Niels-Erik Andreasen took the president's chair at Andrews University in 1994, and in the subsequent decades worked to elevate the "life of the mind" and show how it can support and mature the "life of faith" — not endanger it. In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview, he talks about the pressures on the university's finances, the diversity of an institution that educates a global church, and why Adventist education should expand even if the church cannot afford it.
Question: You are leaving your post as president of Andrews University after 22 years at the helm. How have you changed since you arrived? Has Andrews changed?
Answer: Of course Andrews has changed during this period (as it surely did during any previous such period). Physically and visually the campus has changed, with new facilities and notably a whole new entrance that has connected the university with the local community in important ways.
There have also been program changes in every part of the university. One school (College of Technology) has been closed, though most of its programs continue, and two new schools (Distance Education and Health Professions) have opened. New graduate programs have been added and some undergraduate programs closed or reconfigured. Many people at Andrews have contributed to making these changes happen.
Of course I have changed too, personally and professionally, except in one way: I remain absolutely convinced of the importance of higher education in the life of the church and of society generally. If I could live my life over again I would return to the university!
What is hard about being the president of a college? What should constituents know to ease the burden of our next president?
I suppose it is hard to be president of anything, especially during times of change. Colleges in recent years have been the subject of scrutiny and broad-based criticism, with people saying things like: education is too costly, not practical enough, students do not graduate on time, some teachers do not work hard enough, administration is top-heavy, the perceived value of a college degree is declining. There is some truth to much of it, but the critical importance of education has not diminished. It would be nice if constituents and the general public would understand that and consider it when thinking and speaking about our colleges. Sometimes I think the best way to understand the value of anything (education, health, happiness, freedom) is to imagine life without it, or as a former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, is said to have observed: “If you think education is too costly, try ignorance!”
Is there a moment you look back on as the best of your tenure? Is there anything you are particularly proud of?
Pride is not a Christian virtue, so I can hardly be expected to describe my proud moments voluntarily. However, there certainly are moments of great satisfaction in the life of a college president, including the moments of graduating competent, committed Christian professionals four years after first meeting them as giddy eighteen-year-olds; the many moments of observing students hurrying across campus and realizing they are learning something new every day; the discovery and promulgation of new insights by faculty working with students on research projects; and the many moments of generous service by students and staff to help alleviate human suffering locally or in some other corner of the world. These are bright moments in my tenure at Andrews.
What do you plan to do next? What do you look forward to in retirement?
I decided to retire because I am getting older — not to do something I always had wanted to do, but never found time for. Working in education is what I always wanted to do.
But I felt it was important for me to participate thoughtfully in the conclusion of my life, as I had done in the beginning of it (realizing that the start of life and its end lie in God’s hands entirely). So making a decision to step aside from the work I love at this point in life and leaving it to a younger person was a meaningful decision for me and probably also important for Andrews.
I have been invited by the incoming president to continue some contractual work for Andrews in the area of planning and development. Beyond that I hope to do what retired persons do: plant flowers, read books (and maybe write something), travel, be with family and contemplate the mysteries of life!
How do you hope to be remembered? What do you consider your legacy to be?
I would like to be remembered as the person who insisted by word and example that the “life of the mind” is compatible with and supportive of the “life of faith.” That higher education, university work, teaching, research, and the lot of it is not putting our faith at risk, but supporting it, maturing it and making it possible. So I like to think that I worked for the kingdom of God by using the tools of education.
How has the financial stability of Andrews changed during your tenure? What do you think needs to be done to increase financial stability?
The finances of Andrews have had a checkered history during my stay here. I cannot say they were ever strong, even during good years. There are many reasons for that. One is the composition of our student population: 45% graduate to 55% undergraduate. Graduate students generally require more resources than undergraduate. Another is the international student population (about 20% on campus and many more in extension locations) mostly in countries with developing economies.
Therefore, the large number of programs Andrews offers, and its many educational services around the world, have always put pressure on the university’s finances. It has been difficult to adjust to these pressures, due to the university’s unique educational mission in places that can least afford them. That is one unfinished talk I leave behind.
Do you have long-term goals or vision for the school that you have not yet seen realized? I believe you hoped to have a new Health and Wellness Center opened — that you raised $18 million but are still short? Is there a timeline for groundbreaking?
My long term goals for Andrews have more to do with academic quality and services than with facilities, though the latter are also important. My vision has been for Andrews to continue as the flagship — that is to say, the pace-setting institution of higher education in our world church, and at the same time become a known and respected Christian university in our own country. We have made good progress, but that vision is still ongoing.
As for the Health and Wellness Initiative/Center, yes I have felt that Andrews needed such an initiative for a host of reasons, among them the fact that holistic education (including health and wellness) is the foundation of our educational philosophy. Health and wellness is a national and international concern, and Adventist education must contribute to its solution.
We are located in the northern world — it snows here — and our church members are drifting south and concentrating in the southern hemisphere. This center will attract students and keep them well in the cold and dark part of the year. And it takes us back to our original mission in the world both internationally and locally.
By the latest calculation the project should come in at around $17 million, and we are at just over $15 million now. No I did not expect to break ground while in office, just to prepare for it. This is a big project and it takes some time to complete. I wanted to leave something big for my successor to do — but I will help!
You oversaw an academic community where faculty and students perspectives may align imperfectly with that or church administrators or parents. How hard is it to manage conflicts like this? What helps you the most in dealing with it?
I sincerely believe our church deeply values its colleges and that our colleges would be impoverished apart from their religious home. There is no war between the two, but of course there may be a few skirmishes now and again. That is my starting point — a sort of foundation upon which we must build. So our church would be but a shadow of itself without education — a sect perhaps, a community lost in history.
And our colleges have been challenged to foster the important relationship between faith and learning (like the relationship between faith and works on the way to salvation) and they have grown and matured as a result of this challenge. We become better believers because of facing up to this challenge, and more thoughtful academics as well.
I have found that by embracing this issue in my own heart and mind I am able to understand the two sides of it better, including when tensions arise. That helps me to explain the academic work to church leaders in a thoughtful way, and to communicate the concerns of church leaders to the academics with greater clarity. As a college president, I am a translator of important values and understandings from one to the other — church and academy; campus and community. The key is taking these important issues into one’s own heart and mind where they belong.
Secular, or even Christian thinkers sometimes say that the phrase “Christian University” is an oxymoron—how can you be beholden to a religious institution and yet open to real learning? How does an Adventist university withstand this criticism?
I have thought that this criticism is perhaps more appropriate in cases where the Christian university is thought of or behaves as a “church,” assigned primarily to promulgate the teachings and advance the ministerial work of the church in question. In a similar way an NGO like ADRA is exposed to criticism if it helps needy people only on condition of their converting to the “ADRA church.” That might be considered a case of “oxymoron.” But I know of no reason why Christianity and Education could not be spoken of in the same breath. As it is the Christian church has nearly 2000 years of commitment to education, due to the inherent value of education for the life of faith. Most of the very early and even many newer western universities were established by the Christian church with a commitment to learning, dissemination of truth and the betterment of life. Remove that distinguished history of “Christian education” from our human experience, and we would be back in the Stone Age.
Do you find that there is a constant struggle at Andrews, the flagship institution of the Adventist church, between conservative and progressive elements?
There are certainly different points of view on many issues and there ought to be — it is a university after all. And there will be some pressure points, not only between so-called progressives and conservatives, but also between succeeding generations, and between different national and cultural backgrounds. In a way the university — especially this one — is a microcosm of the world population, and the church population, too. There have been moments when I would wish for everyone to see things the way I do, but that would actually not be best, and might be detrimental to the work of the university and the church. We grow as our different perspectives hone our thinking both as individuals and corporately.
As the Adventist church becomes increasingly international, what challenges does this bring for Andrews, as it educates future church pastors and administrators for very different parts for the world?
The Adventist church has become international, and so has Andrews. Our student population no longer has any one majority, but a near even mix of several ethnic groups with a strong international overlay. Further, our church population lives increasingly in the southern hemisphere. So Andrews is located on the wrong side of the world, it seems: the top part where our membership is steadily declining (at least proportionally).
However, the north still holds the largest accumulation of resources, in money, human talent, food, healthcare, and many other things. That surplus of things and know-how obligates us — we must not keep it all, but share what we have. Sharing unifies, while hoarding estranges.
Second, the world is interconnected to such a degree that no part of it can ignore the other. Andrews will continue to educate leaders with the skill sets and values we can provide, while acknowledging and respecting the backgrounds and traditions our students bring to their study from around the world. As a result our church should become a true global community. And I like to think of an Andrews graduate as someone who does not know a stranger.
The seminary spoke out in favor of letting church divisions choose themselves about ordaining women before the General Conference session last summer. Did that cause a political problem?
The seminary faculty members were not all in agreement on this matter, but most supported the ordination of women to the ministry.
Political problems occur when university people begin acting like politicians! And we had a little of that. But as long as we keep our academic/educator hats on, study for greater understanding (faith seeking understanding), and allow the evidence to guide us in our conclusions, we remain true to our calling, and most faculty members did that. I think these non-doctrinal issues will find their solutions at the congregational or membership level, not in committees. As the gifts of ministry are manifest in women as well as men, these gifts will guide the final directions we take, and in due course the committees will catch up with the leading of the Spirit.
You have had some difficult moments with the board over the past several years. How have those been resolved?
That may be a question for the board. But yes, I have a few dents in my service record working for Adventist education. However, it is true that the president always serves at the pleasure of the board. It would therefore be wrong of me to attempt to circumvent the wishes of the board, no matter how wrong-headed I might find them.
I have also found that individuals who work in one organization for many years, even a church organization, will have moments or experiences of disappointment. I expected that, and found it to be true. So I feel for individuals or leaders who have not had any preparation for that, or never learned to deal with it. I have found that my relationship with and commitment to the church has become more real because of this, and especially my relationship to Christ becomes stronger with this realization in mind.
What changes do you see Adventist colleges and universities undergoing in the near term? Does Adventist higher education have a future?
I think the future of Adventist education is directly tied to the future of the Adventist church. At present the church is growing fastest in the developing world, and it is growing much faster than its educational programs. In 1960 when Andrews became a university, the enrollment in Adventist schools worldwide was approximately one student for every four church members. In recent decades that ratio has dropped to one student for every ten church members, and many of these students are in some institutions not of our faith. So the impact of education on our church is shrinking worldwide. Of course some of these young Adventist adults attend other colleges where they live. Nevertheless, as this ratio drops the impact of Adventist education on the Adventist church declines. That will change the church. I would expect that as the proportion of young Adventist adults attending Adventist schools keeps declining, the back door of church membership widens. Therefore Adventist education should expand, even though the church may not be able to afford schools.
It can be difficult for a small university to survive, let alone flourish. With this difficulty in mind, name one or two of the most important strategies the next generation of Adventist College presidents need to keep in mind.
That is the most difficult question to answer, and I am not sure my answer has much merit! But I think we need fewer larger institutions that have enough critical mass of students and teachers to offer the many programs young adults seek. Many of our schools are too small to offer such a large variety of disciplines with distinction. I think we need to change the way we structure our tuition and fees charges, especially for higher education. Too many courses of study and credits are now available to all students at much lower price than they cost the university.
I think that every part of our college program must offer clearly defined added values: religious, moral, ethical, spiritual, academic, and professional. Students will not keep coming to our schools because we put Christian on our sign, or Adventist on our label, or academic on our transcripts — college must be a life-changing experience. So I think “different is better than alike” when it comes to Adventist schools. That difference cannot be borrowed from the past; it belongs to the future, and that is our challenge.
What advice do you have for Andrea Luxton, your successor?
I do not offer unsolicited advice, but whenever asked I will share whatever I know, and sometimes a bit more than that. So I will advise her to be cautious about taking too much advice from her predecessor!
Watch an eight-minute farewell film for Niels-Erik Andreasen, and find further information about his presidency, on the Andrews University website.
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