Dr. Avis Hendrickson, the new president of Atlantic Union College, has a challenging role: resurrecting an institution that effectively closed down more than four years ago after repeated financial troubles and losing academic accreditation. She is working to attract students again to classes beginning August 24. In this exclusive interview, she explains where Atlantic Union College stands now, and where it hopes to go.
Congratulations on your appointment as the president of Atlantic Union College. You were named as president last November. When did your contract begin? When did you begin sitting at your desk?
My position officially began on January 1, 2015. But I have not been sitting at my desk all that much. I travel quite a lot, as we reintroduce the college to our constituents.
What have you enjoyed most about your job so far? What has been the most challenging? The most surprising?
I have enjoyed seeing God answer prayers. It has also been wonderful receiving the well wishes of constituency members. My sense is that their hearts were broken when the college made the decision to suspend academic programs. It’s uplifting to be in an environment where people have said they are happy to see Atlantic Union College restart its academic programs.
The most challenging? I have to give more thought to that. My perspective is always to be thankful, as 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says. Whatever is happening, I trust God and act in faith.
The most surprising thing, in a very good way, is receiving applications from prospective students who are not graduating from high school until next year. This is an affirmation that there are students who really want to come here.
Classes are scheduled to begin August 24, after the college has been closed down since losing its accreditation in 2011. How many students do you have enrolled so far? How many do you hope for?
That’s right, we have offered no degree courses since 2011. To date we have about 11 students registered for the fall semester, but we are still processing about 50 more. There are other prospective students as well.
How many students do you need to have enrolled to make the college viable?
We need to have more. We are still working on increasing our numbers. But we are committed to offering our courses this academic year regardless of enrollment.
What degree programs is Atlantic Union College offering this year?
Students can enroll in two college-level programs: a B.A. in Religion/Theology, and a B.S. in Health Sciences/Biology.
And will you be getting your lost accreditation back?
Our intention is to regain our accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. But we have to be in operation to even be considered for accreditation. As we work toward being re-accredited, we are authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Education to offer these programs.
How long until you are accredited?
There is no guarantee for how long it will take. We are hoping to at least be in the process within two years.
Doesn’t the fact that you are not accredited make financial aid difficult for students?
Yes, it does. Students are not eligible for federal financial aid when we are not accredited.
In addition to giving God the credit for taking care of Atlantic Union College, the Board of Trustees deserve great recognition for their work in God’s field regarding this college. The Board has decided to discount our tuition. In addition, we are working with a company to offer a payment plan for students, where no interest will be charged.
Atlantic Union College will also offer certificate programs?
We have the Northeast Evangelism Training School program. We have an ESL program (this is particularly helpful in our constituency where pastors from international congregations want to become proficient in English, and for international students). We also offer certificates in office management, a certified bookkeeper, enrolled agent (tax preparer), certified nursing assistant, medical billing and coding, computer training, and culinary arts. Our certificate programs are geared to students who are already in the workplace. We have eight certificate programs overall.
And how many students do you have registered for your certificate programs?
Registration for the certificate programs is not open yet. Some of these programs will begin late in September, and some begin in January.
We are hoping to have as many students as possible in each of the programs.
Do you have a full complement of faculty and staff in place for this year?
We have the faculty for the degree programs, and coordinators for each of the degree majors. We are still recruiting for some of the certificate programs.
I suppose you have hired part-time, rather than full-time, teachers?
We are using adjunct faculty until we have enough money for full time. We are accepting applications for people who are interested in teaching, and we will expand as we have a need.
Did any of your new faculty previously serve at Atlantic Union College? Did they come back?
Great question. Yes. We have people who believe in Atlantic Union College and want to come back and make it be successful and work with our students. For instance, the chair for health sciences, Dr. Richard Brown, was the previous chair here. The chair for religion, Dr. R. Dean Davis, was also the previous chair. And the coordinator for certificate programs is Mrs. Barbara Fuller, who previously worked in adult programs. So we feel we are operating from a position of strength with the people leading these areas. We were known for our theology as well as our sciences before our programs were suspended.
Was the campus been kept in good repair during the time it was closed?
The Board of Trustees worked to make sure the facilities were kept up during the almost five years classes were suspended. They kept a skeleton crew to answer the phone, respond to requests for transcripts, and so on. They deserve credit for maintaining the campus during the hiatus.
And it was the Board of Trustees who got the approval from the Department of Education for the two degree programs.
Is Thayer Conservatory, also one of Atlantic Union College’s bright lights, still operating?
Yes, Thayer Conservatory, under Earl Raney, is still offering music lessons to students, as a community outreach program.
As the new president of Atlantic Union College, what have you concentrated most of your time and energy on so far?
Mainly building support and goodwill for the college. The Board of Trustees made a decision and created an affirmation: We are reframing Atlantic Union College to make sure we are known as a college surrounded by a culture of graciousness, dignity, Christian love and respect. I have been working with the Board of Trustees to communicate that to our constituency and the community.
Can you articulate your main goals for Atlantic Union College?
Absolutely. To regain accreditation, build our academic programs, and increase our financial stability.
This is a question I ask all college presidents: There are many other Adventist universities in North America. Do we as a church really need to support so many institutions?
I can answer for Atlantic Union College: Yes. There is only one college for the Atlantic Union and for all of our conferences. We have a constituency that prefers to send their children to this northeast corridor as opposed to somewhere else. We have a constituency who actually feel really good about Atlantic Union College being known as a cornerstone of Adventist education.
Many of the parents are very close to their children, and it is more accessible for them to come and visit their children in Massachusetts rather than at any sister colleges (even though they are very good). They are at peace sending their children here.
The fact that much of our Adventist educational history has taken place at Atlantic Union College is very endearing to our constituency — not only in the Atlantic Union, but also worldwide. Groups come here just to walk on our beautiful campus, see Founders Hall, and be in an environment where there is such serenity and the the sense that the Holy Spirit abides here.
Adventist colleges were started as a way of training students for service in the church. Do we still need church-trained church workers? What do you see as the primary function of an Adventist college?
We are here to be of service to God and mankind, as God as prescribed for us. That is what our focus is — still the original mission. All of our classes teach integration of faith and learning. There is great work that still needs to be done in our communities. We are training our students to be of service to God and humanity.
In the past, Atlantic Union College had explored plans for alliances with Washington Adventist University and other Adventist institutions. Have all of those plans for alliances been abandoned, or are you still looking in that direction?
From my perspective the alliances we are looking at are only “articulation agreements,” where students can move easily from one institution to another. For instance, a student might take general education courses here, then transfer to a sister institution to graduate with a degree in something we don’t offer.
I understand you have wide experience in academia, and hold a number of degrees. However, this will be your first time working for an Adventist college, is that right? How is it different?
Yes, that’s right. I am very pleased to be here at Atlantic Union College. We pray before meetings and sessions, and I like that very much.
Is there anything specific in your background that helped prepare you for this role?
I have confidence in God and his son Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I believe God has prepared me for this position. I think of Esther, who was prepared “for such a time as this.” When I look at all the experiences I have had and the knowledge I have gained, I can see how God was getting me ready. It is certainly through God’s intervention that I am here. Along my career path I had not thought about working for a religious organization, but I have a great desire to be in God’s service, and I can now see the sequence of events clearly led me to this.
Are you a lifelong Adventist?
No, I became an Adventist as an adult — more than 30 years ago. My mother (who passed nine years ago) attended an evangelistic effort in the Bronx. When I realized she was going to this place every day, I decided to go and see what it was all about — make sure my mother was okay. So I went to tent effort, and the evangelist was Raymond Saunders. He used not just one, but several scriptures to support everything he said. Everything was scripturally based, and that was the attraction. From that my children and I became Adventists.
And the Bronx church is still your home church?
The Bronx church created a mission called Better Living Mission, which became Hunts Point Church — that’s my church.
Now of course I have moved to South Lancaster, and when I am not on engagements I attend the college church.
So you moved to South Lancaster for the position?
Yes, this is a commitment. I am here as long as I am needed.
You are one of the few women to ever lead an Adventist tertiary institution. Do you feel your gender impacts your staff or the way you do your job in any way?
We are wonderfully and marvelously made. Yes, my gender impacts what I do. This is an environment that needs to be nurtured, with relationships that need to be nurtured. Not that men can’t nurture, but I believe my gender helps me do this. I think it is a positive contribution.
There are no surprises for God. He made sure I was on a pathway to get this position even when I didn’t know.
No negative aspects regarding my gender have been brought to my attention. Remember, we are in a Christian environment. And even outside that the environment is very aware that women can and have successfully maintained leadership roles. I am trusting God to lead and help me to follow his guidance.
Anything else you would like to add?
My sense is that generally people are very glad to know that Atlantic Union College will once again offer academic programs, and that is very nice. We have been affirmed by people actually registering for classes. And we have only just begun. We still have the spring semester, and certificate programs later in fall. It’s a very exciting time here at Atlantic Union College. To have a Board of Trustees that is so supportive makes it a special blessing.
Avis Hendrickson has a doctorate in Developmental Education: Student Development and Personnel Services from Grambling State University. She received a master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling from Hunter College of The City University of New York, a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Sciences from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a senior college of The City University of New York, and a professional degree in Administration and Supervision from Bank Street College of Education.
She has experience working in community colleges, senior colleges, and universities in urban, suburban, and metropolitan communities. The institutions were public, private, city, and state organizations. Hendrickson has also been recently invited to serve as an evaluation team member with NEASC (The New England Association of Schools and Colleges).
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