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Envisioning an Adventist University System


The first full day of “The Future of Adventist Higher Education: Chicago Summit 2018” began on Friday at 7:00 a.m. with a robust vegetarian breakfast for participants before everyone got down to business at 8:00 a.m.

Yesterday’s opening ceremony and keynote address from Dick Hart, Loma Linda University Health president, had brought the somber realities of Adventist higher education to the forefront, but skepticism still seemed to run high among attendees as they conferred among themselves at their tables and on the app that an overarching “Adventist University System” is the answer.

Tim Fuller, senior vice president and owner of Credo, a consulting firm for independent colleges and universities, spoke for the first two hours of the morning on “Higher Education Trends: Demanding a New Model.” He took the audience through a crash course on the history of higher education, the effect of new innovations and technology on both students and institutions, and projections for the future. Fuller kept the audience awake – no small feat – despite his self-described soothing voice by punctuating the conversation with wit and an overall jovial attitude. He mentioned several times that he felt “among his people.” Though not Adventist, he is Christian and his passion is helping private Christian colleges thrive. He mentioned that he already has several working relationships with some of the colleges and universities represented in the room.

Fuller confirmed that the cost of education is the major determining factor for students when choosing a college. Student debt is significantly outpacing wage growth, Fuller said. While median wages have increased at a rate of 1.6% in the past 25 years, median debt has risen by 163.8%. However, according to studies from the Art & Science Group, simply lowering tuition is not the answer.

So what is the answer? Mergers can be, Fuller said, but in his experience, there’s a lot of talk and not much follow through with such discussions. Making a merger work requires giving up things, people, programs, and/or places and that gets hard. Fuller wrapped up his discussion by apologizing for depressing us, but the bad news was just beginning.

Next up, Brooke Hempell, senior vice president for research with the Barna Group, discussed “Higher Education Research as it Pertains to Christian Colleges and Universities.” She began with some heavy-hitting statistics: of all U.S. adults, 76% self-identify as Christian, 34% are “practicing Christians” (attend a church service at least once a month), but only 7% are “evangelicals.” She explained how Barna defines “evangelical” – a term that has gotten a lot of press and myriad definitions in recent years. Barna has been tracking “evangelicals” for decades and their definition has not changed. Specific church denominations, theological beliefs, and the importance of faith and living it out all factor into who is an evangelical or not according to Barna’s criteria. And yes, Hempell added, Seventh-day Adventists are evangelical by Barna’s definition.

With only 7% of adults in the United States identifying as evangelical, the pool of prospective students for private Christian colleges is already very narrow. The challenges increase when analyzing the data on Generation Z – individuals who are in their teens and early 20s right now (born in 1999 or later). Gen Z, much like Millennials, are very career- and success-driven. Getting married is extremely low on their list of things they’d like to accomplish before the age of 30, with only 1 in 10 Gen Zs surveyed indicating this was a goal. Considering Hart’s keynote address on Thursday evening, where “finding a spouse” is still being marketed by Adventist schools as a top reason to attend, the disconnect seems clear.

Additionally, Hempell said, there has been a decline in this current crop of college-age students who are interested in pursuing mission and ministry careers. Because of this, students naturally feel that it just makes more sense for them to attend a secular institution that has their chosen major and more name recognition in their career field than a small Christian college does.

Lastly, Hempell shared that 34% of Gen Zs surveyed list their religious affiliation as atheist, agnostic, or “none.” Contrary to popular opinion, however, this generation isn’t hostile to religion, they just have no exposure to it.

Once Hempell finished her presentation, Gordon Bietz, NAD associate director for higher education, passed out copies of the “Chicago Declaration,” asking that attendees review it over lunch and prepare for discussion on it.

After lunch, it was time for more statistics, this time Adventist-specific. Monte Sahlin from the Center for Creative Ministry and Petr Cincala from the Institute of Church Ministry, discussed recent survey results from 2,096 respondents on a variety of topics including income, household size, race and ethnicity, and age. Sahlin described the “greying of Adventism” which he said is proceeding at about 1% per year. Ten years ago the median age for Adventists was 51. Today it is 61, and in 10 years it is expected to be 71. Sahlin told the audience he’d said this 10 years ago and he’ll say it again: Adventists are not having enough babies.

After a short break, Richard Osborn, vice president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, introduced the audience to McKinsey’s three horizons of growth, a concept for managing current performance while maximizing future opportunities for growth. The audience then discussed amongst themselves what their predominant mindset was (H1, H2, and H3). Osborn said all three “horizons” must work together for growth.

Next, Osborn introduced John Reynolds, the chancellor and CEO of Los Angeles Pacific University, an online Christian university that is the newest chapter in the Azusa Pacific University network. He shared with the audience the integration model that began several years ago and had resulted in growth and success for LAPU.

Then Osborn introduced Michael Horowitz, president of TCS Education System, a nonprofit system of colleges founded in 2009. This fall, their system will collectively enroll over 7,000 students. The smallest college in the system has just over 200 students while the largest has 3,000, but Horowitz said they’ve created a structure where even the smallest institution can have access to the best the system has to offer. They’ve found ways to collaborate and share resources that are non-student-facing, including in the areas of academic affairs, compliance and legal, and finance and accounting.

Each college still maintains its distinct identity and mission, while taking advantage of dual degrees and cross-college programming. Horowitz added that there are some cons, including that the system is not always intuitive, nor is it a cure-all, but, the pros far outweigh these issues.

Then it was time for audience discussion. Attendees were asked to discuss the following question at their tables and then send in their table’s answer via

“Has the time come for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s higher educational institutions in North America to engage in proactive Third Horizon transformational innovation thinking and planning by moving toward a system? What would the advantages and disadvantages be for your university to become part of a system? What might appeal to your institution about a system like TCS or another configuration? Or would it be better to continue as currently operating?”

The discussion yielded more questions than answers to this, which Reynolds and Horowitz fielded. One person asked what happened if a college decided they wanted to leave TCS? Horowitz said any institution can choose whether to join or leave, but so far they have only added institutions. Another individual asked what happens when institutions in the same system are competing for the same students. Horowitz said this does happen in TCS, but “we’d rather compete with ourselves than with each other.” He added that TCS has created a community and students choose the place that best fits their needs within that community. All schools in the system benefit from that student being in the family.

Attendees were on their own for supper, reconvening after the hour-and-a-half break to hear from Andrea Luxton, Andrews University president, and Vinita Sauder, Union College president, on the collaboration efforts each institution already has underway. Andrews has program offerings with Washington Adventist University and Oakwood University, as well as consortiums and programs in other countries. Despite the overall success, there are still some challenges, Luxton said. These include decreasing brand loyalty, a rotating pool of the most-qualified faculty, and high IT costs.

Sauder then discussed the Adventist Education Alliance (AEA) that was created in 2013 by the three now-retired presidents of Union, Southern Adventist University, and Southwestern Adventist University. Their goals were to create an enriched curriculum for students and to create a more stable financial situation for their institutions. Sauder said there was fear on their campuses that collaboration meant jobs would be cut, but that was never the intention and the alliance has been successful. There were hurdles along the way, including coordinating shared classes in real time, which meant also coordinating start and end dates for the school year, and aligning class schedules.

When the AEA looked into the possibility of creating one overarching technological system that could support this type of collaboration, Sauder said the up-front financial cost of $3 million was a huge roadblock. Audible gasps could be heard in the audience when this number was mentioned. Sauder said they had decided this was too cost-prohibitive, but hoped that down the road the investment could be made for this type of system which would standardize and consolidate back office work like registration, HR, and payroll for the three institutions.

Sauder said that last semester the three institutions shared 11 courses online, and in the past five years, there were over 40 “slots” where faculty did not have to teach a class because of these combined efforts. When crunching the numbers, if those 40 classes had been taught by adjunct faculty, and each course cost $3,000, that’s a savings of $120,000. So, what’s next? The AEA plans to do more in the future, which includes investing more, increased faculty training, more assessment of the student experience, and re-examining the IT infrastructure possibilities. 

“What have we learned?” Sauder asked, then answered: “Collaboration works! But it’s not easy. We’re stronger together, we can leverage each other’s strengths, and we have a lot to offer…We can fulfil our mission in deeper ways by working together to serve our students and our church.”

After a full day of hearing of collaboration examples that have worked, both within and outside of Adventism, and with the clock nearing 7:00 p.m., it was now time to directly discuss the anticipated Chicago Declaration. Larry Blackmer, NAD vice president of education, asked attendees to raise their hands if they had a copy of the final draft of the declaration in front of them. He then laughed and admitted this was a trick question. “There is no final draft! All this is, is the beginning. There is nothing – nothing – in here that is written in stone,” he said holding up his copy of the draft. He added that he’d heard a lot of angst throughout the day about this new system, but that this “is only an intellectual process of where we can go.”

After Blackmer and Bietz read the document aloud, the floor was opened to questions, and there were many. Attendees analyzed the document in-depth, each pointing out concerns with wording, goals, and clarity. The overall tone seemed more optimistic than it had earlier in the day. The skepticism was still evident, but the examples of collaboration throughout the day had bolstered the notion that this can and perhaps even should be done, but how to make it work for our Adventist institutions?

One individual questioned the section in the document were “endowment consolidation” was mentioned, and asked why “debt consolidation” was not listed as well. Bietz clarified that “endowment consolidation” simply meant putting all endowments in the same investment portfolio to yield a higher earning potential, but that each school would still control its own endowment. It was suggested that this differentiation be made crystal clear in the next draft of the declaration.

Another question was about all of the “H3 talk” that had occurred earlier in the day. One union president said he couldn’t take this kind of language back to his constituency. It’s brand new, not easily explained, and sounds like something from “outer space,” he said, to a smattering of vocal agreement from the audience.

Another question spoke to the timeline in the document and the wisdom of bringing in institutions’ boards of trustees at the very end, when in reality, the schools will need the trustees’ buy-in early in the process.

Overall, the conversation spoke to specifics in the declaration that needed to be better clarified, and some additions and subtractions the audience felt necessary before its discussed again and voted on Sunday.

As Sabbath drew near, each table prayed over the document and then it was time for a “sundown transition” with Jennifer LaMountain leading the audience in several songs. Though the schedule had called for the meetings to go until 9:00 p.m., Bietz dismissed everyone just shortly after 8:00 to go and enjoy the beginning of Sabbath in Chicago.

Read a summary of Day 1 here.


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the AEA had spent $3 million on an overarching technological system. This was incorrect, and the article has been updated to reflect this, with our apologies for the error. 


Alisa Williams is managing editor of
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