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Court Documents Reveal Struggle Over Local and NAD Control of La Sierra University


This week, Riverside, California, Judge Matthew C. Terantoni ruled for defendant Ricardo Graham, granting him attorney-client privilege for the conversation that he had June 9, 2011, with North American Division officials and the general counsel for the General Conference Karnik Doukmetzian and La Sierra University attorney Kent Hansen. As president of the Pacific Union Conference, Graham chairs the board of La Sierra University.

The significance of the conversation under question is that it occurred the day before Graham went to the LSU campus and threatened public exposure to three LSU employees unless they resigned. The three later filed suit and the case is now in the discovery phase. Papers filed with the motion regarding Graham’s testimony reveal much  about the conversations within the North American Division in the lead-up to the actions by Graham on June 10, 2011.

In the spring of 2011, the controversy over the teaching of evolution in the university’s Biology department had been going on for two years. The Adventist Accrediting Association had made their campus visit at the end of 2010, and their report was due to be given to the Board of the Accrediting Association in April, where it would be voted officially.

However, as is the custom of accrediting committees, a site visit report had been given to the university administration on the findings of the visiting accrediting team. Much to the relief of LSU President Randal Wisbey, it was a positive report recommending an 8-year accreditation that he was eager to share—particularly with the University Board that was due on campus for a meeting February 9, 2011. An account of this preliminary accrediting team report was posted on the university website, to the great dismay of the North American Division. 

Dan Jackson, NAD president, thought that Wisbey should be reprimanded for the premature website posting, according to documents made public as part of the ongoing lawsuit.

In February email exchanges between Ricardo Graham and Jackson, Jackson also expressed his dismay over a rumor that NAD Vice President Larry Blackmer might be denied access to the February University Board session. 

“You are right in your perception that I was indeed voicing a potential positioning of the NAD should the LSU Board reject counsel from the duly constituted body that has been given responsibility for the stewardship of God’s work throughout North America. Whether or not folks in Southern California like it—this stewardship role includes La Sierra University!” Dan Jackson said.

The apparently antagonistic position of the LSU Board and Administration toward NAD Vice President for Education Larry Blackmer was symptomatic of the whole issue, Jackson told Graham.

“Ricardo, I know that you know that this is not my issue or your issue…this is God’s issue! The teaching of the Theory of Evolution and/or Theistic Evolution as viable explanations of human origins in a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning is an insult to the God Who created the world and Who brought this church into existence to herald his creative and re-creative power to the world. It defeats the purpose for our existence.

“This is not a battle between the Pacific Union and La Sierra or between the NAD and La Sierra,” Jackson continued, “it is a very focused part of the great controversy between Christ and Satan that rages on in this old world and that right at the present has entered the church through the biology department of La Sierra.”

Graham tried to defuse Jackson’s anger by assuring him that he would make sure that Blackmer was admitted to the Board meeting, and that he would speak with the president about the website posting.

“I am sure that you were spelling out the NAD position in your email,” Graham said, adding:

In writing, a part of it reads almost like a veiled threat. However, I am sure the threatening tone that I read was really an insight to what may happen if things go wrong tonight and tomorrow. I have talked to all the clergy on the BOT and they are prepared to use their influence tonight and tomorrow. Whether we can pull many of the laity with us is questionable.

Jackson was not the only person at the North American Division with strong opinions about La Sierra. José Rojas, former director of the Office of Volunteer Ministries, at Jackson’s request, had written an analysis of the LSU situation.

He listed six issues beginning with the university feeling they had enough control of the situation to hold to their position opposing the church. He said the university board president, board chair and the NAD president were all perceived as weak, while the NAD VP for education was seen as a bully. He thought the Faculty Senate had more authority over hiring and firing than the Board. Rojas lamented that there were not enough structural elements in place to effect change.

The issues were followed by five principles “(key operative term: accountability)”:

  1. The administrative hierarchy, from NAD to union, to university governance, has become very blurred and needs clearer definition.
  2. The curriculum of the university and its schools needs to reflect the vision and mission of the Church.
  3. There must be a willingness to replace individuals who are not willing to cooperate in a collective and accountable solution of this matter.
  4. The resolution of this situation will be a clear leadership tool for sister NAD Adventist universities to learn from, in order to draw their own inferences for their campuses.
  5. The resulting model of this resolution can be applied to other campuses if the need ever arose again.

Finally, Rojas outlined four options:

  1. The University Bylaws need to be revised with an eye to restructure of the governance of the university with more accountable definitions of the roles of the board, the deans, the faculty senate, etc.
  2. The board membership needs to be chosen from a more open process, with more input to the nominating committee from sources outside of La Sierra individuals controls.
  3. The university board chairman needs to enlist specific support from legal and NAD administrative leadership to accomplish the changes that need to occur.
  4. The NAD president needs to assist the university board chairman in moving the administrative mechanism needed to affect the changes.

The tensions between the Division and the University intensified in April 2011, when the Board of the Adventist Accrediting Agency did not take the advice of their own accrediting team, and instead of giving LSU an eight-year term of accreditation voted to return in 18 months.

Then the taped recording of the private conversation of the three university employees landed in the lap of the North American Division. Jackson saw the potential for changes to be made. He told Graham that he should share the tape with LSU attorney Kent Hansen, because there might be personnel issues. The timing of Jackson’s action was also significant. It was at the Pacific Union Conference Nominating Committee session that Jackson gave the tape to Graham. Graham was up for re-election, and Jackson chaired the nominating committee.

How would Graham respond to the personnel challenges of the recording?

A week later there was the telephone call between Jackson, Blackmer, Karnik Doukmetzian, Graham and LSU attorney Kent Hansen.

In his deposition, all Graham said was that he did not originate the call; leaving the likelihood that the North American Division administrators did. What was their expectation of Graham? Were they checking to make sure he followed through with the personnel actions that Jackson had suggested might be needed? As Plaintiff Attorney Rich McCune noted in his motion to compel Graham’s testimony. All of the options outlined by Rojas were ultimately carried out.

The finding of Judge Terantoni pertains only to the motion requesting that Graham be made to testify regarding the telephone conversation. Depositions in the case continue.

Whatever the outcome of this case regarding the three employees, the documented conversations of church officials is likely to produce significant side effects in the relationships between church admin, accreditors, institutions, and the laity.

Read the documents relating to the case here:

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