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Answers to Questions about the Proposed Adventist University System of North America

At a special summit of the 13 Adventist higher education institutions in North America that begins later this week, attendees will discuss creating closer ties in the form of a University System. Gordon Bietz, one of the authors of the "Chicago Declaration," answers some of the most pressing questions about power, money, and collaboration.

Question: At the "Future of Adventist Higher Education Summit" in Chicago on August 9-12, 2018, attendees will be discussing the "Chicago Declaration" — a proposal to effectively merge North American colleges and universities (though letting them maintain their own local governance) by creating an Adventist University System of North America. As associate director of higher education for the North American Division, you helped to create this document, along with a committee. How long has this been in the works?        

Suggesting that the Chicago Declaration will “effectively merge North American colleges and universities” is going beyond what I read in the declaration. Functioning like a system through various collaborations doesn’t mean “merger” because each campus is independently operated. There are a lot of things we can do in a collaborative fashion without losing autonomy, and without merging.

In 2015 the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU) discussed having a mission conference in conjunction with the Teacher’s Convention in 2018. More detailed preparation began about a year and a half ago. In many ways as the 13 Seventh-day Adventist higher education institutions in North America have been doing more and more collaboration over the years you might say it has been in the works for a much longer time.

I don’t presume to know the outcome of the summit on "The Future of Adventist Higher Education" and want you to understand that The Chicago Declaration is a talking paper designed to stimulate discussion. The group that is meeting has no constitutional authority to make any decisions for the church or for any college or university. I believe, and the presidents of the colleges and universities believe, it is time to have an in-depth conversation about the issues we confront. 

I know there is anxiety on the part of some that this is a top-down power grab on the part of the bureaucracy to get control of institutions. It is not; and regional accrediting agencies would not allow that.  This summit is simply a recognition of the changing landscape of higher education in the United States and Canada and a desire to assure the long-term viability of Seventh-day Adventist higher education.

My comments here are simply my personal opinion, which will undoubtedly change over the weekend of discussions.

At the summit, will there be a vote on whether or not to go forward with exploring the proposal?

Yes.

Who will get a vote? Everyone who attends? Just college/university leadership? North American Division leadership?

Everyone who is registered for the summit. As I said, it is not a constitutionally formed body, so the vote has no “power.” It just has influence and provides encouragement for moving forward, or not.

Is there a university system that you have modeled this proposal on?

Not a specific one but I have attended the Association for Collaborative Leadership meetings now and then and The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as Inside Higher Education have had articles and illustrations about various levels of collaboration over the years.

What level of control will universities have to give up?

That is the fundamental question and the answer will grow out of the meeting. If we are to have a “system” of any type, individual institutions will have to yield some control or it is not a system.

Would universities maintain their names? When students graduate, where would their degrees be from?

Yes – local identity would be maintained, and degrees would continue to be granted by the local institution.

Will colleges be able to retain their unique characteristics/reputations (for example, Southern being seen as more “traditionally Adventist” and La Sierra as being more “progressive”) if decisions and management are centralized?

Yes. The decisions and management that might be centralized relate primarily to financial savings and strengthening academics.

What if some colleges don't want to join/aren't part of the "coalition of the willing?" 

Then they would not join or be a part of the organization. If enough of the colleges and universities don’t see light in the proposal, then chances are the coalition would not happen.

Have all of the institutions been included in the discussion so far, including Oakwood University and Burman University in Canada?

Yes.

Will money from more financially secure campuses be used to prop up less financially secure ones? Do you envision a redistribution of resources if financial decisions are centralized?

I don’t see a redistribution of resources. Financial decisions would be toward saving money on campuses. 

Would different campuses be encouraged to specialize more, i.e. not all campuses would offer an English degree?

I could see some specialization in the long term, rather like we have now with engineering at Walla Walla University. 

Have you had any negative responses to the idea from college presidents or board chairs?

Most people I speak with think it is a great idea – in concept. Of course, they are talking to me and may choose not to express their reservations. The challenges will come in working out the details.

Would any campuses be closed?

That question implies a much stronger central authority than I envision. This is not a power grab by the North American Division, it is a recognition of the changing realities of higher education as outlined in The Chicago Declaration:

  • Declining population of traditional college/university student population.
  • Decreasing financial capacity of many Adventist families to afford private higher education.
  • Decreasing willingness to borrow to finance a private education.
  • Extraordinary increases in costs of providing a traditional college/university experience over the past 25 years.
  • Increasing availability of competitive educational modalities that no longer require a residential campus (free community college, online degrees, subscription-based programs).
  • Transformation of the job market to more competency-based education.

Any idea how much money this plan would save in efficiencies?

No.

How would this plan make the student experience better?

The combined strength of all the North American Division institutions could provide stronger departments and academics at each school. It could reduce some costs and make Seventh-day Adventist higher education more available.

Would teachers and students be able to move more easily between campuses? Would HR be more centralized, with faculty and staff employed by the system, rather than a specific campus?

It could be that some business functions like HR (e.g. payroll) could be centralized but the local board would control employment issues.

I would think it would be easier for students to move between campuses.

Would the General Conference have any control over the system, or would it all be from the North American Division?

It is all from the NAD, but as you know, the NAD is really a division of the General Conference and the division officers are elected at a General Conference Session.

Any influence that the General Conference has is already exercised by the Adventist Accrediting Association.

If you had to guess where this proposal will be in 10 years, what would you say? What do you think will happen to Adventist higher education in North America if this plan is dropped?

I am a Pollyanna and so I would see a much more unified effort that provided creative educational solutions online and on campus across the United States and Canada resulting in increased enrollment and lessening financial burden on students and their families.

If this plan or something like it is not implemented there will be a few more school closings and Adventist higher education could stagnate. Some schools will survive in niche markets, but the potential of Adventist education might not be realized. (See the Preamble of the Chicago Declaration.) 

 

Gordon Bietz, formerly president of Southern Adventist University, now serves as associate director of higher education for the North American Division and as the director of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities. Photo courtesy of Gordon Bietz.

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

 

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