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The Accreditation of La Sierra University: Background Differences Between Church and State Accrediting


The fundamentalist filter may have strained out enough atheism to preserve a kernel of supernatural Christianity, but for intellectual purposes, fundamentalism also strained out most of the ingredients required for a life of the mind. —Mark Noll. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. 1994.

Two Horses in the Ring

Riding two horses at the same time is not confined to the circus. In the report that follows two accrediting agencies—entering the ring of Adventist liberal arts education—try to defend their own standards. Unfortunately, important features of one are non-congruent with the other. The first accrediting agency is the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s own internal commission called the Adventist Accrediting Association (AAA) which was chartered in January 1997. Few Adventist laity, even academic faculty, are fully conversant with the role of AAA in church-based accreditation. The focus of AAA is to evaluate the presence and the quality of what is broadly called the “Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of education” in the denomination’s tertiary and graduate programs. [i]

The other accrediting agency is the federally-approved Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) chartered in July 1962. Recognition by a secular accreditation body such as WASC allows parents and students to have access to state and federal student loan and grant programs. Students in accredited schools are able to transfer course credits to other schools, apply for post-graduate work, or compete for jobs that require applicants to possess a diploma from an accredited school. There are six regional accreditation commissions in the United States following the guidelines of the U. S. Department of Education (USDoE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). All North American Adventist higher educational institutions have voluntarily applied for and have been granted secular as well as AAA accreditation. Much of the discussion that follows pertains to the drama of accreditation at La Sierra University (LSU), but is generally relevant to the other Adventist tertiary institutions.

As far back as 1931, a powerful motivation for accepting secular accreditation arose in conjunction with students applying for medical training.[ii]  Since then the accreditation imprimatur is important for most professions. None of the Loma Linda University professional schools accept students from non-accredited institutions. But because accreditation opens up federal loan programs with ascending governmental tax-payer concerns and legislative protections, one of the downsides to accreditation predictably ensures that Christian colleges will become increasingly entangled with balancing government regulations and sectarian teachings. There are of course, independent schools, Bible colleges, and religious seminaries that do not participate in secular accreditation or accept federal and state aid. For various reasons, parents and students have a long list of expectations supported by the characteristics of an accredited institution. These include quality academic expectations, career preparation in the outside world, qualified professors, stable finances and protections from fraud and abuse. Faculty and instructors expect that accreditation will ensure academic freedom and fair employment practices. 

Given this background, we can focus on the potential conflict between these accrediting commissions—the AAA and WASC—and review the perfectly lucid interventions and issues affronting LSU accreditation. This conflict could have been predicted because of the recent conservative shift in Adventist higher education: a movement that appears to jettison a pluralistic university and push LSU towards the attributes of a Bible College. 

All Adventist higher education institutions since inception have faced what is perceived as heterodoxy in one form or another. Just four years ago in 2008 the executive secretary of AAA warned church educators that “in a few cases, the requirements of secular accreditation entities have distanced the school from its constituency or compromised institutional values.”  [iii]  In fact there are a few insiders in administration—if you can get them to talk about their concerns—who fear that the present conservative conflict was deliberately excogitated and the duration of the intellectual struggles over how scientific biology is taught at LSU along with the reluctance of the other Adventist colleges and universities to join with LSU in seeking a solution, tends to support such views. As one department chairman at Pacific Union College explained; “We do not want upheaval to occur again like the Desmond Ford affair.” The dilemma over how creationism should be emphasized in biology is what ignited the firestorm at LSU.

Scientific Biology vs. Creationism

Creationism is a religious belief and since the 1920s has become associated with Christian fundamentalism.[iv]  It is unfortunate that LSU now faces a series of invasive probes to discover how well it is honoring the official Church statements on creationism when there is not a consensus, at least among the academic and intellectual scholars in the church, on how to clearly reconcile science and faith. Until the nineteenth-century “No one publicly, and few privately, doubted divine action. To demonstrate God’s work was the task of all of natural theology, which had been a robust enterprise for almost two thousand years.” [v] Then the very essence of the scientific process began to question long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe. It is no longer natural theology or creationism, but science that is taught in the classroom.

There are widely different views on creationism. For instance, young earth creationists promote the idea of “scientific creationism,” which until about 1970 was known as Flood geology. Christianity and science has not always enjoyed peaceful coexistence, except perhaps in a hospital where evidence-based medicine is applied. Scientists examine nature adhering to self-imposed rules using what they call methodological naturalism.[vi] This has been quite successful in advancing a better understanding of nature and medicine. It limits speculation and conformational bias, among other things, and depends on scientific logic supported by evidence and data. There are others such as evolutionary creationists, theistic evolutionists or theistic scientists who attempt to embrace the findings of modern science and uphold classical religious teachings about God and creation. Even among theologians and ministers in the Adventist church there are a fair number who, holding to their faith, believe in microevolution. Despite widespread popular usage in scientific discourse, in making their case logically creationists are faced with having to reject many scientific findings discovered through methodological naturalism.

That is because scientists base their explanations on what can be observed, tested, replicated, and verified. If scientific findings disconfirm any core belief in creationism the believers are able to rely upon the broader context of faith and reaffirm their basic convictions, or deny or ignore the evidence.  Creationism does not hang on the fear of falsification thus creationism is not science. In other words, for true believers, creationism cannot and will not fail the committed.

What AAA is insisting be taught in the science classroom is quite different from what students expect to learn and understand about biological sciences when attending an university. Of course that does not mean that creationism should be disrespected since it depends on biblical revelations. AAA strongly favors learning situations that promote the teachings of the church through the assertion of ideology (this is sometimes less charitably referred to as religious indoctrination).  Thus, the AAA in this manner encourages the institution to contour the Adventist biblical worldview into all subjects. [vii]  When AAA assigns an evaluation team to review the denomination’s own institutions this boils down to some key objectives. Is the Adventist school “conforming to threshold standards of academic quality…and comprehensively achieving success in the spiritual domain and…is it truly ‘Adventist’”? [viii] Both AAA and WASC use self-study documents and peer-review reports to determine whether accreditation should be granted. Accreditation through WASC is a lengthy process and involves evaluators from similar institutions. Until recently, AAA has avoided duplication of effort by using an abbreviated evaluation process connected to the accreditation of regional bodies.

On the secular side, the WASC commission focuses its attention more broadly on issues of educational effectiveness and quality of student learning, fiscal policies, the evaluation of the institution’s own stated purposes, the quality of the faculty and facilities, academic freedom and institutional autonomy, etc. WASC strongly favors learning outcomes in the classroom gained by systematic study over the assertion of ideology. In this context, WASC requires an institution to clearly state its mission, apply the Standards of Accreditation and demonstrate how its classrooms meet society’s needs for an educated citizenry. “The USDoE has made it clear that it expects WASC to be able to evaluate and demonstrate institutional compliance with each of the Standards, especially those related to student academic achievement.”  [ix] When it comes specifically to religious instruction, “WASC affirms the right of the faith-based institution to teach the tenets of their faith … At the same time, the academic curriculum of any WASC–accredited university is expected to meet appropriate, generally accepted disciplinary standards.” [x]

Can generally accepted scientific standards coexist with Adventist identity standards? In the tension between church and state, La Sierra University is center stage. 

This is the first of a four article series on the coming accreditation tension at La Sierra University. 

  • LSU Addressing Creationism…Adventist Probation.
  • WASC Sends “Formal Notice of Concern.” New Bylaws Written.
  • Tampering with Financial Consequences…Can AAA Trump WASC Accreditation?

—T. Joe Willey, received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla University and La Sierra University. He was a fellow with Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.

[i]Lisa M. Beardsley.  The Purpose and Function of the Adventist Accrediting Association.  J. Adventist Education.  April/May 2006.

[ii]T Joe Willey.  “A Wall Unto Them on Their Right Hand and on Their Left:”  Adventist Education in the Midst of a Sea of Science.  Reports of the National Center for Science Education.  Jan/Feb. 2012.

[iii]Lisa M. Beardsley.  Ibid. p. 16.

[iv] Ronald L. Numbers. The Creationists from Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.  2006.

[v]Mott. T. Green.  Genesis and Geology Revisited:  The Order of Nature and the Nature of Order in Nineteenth-Century Britain.  In: When Science & Christianity Meet.  Ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers.  Chicago: IL. University of Chicago Press. 2003. p. 144.

[vi]Pursuing methodological naturalism seeks understanding in nature with what exists and methods of learning about nature.  All scientific endeavors are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events.  Sentiments in science must be guided by natural law.  No scientific statements count as science if it depends on a “supernatural intervention.”

[vii]Lisa M. Beardsley. Ibid. p. 18.

[viii]Lisa M. Beardsley. Ibid. p. 16.

[ix]WASC Redesign of Accreditation at a Glance.  A Guide to Draft 2013 Handbook of Accreditation.

[x]Letter from Ralph A. Wolff president of WASC to Randal Wisbey president of La Sierra University.  July 5, 2011.

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