged in research with other colleagues, specifically working on a book project on the sociology of Latino congregations.
To be very candid, I don’t know what I would do if I did not have the blessings of a sabbath day of rest — a 24-hour time off — God’s way of calling me towards balance. Because I’ll be honest, I am always thinking about my work — it is hard to turn it off. That is something I must work on: creating the sort of balance that allows me time to enjoy the pleasures of life while keeping a productive professional life.
Read a 2008 Spectrum interview with David Greenlaw, the founder of Adventist University of Health Sciences, then called Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences.
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