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Saving Private Education (from COVID-19)


“We haven’t pushed the red button yet, we’re not panicking,” Vinita Sauder, President of Union College, told the reporter from the Lincoln Journal Star on April 18. “Right now, we’re fine,” she continued. “It’s the summer and fall where things get kind of iffy….” Union College expects to lose $1.5 million during the pandemic. Most campuses, Adventist and otherwise, are facing similar prospects due to lost revenues from residential housing refunds, empty cafeterias, and other costs associated with the pandemic.

Sauder may not be panicking, but her colleagues in both private and public colleges and universities are getting pretty close. Articles with titles like “After Coronavirus, the Deluge” (references to the French revolution are almost never good news…), “How to Survive a Crisis,” and “Empty Dorms, Empty Balance Sheets” are filling the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) these days.

Things are bad all over. “The coronavirus crisis has the potential to change higher education more than any recession in the past,” writes Paul Friga, who teaches in the Business School at UNC Chapel Hill (“The Great Recession Was Bad,” CHE April 17, 2020). “Increasing tuition will no longer be an option…,” he writes. “To a certain extent, higher education has been living in a bubble.” He predicts an increase in both part-time, adjunct faculty and the use of online education. Oh yeah, also “the potential contraction in the number of institutions providing higher education.” Ouch.

How is Adventist higher education responding to this unprecedented challenge, especially the campuses specializing in residential, undergraduate programs?

First, of course, they took the entire academic program online, including support services, almost literally overnight. Many were able to time the change with spring break, giving everyone a week or two to get ready. Professors have been scrambling to try to adapt classes based on discussions, student presentations, and so on to a virtual experience that attains the same learning outcomes, more or less. For one professor’s musing on the difficulties, see “An Educator’s View from the COVID-19 Trenches.”

Perhaps hardest hit have been the sciences because of the prominence of laboratories where students actually mix chemicals, measure the speed of light, dissect cadavers, or identify local wildflowers. But faculty tend to be a creative lot. Tim de la Torre, an Instructor in the Film & Television program at Pacific Union College, reported on Facebook recently that because of small class sizes, he and his colleagues can “work with our students in a much more individualized way than many larger institutions.” He continues:

I’m co-teaching an analog film class with Brian Kyle where we shipped super-8 film cameras to all of our students so they can still take this class on-line…. I’ve given a couple of our students iMacs from our computer lab to take home and work from, because they didn’t have a fast enough computer at home. Others are being shipped cameras and other filmmaking gear. I know a student who took a ceramics wheel home and others in photography and printmaking classes have been sent packages of tools and equipment to complete their assignments remotely….

It will be better once students are back on campus, but for the time being, we are making this on-line thing work….

The fear, however, is that, even after the pandemic threat has faded, this move online will erode the numbers of students willing to pay for face-to-face instruction or a full residential experience, that online courses will become more of a norm for undergraduates. This is a financial threat, of course (fewer students living in the residence halls, eating in the cafeterias), but it is also an existential threat to the very concept of whole-person education — the heart of the Adventist educational philosophy. This philosophy, and its relationship to the current crisis, is well articulated in the recent statement from the Association of Adventist Colleges & Universities (AACU): “Such an education seeks to restore the image of God in humanity, foster wholeness and healing for people and planet, express the joy of Sabbath rest and hope of Christ’s return, and produce living testimonies to the love of God.”

Then there’s the question of what to do about the usual big events of spring: homecomings, graduations, even one inauguration (for Joy Fehr, at La Sierra). Some are having virtual graduation ceremonies while others are postponing until August. Fehr’s inauguration is rescheduled for mid-November. Most alumni weekends have simply been cancelled — See you next year!

Which brings us to another financial complication: philanthropy. Homecoming is normally a time when alumni give to the beloved Alma Mater. And giving in general is down nationwide for obvious reasons: the economy has tanked. But churches are also hurting because of the lack of weekly offerings, and tithe is tied to income, of course. Will some of the Union subsidies to the campuses feel the pinch?

Then there are endowments. Most Adventist institutions don’t have large endowments, but whatever they do have is now providing less funding. Harvard recently announced an immediate salary and hiring freeze and cancelled or deferred discretionary spending based on the recent 30% loss to its $40 billion endowment, which provides 35% of its operating funds. Clearly, if Harvard is experiencing hiring freezes, cancelled discretionary spending, and a 30% loss in its endowment, then the Adventist colleges, with their much smaller endowments, are undoubtedly facing a worse fate.

Some campuses have released statements describing steps they have taken to respond to the financial difficulties posed by the COVID-19 crisis. On May 6, Washington Adventist University presented to its Board of Trustees an adjusted business plan which “takes into account the possible shrinking of enrollment, loss of donations, philanthropy, record unemployment,” resulting from the pandemic. This “consolidated model” effectively eliminates majors in Education, BioChem/Chemistry, Communication, History, Mathematics, Political Science, and Social Work.

The recent CARES Act offers some financial relief. It appropriated approximately $14 billion to higher education institutions and students. 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.” (To see exactly what each NAD campus will receive, go to this recent Spectrum interview with Gordon Bietz, Director of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU), and the accompanying chart.

And while income from summer programs will take a big hit, in general the hope is that classes may be able to start in fall as usual, and that enrollments may be back to normal as well. Oakwood University has announced in its May 6 newsletter that it will “open its doors to our new and returning students on August 1, 2020, …subject to the health and safety advisories of the State of Alabama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

Campus leaders face hard choices as they look at planning for fall. “How do you decide if it will be safe to bring students back to campus for the fall when there’s no reliable prediction of what course the disease will take?” asks Lee Gardner in an article on “How College Leaders Are Planning for Fall” in the April 17 CHE. “What happens if the virus is contained this summer, then roars back in the fall?”

The campuses are working hard to ensure that fall enrollment remains steady if, indeed, they are able to open. First, there’s the issue of affordability now that we are in a recession. As recognized in the AACU statement, “the crisis has disrupted the work and lives of our students and their families, introducing new financial difficulties and other hardships for them.” The campuses are committed to finding new ways to make Adventist higher education affordable. This leads directly to the issue of enrollment. Will there be enough students who venture back to residential education in the fall? How can recruiters do their work when recruitment trips and family visits to campus are off the table? Some campuses have created customized virtual tours, free online courses to incoming students, and creative gift packs.

Currently we have more questions than answers. What might fall look like? Small classes meeting in large classrooms, to provide for social distancing? Staggered mealtimes to keep students spread out in the cafeterias? Adventist campuses may have to consider some of the measures being suggested by other, larger campuses. Purdue University, with 40,000 students in Indiana, has announced that it intends to bring students back to campus in the fall. This will probably require extensive testing, contact tracing, and quarantine areas in some residence halls, as well as efforts to minimize contact between those under 35 — with potentially lower risk of death from the virus — and those who are older… and a prohibition of large events, limitations on travel, and required face coverings.”

Silver linings seem elusive. Will students come to value face-to-face instruction more after they have had a taste of the difficulties of online learning? Will the more elusive skills which are learned in community — leadership, collaboration, persuasion, problem-solving, empathy — be more clearly understood as vital to the human enterprise? Will spiritual development through mentoring, peer support, communal worship and music, and community service be valued again as vital to a true education? Let it be so.


A Tour of the Adventist Campuses during the Pandemic

A tour of the campus websites gives a snapshot of how each one is trying to maintain a connection with its absent students. Here are some highlights:

Many have videos of the presidents, explaining why instruction had to go online and offering comfort to students who are feeling isolated or worried. Here are four (click the school’s name to be taken to the video) from Kettering College, Southern Adventist University, Walla Walla University, and AdventHealth University.

Southwestern Adventist University created a video from their Biology and Nursing Chairs explaining the concept of flattening the curve.

Loma Linda University Health hosts “University @ Worship” online at 11 am on Wednesdays.

La Sierra University offers a rather charming essay on roaming the world from the sofa.

Washington Adventist University includes a link to a live global COVID-19 map.

Pacific Union College is offering a Student Week of Prayer through YouTube.

Union College held a virtual graduation ceremony on YouTube on May 10, as originally scheduled.

Andrews University has a neat little animated short about the importance of social distancing.

Burman University has posted a rather sweet video congratulating its seniors who should have marched on April 19, but will now have an online ceremony in June.

Oakwood University has an impressive array of helpful links, including to the WHO and the CDC.


Nancy Hoyt Lecourt is Professor of English and Academic Vice-President Emerita at Pacific Union College.

Photo by Belo Rio Studio on Unsplash


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