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An Adventist Higher Education Conversation with Richard Osborn


Editor’s Note: This interview was originally recorded for Spectrum’s podcast “Adventist Voices.” Listen to this podcast episode by clicking here.

Alexander Carpenter: I have a particularly joyful feeling in talking with you because you are the president who hired me for my first job in higher education.

Richard Osborn: I remember when that happened, and you were a great addition to our college.

AC: Thanks. Well, what I'd like to do today is talk about the state of higher education, specifically Adventist higher education. What has been your day to day experience in education?

RO: I spent 39 ½ years working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in K-12 as well as higher education. I served at every level. Seventh and eighth grade teacher, elementary and academy principal, college president, and a superintendent and union VP for Education. I was the first individual with the title of Vice President for Education for the North American Division. In the last 10 years, I've been a Vice President at the WASC Senior College and University Commission. We are the accreditors for most of the senior universities in California and Hawaii and 12 international institutions. For example, we accredit all ten University of California campuses, the 23 members of the California State University system, the University of Hawaii system, Stanford University, the University of Southern California (USC), and a bunch of places of which no one has heard, as well as the three church-sponsored Adventist institutions in our region. Obviously for conflict of interest reasons, I'm not involved in their accreditation. I've had a vast experience now in working with a huge variety of institutions. Also, I was president of Pacific Union College for eight years. That's where we worked together, Alex, up until about 10 years ago.

AC: What is your sense of the state of higher education in the Seventh-day Adventist Church as you observe it?

RO: I'm a little cautious to be too authoritative on that because I've been out of the system for 10 years, and a lot has a happened in the last 10 years. However, I am serving on a task force chaired by Gordon Bietz, that the North American Division has put together. This group is trying to get, perhaps, greater collaboration or, perhaps, (to nurture) a system of Adventist higher education that has been talked about for quite a few years. In the 1970s, the church did put together what was called the Board of Higher Education and it was going to be an attempt to really have a system. This board would be authorized to say that the institutions could or could not have certain offerings. This was an attempt to have a more systematic organizational approach and that really failed. Thus, the universities and colleges continue to do what they want to do.

I came into the North American Division. One of the first things I did when I was in a combined role of K-12 and higher education was to suggest that rather than focusing on something that really didn't seem realistic, which was putting all this together and having kind of a highly mandated approach, that we instead focus on collaboration. This led to the formation of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities. I was honored to serve as its first president. This was a volunteer position, and it was a cooperative venture between the institutions. We began to do joint marketing and we actually paid a person to oversee marketing efforts to try to organize the whole system. This has been going now for well over a decade. But, the current challenges, perhaps, have been exacerbated by some of the broader trends in higher education, especially for small faith-based residential colleges.

When we see problems in the Adventist Church, these are also across the country in faith-based institutions. One of the main things is enrollment declines. Mike Scofield, a former college classmate of mine at La Sierra College at the time, is a systems analyst who does a lot of very interesting thought papers and presentations. His analysis reveals that in the last six years, the overall enrollment in Adventist colleges has declined almost 12%. The decline is probably the worst at Pacific Union College where we both served. In four years, they've had a 37% decline in enrollment. So a lot of that 12% is probably due to PUC’s declining enrollment. So it's kind of a mixed picture. Some are steady. I don't think any of them are anywhere near their peak enrollment. But these enrollment challenges are key because obviously that's the base of the financial model for the Adventist colleges. The church continues to give very strong support. One thing that I realized when I left denominational work and compared other faith-based institutions is that the Adventist church is probably the most generous church in giving subsidies to enable these institutions to continue. But perhaps we could talk later about why that could be a problem.

AC: Would you explain how the model of Adventist education works maybe at like a 30,000-foot level?

RO: Let’s go back to the beginnings. Adventists have always believed in education. The idea was that the first thing you did when you went into a community was to establish a school and maybe the school auditorium would be the church. And then there would always be a boarding high school in almost every conference to which those students could then go. There might be some junior academies that offered 10 grades. That was the model. Then, those students were encouraged to go to the regional college in their union territory. And so these union colleges were established all across the country at a time when transportation wasn't very easy, where you might get there in a horse drawn buggy. And then later on by car, by train. And of course, now everything's changed with flying.

It's an old model. If we were to develop a model today, that's not what we would do. We would probably do something like what the Mormons did. They created one great university with two or three branch campuses, like one in Hawaii. And I believe they have another one in their general region. Instead we have 14. Some of these are specialized. For example, Loma Linda University, which focuses on medical areas. Also, Florida Hospital and Kettering Medical Center have created medically centered educational institutions. And then we have Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama which is part of the group of Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) and is largely for African Americans. The rest of the colleges are largely centered in a union territory. The idea is that the boarding schools and other schools will send their students to this regional institution. Does that model work anymore and is it needed anymore? Good question.

AC: So you talked about this commission that you were involved with. What were some of the findings that you came up with as you looked at the tensions within this old model and on our new world?

RO: This has been studied a lot over the last few years. When I was at the North American Division twenty years ago, we talked a lot about doing more collaboration. In summer 2018 a Higher Education Summit was held in Chicago organized by Gordon Bietz. There were probably 150, 160 higher ed leaders that came for this summit following a huge K-12 teacher’s convention. They had some of the very best speakers and thought leaders, not just in the Adventist Church, who came. They discussed those trends that we've talked about such as the viability of this number of institutions for such a small church, enrollment trends, and some of the broader faith-based issues. Students are just not denominationally oriented today. You don't go to a regionally based college because you're a member of a particular union. Like you may not go to Union College just because you're a member of the Mid-America Union. They may have more loyalties there than other places. You're going to go where you think you're going to get the best education. And there may be some family loyalties as well. The parents may have graduated from a college and passed that loyalty to the children. So, I think we've talked about those kinds of issues, the enrollment trends and curriculum offerings. The next step now is this task force that's moving forward to do what's called crowdsourcing. This will take some basic ideas and try to develop some broader consensus points through crowdsourcing. These are some approaches, models, and methods that have been used by some of the top corporations in the world. A former Adventist who's one of the world-renowned authorities in this area is also giving some guidance.

AC: When you look at what's been going on in Adventist healthcare, there's been a mix of consolidation as well as partnerships outside the denomination. Do you see any trends in Adventist education leading us toward either of those?

RO: Why don't I give you five scenarios that were developed in 2009 to illustrate the range and then answer your question?

So the first is doing what we're doing right now. This is total institutional autonomy without much collaboration, but some initiatives.

The second is an outsourcing of economies of scale, but still with institutional autonomy.

The third is an actual staff that would coordinate this. Perhaps a three-person office that would coordinate all of this and try to bring a more systems approach to how we deal with Adventist education.

The fourth is a new structure with fewer universities — multiple campuses that would eliminate competitive waste. There would be a lot of collaborative initiatives.

Scenario five is the most dramatic. And that would be the Adventist University of North America with multiple campuses. There would be limited competition between those participating institutions, and it would basically be a very highly developed system.

I think that what the hospitals have done is not a complete centralization, but within regions they've centralized and bought hospitals within areas. Florida Hospital (AdventHealth) is probably one of the great examples. Adventist Health, in Roseville, California, also has a system of hospitals, and they're able to bring in economies of scale, branding, marketing, and a systematic approach. Compare this with these little hospitals in the Central Valley of California that would try to function by themselves. It would be impossible to do the kinds of things these hospitals have done, especially their community health centers that have met the needs of so many people. It is difficult for one hospital to do that. Impossible.

Do I see that happening in Adventist higher education? I'm neutral on that. I've seen too many attempts fail. There are too many local loyalties which I alluded to earlier. This Adventist subsidy from the church enables institutions that are mediocre to continue existing year after year because they're going to get a bailout, a subsidy from the church organization. It doesn't force them to deal with the challenge until it's too late as happened with Atlantic Union College for them to actually close. So rather than being proactive, it tends to be a reactive approach which happens in some of the union colleges. I want to make sure that when I say union colleges, I'm not talking about Union College. There's this tendency of a church leader to feel that if an institution closes on his watch, that he’s been a failure. I have another theory about this. I've argued this at WASC, and I've argued this idea at our major annual convention with a significant panel. I said, “What if we just viewed institutions as having a life cycle? A university has a life cycle and when the life cycle is up, celebrate and close.” The idea we have is that we must always have these institutions in perpetuity. And if you close an institution like AUC, you don't celebrate the great history and all the graduates they had — you just talk about the failure. There's this sort of built in loyalty and then you have board members who aren't willing to look beyond their little institution to the broader needs. Are we really offering a quality education? The church subsidy in some ways for some institutions, props up mediocrity. And we can say to students, it's better to be in an Adventist college, the worst Adventist college, than to be in a great university. Because that's what's more important that you be here. I have questions about that as the basic premise. I think in some ways that inhibits the ability of institutions to be open and creative in looking at different approaches.

AC: That's really fascinating. Identifying the subsidy as so important to the institution.

It sounds like you're saying it's ultimately weakening in our institutions.

RO: I think it helps a lot of them and I think it helps them be stronger. The General Conference subsidy to Loma Linda and to Andrews and the North American Division subsidy to Oakwood enables good institutions to be even better and to function more strongly. But I think in some of the smaller ones that are really struggling, what I've just said would apply

AC: Sounds like maybe there's a pruning approach where you focus on some fruits to let others, grow even stronger?

RO: We haven't been able to do that because that subsidy comes from that local union except for the General Conference institutions of Andrews and Loma Linda and Oakwood which is from the North American Division. Then, the two hospital-based institutions, which are two of the most successful universities we have. They're run by hospitals. So when we talk in generalities, we have to put these five aside and talk about the others that are truly union-based institutions, including the one we have in Canada.

AC: I know in your work at WASC, you've had an opportunity to see a kind of larger landscape than the average Adventist focused on their local university or college. Are there some institutions that you've visited that you feel Adventists should know about or you see a program working that would really help Adventists rethink the way that they approach education?

RO: Well, I'll give two examples. At that higher education summit last summer, Gordon Bietz asked if there was anything I'd like to present. I said I'd like to bring two guests with me.

And so, I brought Michael Horowitz, the President of the TCS Education System, which is a fairly large corporation in Chicago that has three or four accredited institutions in our territory. The system basically economizes by having basic services — human resources, marketing, information technology — all of that handled from Chicago. They can hire the very best people they can possibly find for these areas, pay them good wages as compared to each of these little institutions sitting out on their own as a possible model for the Adventist church. They have a central board, but each of the institutions has their own boards as well.

I also brought with me John Reynolds, President of Los Angeles Pacific University, an online university that grew out of Azusa Pacific University, one of the premiere faith-based institutions in the country. This was Azusa’s attempt to create alternate streams of revenue, and different kinds of students, more of an adult student population. They have been very successful with this particular model.

I thought these would be examples of things the church could do. A systems approach while still maintaining some independence by the local institution as seen through the TCS Education System.

The one that I have been very intrigued with is Dominican University of California. They've been in my portfolio for the last 10 years. I've gotten to know the president, Mary Marcy, very well, and she's chaired visits from me. I've been there quite a bit. She has gained some national renown for five models that she proposes for small universities, in the1,500 to 2,000 student range. They've had enrollment challenges and in many ways they're like Pacific Union College. For example, the nursing program — basically if they didn't have that, they'd be dead. So, a lot of students are in nursing. They're in Marin County, one of the most expensive areas of the United States, as is Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley.

Mary Marcy has developed a five-model approach.

She calls one of them the Traditional Model, which we're all familiar with — undergraduate residential, very liberal arts spaces.

Then she names a New American Model where you keep your liberal arts core, general education, and you grow your professional and programs and graduate programs.

Then she has the Expansion Model that has a very limited liberal arts commitment, but you focus on additional professional and graduate programs and an adult enrollment group.

Then Marcy names an Expansion and Separation Model where you have a lot of branch campuses and online programs to capture those additional students and a modest or non-existent liberal arts program.

Then the program that they've worked on at Dominican, Marcy calls the Distinctive Program Model. And this is how the model works there. It's called the Dominican Experience.

The signature programs are that every student will get integrated coaching. It's really a stepped-up version of traditional academic coaching and advising, which brings in mentors. Secondly, every student will have an experience of community engagement at a class project, an individual undertaking, or volunteering. Third, every student will complete a signature project, a research adventure or a work of art or even choreography. And fourth, there will be digital portfolios that will help them reflect on what they've learned and service archives of their educational experiences. Mary actually had a three-month sabbatical to Harvard, and she's writing a book on these models for which she got a major fellowship to complete this book.

So, what this says to me, Alex, is that we're not alone in these challenges. They're shared across the country. It looks like enrollment across the country is down this year. It looks like the percentage of students accepting offers is down. One of the issues I think that is driving this is student debt. And the question — is it worth it to go into all of this debt for what we get out of it? The undergraduate debt averages in the US $32,000 a year per student. In California, it's $22,000. In Atlantic Union College’s last year I saw an article that said they had the highest student debt in the entire nation. That was the last year that they operated. I was doing some research just trying to find what was the average student debt. I did a Google search and here was an article that said the worst colleges with the worst student debt. I thought, “That's interesting.” I pulled it up and I was shocked to see that Pacific Union College was fifth in the nation on the list for most student debt.

So I think that students are wondering how they can pay student debt back, especially if they go to graduate school. Add another $80,000, $100,000, $200,000 and more if they go to medical school on top of the $30,000 to $50,000 debt. And the impact of that on lifestyles — on getting married and having kids and owning a home and the choices you make for careers, all of that I think is coming to play. And then something I mentioned earlier, the prior focus was on loyalty denomination. This generation, most of them, do not have loyalty to denomination. They're going to look for the place where they can get the best affordable education that will enable them to find good careers when they finish. The problem we're looking at is not just Adventist — it's a nationwide issue that's being talked about a lot and my friend Mary Marcy at Dominican has probably been one of the most important thought leaders with even a cover story about her work in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

AC: Thank you so much. You've been speaking some hard truths. I think it is important for Adventists who care about our institutions to really confront the reality. You don't hear many Adventists leaders talking about debt and you know, as an educator, it is sobering at times. I've talked with some of my colleagues about this. I realize that somebody is going to come out of an institution, owing $50,000 when they're 22 years old and have no job.

RO: But of course, I used to tell students at the undergrad level that you're basically looking at the cost of a car loan and you'll turn around and take a car loan out for $32,000, and you'll make monthly payments. Is getting a higher education experience more valuable? I also think a lot about the students who don't succeed in finishing, but they still have student debt and you can't declare bankruptcy on student debt. Every time they make a payment they're saying to themselves, “I failed.” I think about the psychological impact on that.

AC: So let's end on a happy note here. Is there something that you feel like Adventist education offers the denomination and the larger culture?

RO: I think maybe we're two evidences of that, Alex. We are both the product of Adventist education. We both graduated from Adventist institutions, but we did our graduate work elsewhere. We are evidence of the value of Adventist education. I like to emphasize, and I've just been talking about this over the last few months, is that the question is, “If an individual, a student, graduates from an Adventist academy, or college or university and does not remain an Adventist, does that mean the institution was a failure?” I think that one of the premises would say, “Yes.” You know, we are here just to produce Adventists. However, I want to argue that the values you and I learned in our Adventist educational experience are more important. And if we live those values in our daily lives, then the institution has been worth it. It's been a success. We are using one of the, as I said, one of the foremost world thinkers and he's giving his time. He gets paid thousands and thousands of dollars to give speeches and his organization does for working with some of the world’s leading corporations. He still loves Adventist education, and the values that he learned at Andrews have lived with him his whole life. And I've seen that in so many cases. What I want to do is celebrate the values that you and I learned, and many others learned as being transcendent to these issues. And I think the current Adventist students are also getting those values. And that's worth saving and fighting for.

AC: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you.


Listen to this podcast conversation here.


Alexander Carpenter is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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This interview was originally recorded for Spectrum’s podcast “Adventist Voices.”

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