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How Adventist Colleges Can Steer Through COVID


Are Adventist colleges in trouble? Gordon Bietz, the North American Division’s associate director for higher education, talks about how Adventist tertiary institutions are weathering the pandemic.

Question: Are any of the North American Division colleges or universities planning to open for classes (other than distance learning) still this school year?

Answer: None that I am aware of. 

I understand some institutions are talking about beginning next school year still using distance learning. Is this a possibility? If this happens, how do you think it might impact enrollment? Will families still pay to attend an Adventist undergraduate institution online?

The hope is that such a possibility will not come to fruition, however as with the previous question we don’t know.  

How would it impact enrollment? Again, in a recession enrollment usually goes up, but if it is all online we need to create a distinctly Adventist educational online environment.  

If schools were forced to continue online because of COVID-19 it would certainly impact enrollment, because I think one of the major strengths of the Adventist institutions is the creation of the “living – learning” environment where the student peers and faculty mentors have close interpersonal relationships.

The institutions have been talking for a long time about more collaboration between their campuses in order to be more efficient, and you were one of those who put forward the “Chicago Declaration” two years ago proposing an NAD “University System.” Collaboration is already being done on a small scale (for example Union, Southwestern, and Southern sharing some classes). Is this conversation about collaboration being fast-forwarded in the current climate? What collaboration plans are in the works? Is the Taskforce still at work?

The present environment does push us to higher levels of collaboration and the Taskforce is hard at work, but even in this environment things move slowly.  

The downside of the “environment” is the economic challenges placed on institutions make creative innovation toward collaboration more difficult. As one person said, when you are giving a patient CPR you don’t talk to them about their dietary habits. This COVID-19 world has placed institutions in the CPR mode.

Some of the colleges and universities were already in financial trouble before the pandemic. Presumably, for a variety of reasons, any financial stress will now be exacerbated. Is there a chance any of our institutions will close in the near future?

The constituent commitment to our institutions is very strong, and I don’t see any closures in the near future.

There is a federal rescue package, called CARE, with large amounts of money allocated to help educational institutions, including Adventist ones. The NAD has released a statement recommending that our tertiary institutions not accept this federal money. Why? Do you think some schools will take the money anyway?

The NAD statement is a “recommendation” and all of our schools receive money from the government already. If it turns out that there are significant strings attached to accepting the money, I could see schools turning it down, but at present I would see the financial assistance as much appreciated.

What are the college presidents saying? Are they worried? Are they planning to accept the federal assistance?

The presidents are worried and are working very hard to adjust to changing conditions. I am not aware of any that have indicated they would not accept the assistance, but we have not really talked about it as a group.

How do you think the landscape of Adventist higher education will change in the short term as a result of this pandemic?

I believe there will be a focus on institutional efficiency and a renewed attention to the unique mission of SDA higher education. We have used the expression “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and this crisis bring opportunities for significant change.

Gordon Bietz is Associate Director for Higher Education for the North American Division and also serves as Director of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities. He was previously president of Southern Adventist University for 19 years.


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Image courtesy of Gordon Bietz.


The CARES Act allocated approximately $14 billion to higher education institutions and students, from which each institution will receive a portion with a formula established in the act. At least 50% of the amount received by the institutions must be used as “emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus.” The remaining amount may be used by the institution “to cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus,” with certain exclusions. — April 9 memo from Kristen F. Soares, President of AICCU (Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities)

Below is a chart of the amounts allocated in the CARES Act for Adventist colleges and universities:

Source: Allocations for Section 18004(a)(1) of the CARES Act. See also: Methodology for Calculating Allocations. More information can be found on the US Government’s “CARES Act: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund” webpage.


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