After lots of bad news from Columbia Union College over the past several years, new president Weymouth Spence has announced sweeping changes on the campus in a document approved at the March 5 Board meeting and known as The Plan.
The Plan is based on seven strategies to grow the college, build more academic programs of distinction, boost student and employee satisfaction, address budget concerns, and revitalize the physical campus.
Changes include the realignment of majors into three schools within the college—a school of arts and social sciences, a school of health sciences and wellness, and its current school of graduate and professional studies. Some academic programs have been dropped.
Weymouth Spence spoke to Spectrum about his vision for CUC – and for Adventist higher education.
Question: Under the new plan, how are you taking advantage of the Washington, DC, location of CUC?
Answer: We are identifying some specific action plans for each imperative listed in The Plan.
We want to set up partnerships with local organizations or institutions in the capital area where students can participate in internships, so they are familiar with their work environment.
We have another action plan to meet with the leadership of the General Conference to find areas where our college can partner with them.
Another hard action plan we are putting in place is to get the college connected with congregations in the metropolitan area here – they are numerous, diverse, and rich in culture. We would like to establish some connections, not just in the metro area, but in the union. That does two things: enhances the diversity of the students, and enhances the knowledge congregations have about the college.
There are also many other higher education institutions in the area. We can establish partnerships with them so we don’t have to offer every degree, but instead can establish articulation agreements with each other.
Question: Your decision to cut out some of CUC’s programs has caused waves in the college community. How did you decide which areas to cut, and which to expand?
Answer: When I arrived there were already several reports and assessments that had been done evaluating academic programs. Plans were already identified to collapse some programs. I really just implemented the plans based on the criteria of enrollment: which programs didn’t have adequate enrollment over a five-year period.
We also concluded that because of our resources we cannot offer everything. We have to identify the programs we do best, and become known for these programs.
We recently got a request from the White House asking if we have students who would like to intern there.
We believe that because of the political climate and the heavy lawyering that goes on around here, pre-law is definitely an area where we can specialize. The CUC mock trial team has done exceptionally well against well-seasoned universities.
Question: Do you intend to move toward a more religiously diverse student body?
Answer: We do want to expand our enrollment based on diversity. We feel as if we are an evangelistic arm of the church.
I recently attended different Conference’s town hall meetings. We are hearing that some churches are declining or dying.
At the college level we have the ability to take in all faiths. Over a four-year period we have the opportunity to model the life and teachings of Christ.
A student came up to me at Commencement, and told me he came here as a Muslim, and is graduating as a Christian. It is part of the mission of the Church to model to all students. And for Adventist students, it is a mission to get them used to the real world of religious diversity – to give them the opportunity to study with students of other faiths, other backgrounds.
Question: How will you do this practically?
Answer: In the past we were only zeroing in on recruiting in our own academies. Now we are opening up more broadly – opening up to other Christian churches. We have ads on the radio, and we are going out to the wider market.
Question: Under the new plan, will CUC continue to be a source of leadership talent for the Church?
Answer: We are holding on to some programs that are mission-driven, even if their enrollment is down. Ministry, health sciences, teaching or education – those are mission-driven programs that will continue to exist.
Question: Do you know how alumni are reacting to the new plan?
Answer: We are receiving positive feedback from alumni, for the most part.
Some are concerned about their majors disappearing, however. But when we talk to them, they understand the concept.
For the most part we are getting positive feedback that we are decreasing the number of offerings and focusing on what we do well.
Question: How about the reaction of the faculty and staff?
Answer: The staff are very positive.
Some faculty who are being affected are reacting negatively, but that is typical in an organization where adjustments are being made. We are making sure we are providing the necessary support for those who leave and for those who remain.
Question: How did CUC get into financial difficulties?
Answer: The problem is not unique to CUC. All faith-based, tuition-dependent colleges are in trouble nationally. What we need to do, especially since we don’t have a large endowment, is to make sure our resources match up with our offerings. Over the years we have added courses and not evaluated the enrollment in these particular courses.
For instance, we may offer social science electives – we may offer 10 in a semester. If we have limited students, they will spread themselves over all the courses. So in some cases, we are not discontinuing classes – we are just offering them in different years. We are just managing our offerings.
Question: Where did the gift of $1 million come from?
Answer: From the Columbia Union. We are looking for a match for that, by they way. It was in support of the college. No strings attached.
Question: Will the new plan continue to attract financial and other forms of support from the local conferences in the Columbia Union?
Answer: The Plan is definitely helping. The response has been overwhelming.
I have been attending meetings, and everyone is very supportive of our actions and of The Plan. It is generating new interest and positive feedback. I have been very encouraged by the feedback from the conference presidents, and the chairman of the board of trustees.
Question: The physical campus is nothing to be proud of, and efforts by previous presidents to get new construction off the ground have foundered. What will happen on this front during your presidency?
Answer: I have asked for an assessment of what needs to be done, and which buildings need to be renovated. It’s a capital campaign, so we can prioritize. At the March meeting we decided to make a health and wellness building a priority, because we can get help building it, then we can share the resources with Adventist Healthcare and the community.
Once our donors and alumni see we are actually beginning to build, that should convey a sense of stability and growth. I think more donations will come in when they see that we are moving forward.
Just recently the development officer put together a capital campaign to help fund three aspects: endowment, buildings, and scholarships. We are at the drawing stages, and hoping to submit it at the next board meeting.
Question: What strategies will you use to attract more students? The recent negative publicity won’t help to convince potential students to come to CUC.
Answer: I asked at the last board meeting that Takoma Park would be identified and confirmed as the permanent site of the college. That was approved unanimously.
Second, we need to get our academies connected with our campus. We have not done a good job over the years linking academies with our campus. For instance we have a band camp where students come to our campus to work with our band. We need to take those kinds of opportunities to do other things. One faculty member even thought we should have a union-wide spelling bee.
We are also thinking of doing the opposite – we can go to the academies. Following that we can host parents and students at CUC. Often parents are the ones making the decision, or supporting the decision. But we need to do these projects on a smaller scale so we can manage them.
Question: What do you see as CUC’s greatest strengths?
Answer: Our diversity and our location. We have not utilized our location to the greatest strength, and we plan to do that. We have real diversity: both ethnic, and faith.
The commitment of our faculty is another asset. They are committed to the mission and the gateway of service.
These assets make us unique and will allow us to grow as we implement The Plan.
Question: What about CUC’s weaknesses?
Answer: Financial, funding, resources.
Another weakness is the perceived concept of what CUC is vs the reality. It’s not accurate – there is a big gap there. People may think that because of our location it’s a high crime area. But we have the second lowest rate of crime incidents compared to other Adventist colleges. People have confusions. We have to work really hard at getting connected with churches and academies.
Question: Has anything surprised you about CUC since you arrived?
Answer: Having worked for most of my academic career outside the church, I was somewhat surprised at the state of higher education that the campus is unaware of. They are not caught up in the currency of higher education.
Question: What did you see as your brief when you accepted the role as president of CUC? What skills and experience do you think prompted the CUC board to offer you the position?
Answer: While at Atlantic Union College, the faculty identified my outside experience as one of the greatest strengths I brought to the institution. I did not go through the cycle in the Adventist church. I worked outside, so I brought in different skill sets.
For some reason the good Lord has placed me in institutions that need transformation. That has been my wealth of experience: transforming institutions into more progressive and sustainable states. Having looked at my record in those sorts of institutions, the board was impressed by that.
Question: If you are seen as a transformation president, how long do you intend to serve as the CUC president?
Answer: I will be here for as long as the good Lord dictates. This is home for me.
Transformation is needed. Not just in financial matters – it’s a continuous process. In the broader scope we need to look at Adventist higher education. We have all these colleges in North America competing for the same students. We need to sit down as presidents and administrators, and think about how we can share resources. It’s going to take a struggle because of our structure, but it certainly is required. Once I get CUC where it needs to be, I will use it as a base to see how Adventist higher education can collaborate on offerings.
I have big goals, but I am partnering with the Lord Jesus Christ.
My presidential theme is connections. First it’s getting connected with the Lord Jesus Christ. Then reaching horizontally to various constituencies to let them know what we are doing. And create a sustainable, spiritual-based campus.
I am looking forward to creating a new position of a vice president of ministry. We need to be a spiritually based institution, so when students come by our campus they will see and feel the life and teachings of Christ.
Weymouth Spence, Ed.D., R.T., serves as the 19th president of Columbia Union College. Prior to his position at CUC, Spence served as the Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts.
He has also served as Dean at both the School of Health Professions at Baptist Health System School of Health Professions in San Antonio, Texas and Anne Arundel Community College, in Arnold, Md.
As a product of Christian education, Spence graduated from West Indies College (now Northern Caribbean University) in Jamaica. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Atlantic Union College in 1976, and an Associate of Science in Radiologic Technology in 1978 from Kettering College of Medical Arts in Ohio.
In 1983 Spence later received a Master of Science in Education from Central Connecticut University and completed his Doctoral Degree in Vocational/Technical/Occupational Education in 1994 from Nova Southeastern University.
Read a copy of The Plan at www.cuc.edu