"Shrinking To Grow" — What Happened at Newbold College?

"Shrinking To Grow" — What Happened at Newbold College?

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Published:
June 23, 2021

Newbold College of Higher Education—the official name since 2013—is very dear to me. In the early 1960s I spent two years at Newbold before I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in theology. Through the years I have come back numerous times to the beautiful campus near the village of Binfield, some thirty miles from London in the hilly county of Berkshire, to attend meetings and training courses and to participate in conferences. From 1995 to 2007 I served as a member of the Board of Governors of the college, and from time to time I taught an “intensive” in the theology department. I have kept myself informed about developments at Newbold, by consultingthe regular channels, and by getting the juicier bits of news from friends among the Newbold staff.

However, in spite of having stayed close to Newbold, I was totally surprised—and, yes, shocked—by the sudden news of the radical changes at the college that had been voted by the college board in the autumn of last year, and that will go into effect as early as possible in the course of the current year. After reading some of the news bulletins I could not help but wonder: Is this the beginning of the end for Newbold College, after it has served the church in large parts of northern and western Europe for 120 years?

The college has played an important role in the history of the Trans-European Division and the repeatedly shifting group of organizational entities (unions, conferences, and “attached fields”) that function under the division umbrella. Over time, the college had a much wider influence than its limited size would have suggested. Several of the denomination’s top theologians in the past began their career at Newbold, and at least three of the college’s principals became prominent leaders elsewhere. I am thinking of V. Norskov Olsen, who was Newbold’s principal (as the president of Newbold has traditionally been called) in my student days. He became the president of Loma Linda University (1974-1984). Andrews University’s current president—Andrea Luxton—served as Newbold’s principal from 1997 to 2001. Jan Paulsen, Newbold’s principal from 1976 to 1980, went on to become the division president, and then, eventually, the president of the Adventist world church (1999-2010). Was the illustrious history of my first alma mater now coming to an end?

Reluctantly, I accepted the request from the Spectrum editor to write an article about the changes that are taking place at Newbold. Why was this new direction deemed necessary, and where would it lead? In the past few weeks I have read relevant documents and held Zoom-interviews with over a dozen persons who could, each from their unique perspective, fill me in on numerous details. Then I sat down to write this piece that was requested. I wanted it to be positive (because of my pro-Newbold bias), but also intended to be fair to all persons and parties involved and, above everything else, to be objective and correct.

What Brought This About?

I began my series of interviews with a long session with Dr. John Baildam, the current principal, who has worked at Newbold for almost forty years. He was appointed to his present role in 2014 and is now the second-longest serving principal, only surpassed by W.G. C. Murdoch (1930-1937 and 1938-1946). The detailed account that he provided of the main factors that led to current changes at Newbold gave me valuable background information. The Covid-19 crisis may have been the catalyst for the current overhaul of Newbold’s educational program, but the elements behind it, Baildam explained, were long in the making. Studies and reports from the past sounded alarms at regular intervals, warning that the college was facing a stormy future.

Newbold is first of all expected to serve the fourteen fields of the Trans-European Division. With its 90,000 members, this division (TED) is the smallest of the world divisions, which limits the potential for recruiting large numbers of students. Until quite recently a major percentage of the students (in particular in the English Language Centre and in the theology department) came from outside the division. Constantly rising fees have made study in Britain less attractive, and this has adversely affected the intake of American students. Several other reasons, beyond the college’s influence, had a negative effect on recruitment. Visa restrictions made it extremely difficult for most African students to enroll, and the growing number of good quality Adventist universities in Africa were becoming a good alternative to studying in Europe. The recent Brexit impacts negatively on the college’s ability to recruit students from some of the European countries that in the past sent a good number of students. When Covid-19 struck, the English Language Centre lost its ability to attract students almost overnight

While maintaining past levels of student enrollment became increasingly problematic, the costs of operating the college continued to rise. About 50 percent of the annual operating budget of just over four million pound Sterling (ca. 5.5 million US dollars) had to be subsidized by the division, with the eleven unions and three attached fields chipping in one percent (and in some cases even a bit more) of their tithe income. This level of subsidizing became untenable, the more so since, with lower enrolment, the subsidy-per-student rose further and further (in some cases amounting to more than 25,000 dollars per year!). Moreover, the arrangement of the one percent subsidy from the individual fields was far from popular, and was due for review.

Undeniably, the reorientation of Newbold has much to do with finances. And yet, when I asked Dr. John Baildam whether the changes were driven by ideology or by financial concerns, he was adamant that the answer was: “yes and yes.” In fact, the ball began rolling in conversations between the presidents of the TED fields and the division president, Raafat Kamal, who has been leading the division since 2014. He was anxious, he said, to hear from them what they actually thought about the college and its services to the church. Does it deliver what they expect from their college, to which they heavily contribute financially? Do they have ideas and wishes that are not, or not sufficiently, being heard in the full board meetings? Concerned about this, Kamal proposed that perhaps they should meet as a “closed” group in which they could, with less inhibition, speak their minds. And so it happened.

In this conversation, the field presidents made it clear they were far from happy with the “product” that Newbold’s theology department delivers. The graduates from Newbold tend to have developed into academics rather than in the kind of cutting-edge, frontline pastors who are needed in the churches throughout the division. In fact, many of the eleven union presidents indicated that, for this reason, they preferred to hire new pastors from elsewhere. Some also expressed concern about the fact that in the process of learning to think critically (one of the key goals in the teaching of the college faculty), some students completely lost their faith, and that the traditional Adventist identity has not always been sufficiently emphasized in the lecture room. There was a clear consensus among the group that the curriculum of Newbold’s ministerial training should have a greater focus on practical matters than was currently the case.

In his interview with me, President Kamal outlined the process that he had followed from that pivotal point onwards. He had summarized in writing the outcome of this meeting with the field presidents and sent it around to them with the request to confirm that this was an accurate representation of what had been discussed. This became the basis for a “ten-point” statement of “Core Commitments and Recommendations,” which was voted with overwhelming support during an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Governors on September 30, 2020.

The Ten-Point Plan

While the Covid-19 crisis, with its reduction of most activities on campus—and the financial catastrophe that resulted—was the catalyst and presented an opportune moment for making drastic changes, the ultimate factor that drove the reorientation of the college was the wake-up call from the fields that urged the owners of the college (the various entities of the division) to reassess the priorities for the future operation of Newbold.

The ten-point statement starts with (1) emphasizing the continuous significance of the college for the TED fields and (2) with the need for adaptation and restructuring to meet the expectations of the 14 organizational entities that comprise the TED. The following item (3) points to the future direction: “Newbold exists first and foremost to meet the pastoral and leadership training needs of the TED.” In order to do so (4), the current department of theological studies will be replaced with a new Centre for Ministry and Mission (CMM), which will begin implementing a new program at the start of the academic year 2021-2022. (5) All plans, financial and otherwise, “should initially be built on a margin of 80-100 students, who (6) will be offered a mix of on-campus programs and online classes. In addition, (7) ministerial training programs will be restarted in some regions of the division (Baltics and Balkans). All this will (8) require a re-visiting of degree accreditation issues and of staffing priorities. Furthermore, (9) a masterplan will be developed for the use of the land and the buildings that will no longer be needed for college activities, so that investment returns can be maximized and subsidy levels can be reduced to a more sustainable level. Finally (10), The “Newbold culture” is to be improved “in terms of students’ experience and administrative services.”

It is felt that in this new approach Newbold will be able to better respond to the actual situation of many current and future theology students. Gone are the days when most students, after finishing their secondary schooling, arrive in Binfield around their 18th or 19th birthday to embark on their theological education. Today, an increasing number of theology students are older, have a job and often also a family, and then opt for ministry as a second career. For most people in that category, moving to the United Kingdom for a number of years is simply not feasible. Offering all courses online will facilitate this growing student segment. Dr. Laszlo Gallusz, one of the most recent additions to the group of theology teachers, emphasized in my Zoom-conversation with him that Newbold must indeed become more flexible. He feels the college would do well to introduce a modular system and serve its clients in a new (mostly digital) way.

At the same extraordinary board meeting where the “ten points” were approved, six working groups were established to work out the details of the plan, of which the Curriculum Panel was perhaps the most important one. How could the element of practical theology be strengthened, within the criteria established by the accrediting organizations (among them the AAA—the Accrediting Association of Seventh-day Adventist Schools, Colleges, and Universities) and by the universities with which Newbold has important academic ties (in particular the University of Wales Trinity Saint David)? And how could the content of various courses be refocused to reflect the orientation of the newly established Centre for Ministry and Mission? Dr. Daniel Duda, the educational director of the division, has on a temporary basis been appointed as the transitional head of the new Centre for Ministry and Mission.

Consequences and Concerns

The decision to concentrate—at least for the foreseeable future—exclusively on theology meant closing the English Language Centre and the Department of Business and Humanities. This happened, to a large extent, as the Covid-19 pandemic exerted its toll. Because of some “voluntary” redundancies and retirements, this process did not cause significant staffing problems. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the staff of Newbold has been reduced by some twenty FTE’s—which is, considering the size of the institution, quite significant. Careful arrangements have been made to ensure that the students currently enrolled in these departments would not suffer academically and financially, and could complete their program at sister-institutions.

As the students left the campus because of the pandemic, the cafeteria and residential facilities were all closed. When the new programs take effect in the coming months, the cafeteria will not be re-opened, and only one of the residential halls will be used by the college. Classroom activities, and the offices for administration and teaching staff will move to Salisbury Hall, built in 1957 as the central building for the college. The library will continue to function, but all other buildings will receive another function. The TED will assume the responsibility for the exploitation of the grounds and the buildings. An expert group is developing a master plan how to best use the facilities that will no longer be needed as the Centre for Ministry and Mission is being realized. Talks are being held with interested parties about the possibility of using Moor Close, a mansion that dates from 1864/65 and has served the college as residential hall and for various other purposes, as a health facility. The recently fully refurbished sports hall-auditorium could perhaps be part of such a venture.

As could be expected, a transition such as is now in process will meet with some obstacles. It would be an understatement to say that the theology professors at Newbold are somewhat critical of various aspects of the change-over from the Department of Theological Studies to the Centre of Ministry and Mission. President Kamal talked to me quite openly and at length about this. He said he was very aware of the fact that the theology teachers felt they were not, or at least not sufficiently, consulted. However, in his opinion, he followed the correct procedures. In his opinion, in the past the theology department functioned perhaps at times too autonomously, and tended to set and follow its own course. The teaching staff, Kamal emphasized, implements the direction that the owners/stakeholders of the college (the Board of Governors) have decided. He feels that in working out the details of the decision that the board took in September, the expertise of the staff has been called upon. He denies allegations that he failed to listen to the persons and parties involved before initiating the changes. In total he spoke with forty-nine persons, including some of the theology teachers, as he sought broad input about the changes that were being considered.

Things began to become awkward when, in his second meeting with the theology professors, Kamal introduced the possibility that there might have to be changes in the staffing of the CMM, which might result in some of the current staff becoming redundant. This created a sense of uncertainty as jobs might be on the line. It was explained that for the time budgetary constraints would not allow for the hiring of two specialists in pastoral/practical theology, and this might mean that two existing budgets would have to be re-assigned. How to cut or re-assign budgets in an organization is, of course, governed by national employment laws, which in Britain are rather complicated.

It seems to me, after my interviews with staff members and with the division president and other leaders, that the turmoil that could be expected to arise from possible staff reductions was underestimated. Kamal realizes, he said, that people are hurting, but denies that there was any witch hunt or strategy to get rid of particular people. He insisted that he will do whatever possible to avoid involuntary redundancies, and to cause the least possible harm. “This new approach that is now being implemented is rather a result of the division administration and the board not having acted earlier, when all the signals pointed to an unavoidable crisis if no drastic changes were made.”

Looking With Confidence Towards the Future?

How likely is the Centre for Ministry and Mission to succeed? In order for that to happen, potential students must see the revamped ministerial training as an attractive option. And the new approach must win the confidence and support of the leaders in the various fields.    

Challenges abound. The competition in the Adventist market for theology students is considerable. Several educational institutions of unions in Central Europe, which belong to the TED, offer master’s degrees in theology. In addition, Friedensau Adventist University in Germany is now also providing a master’s degree in theology in the English language. 

It is of vital importance that the issues that cause unrest among the staff of Newbold, in particular about the future composition of the corps of theology professors, can be solved amicably, and that the teachers will be fully motivated to give the new set-up their very best. After all, they are, in the words of Raafat Kamal, the “vessels” through which the product of the CMM must be delivered.

The leaders in the TED are convinced that the denomination, in the part of Europe for which they are responsible, needs a first-class training center that can provide the church with pastors and other church workers who can relate to the members who are called to live their faith in a postmodern, secular world. And these church representatives must be able to present the Adventist message in ways that are relevant for the European public. The new CMM must use and further develop delivery models that fit within the world of the twenty-first century.

It must succeed, for continuing with the old-style Newbold is a dead-end street. And it can succeed, I am assured by Dr. Daniel Duda, who leads out in the transition, and by Dr. John Baildam, on whose watch this change is taking place. An enormous amount of work has gone into designing significant adjustments of the curricula. Preparations are underway to ensure that the new mix of classroom and online teaching will “work.” A group of specialists has begun the challenging task of maximizing the financial benefits that will come from the exploitation of parts of the grounds, and of several buildings that must get another function. As to the goal of 80-100 students—it remains to be seen whether this number is immediately achievable. So far, there are some hurdles, but most elements are on track.

When I asked Baildam whether he looks at the future of Newbold with confidence, he stated: We are “shrinking for future growth.”  Raafat Kamal used these very same words. They do not exclude the possibility that in the future new disciplines might once again be added to the program, and more staffing will be needed.  But first a new model must be tried and must prove its success and give the flagship educational institution of the Trans-European Division a new, sustainable basis that will deliver the kind of “product” the church needs in its passionate endeavors to build God’s kingdom and provide the right kind of spiritual care for the Adventist community in Europe.

 

Reinder Bruinsma (PhD, University of London, UK). Retired since 2008, Bruinsma served the Adventist Church through various assignments in pastoral, educational, and publishing work, and subsequently as a church administrator. His last assignments were executive secretary of the Trans-European Division, followed by a term as president of the Netherlands Union. After he retired, he served for 18 months as the interim president of the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference.

Since then, Bruinsma continues to be active as a speaker and writer. He has written numerous articles, translated a number of major scholarly theological works, and authored ca. 30 books, either in English or Dutch. A number of these are translated in several languages. Among his most recent books are In All Humility: Saying ‘No’ to Last Generation Theology (2018), and I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine (2019).

Title Image: Moor Close, the oldest building on the Newbold campus.

Image Credit: Lewis HulbertCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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