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Double-Take: A Second Look at LSU’s Biology Student Survey

In a memo dated February 9, 2011, a board-appointed an ad hoc Creation-Evolution Study Group shared its findings with La Sierra University’s trustees. The study group, assigned during the board’s June 6, 2010 executive session, addressed allegations leveled against the university that La Sierra’s biology department discredited Adventist interpretations of creation, that evolution was treated as more scientifically credible than creation as an explanation of life’s origin and development and that LSU professors marginalized students who held to traditional Adventist understandings of origins.

The study group tasked La Sierra’s provost, Steve Pawluk, with administering to current and past LSU biology students a survey that would gauge students’ attitudes toward La Sierra’s biology faculty and biology curricula. In consultation with biology faculty members and university administrators, and after consulting with a biologist external to LSU and the Creation-Evolution Study Group, Pawluk composed seventeen survey questions that were sent electronically to 369 students. Of those students, ninety-one completed the survey.

When the survey results were finally tabulated, analyzed and released to the board, they caused a stir. Up until this point, the two-year controversy surrounding La Sierra’s biology department had been based on unsubstantiated allegations and anecdotes. But now critics seemed to have data-based evidence of La Sierra’s pedagogical shortcomings. Here was apparent numerical proof that bio profs were not adequately upholding the church’s teachings on origins or sufficiently respecting students who did. Of the ninety-one survey respondents, only fifty percent agreed or strongly agreed that in biology classes the Adventist understanding of creation was presented. Fewer still felt that it was supported in class.

When the data were released online, widespread virtual back-patting among La Sierra’s critics ensued on the web. LSU’s board, after accepting the study group’s report, voted to ask administration to report a summary of the findings and recommendations of the report. La Sierra University president Randal Wisbey and LSU board chair and Pacific Union Conference president Ricardo Graham wrote an open letter including an apology citing the survey data to accomplish this. The university’s detractors, whose numbers have grown to include writers and editors for the Adventist Review, interpreted this as evidence that they had finally won the debate over La Sierra’s science teaching, and took a verbal victory lap of sorts.  

However, many observers quickly found fault with the way the data were interpreted and publicly presented. Notably, on the five-point Likert scale, students who responded “Neutral” (Neither agree nor disagree) and “No basis for response” were lumped together with those who responded “Disagree” and “Strongly Disagree” in the presentation of the data, at the board’s behest, skewing the results toward the negative end of the scale.

Further, in the study group’s report, this caveat preceded analysis of the data:

The only way in which to fully benchmark these results, however, would be to have this same survey conducted by La Sierra’s sister institutions in North America. Without such comparisons, any criticism of La Sierra’s effectiveness at supporting Adventist beliefs relative to other institutions is speculative at best.”

This point is significant, and its omission from the letter of apology and Mark Kellner’s Adventist Review report on the findings is striking for two reasons: First, La Sierra’s findings may be, if other institutions were to conduct the same survey (which, thus far has not happened) very nearly replicated at other schools. Second, La Sierra has been roundly criticized for curricula that is likely nearly identical to the curricula of La Sierra’s sister institutions, while other schools have escaped LSU’s two-year-and-counting ordeal.

A closer analysis of the biology survey data, offered below in a presentation created by Steve Pawluk, creates a picture markedly different from the one proffered by La Sierra’s detractors. In the presentation, Pawluk compares the results with the nearest available benchmark: the results of Valuegenesis, a longitudinal study of 9th-12th grade students in Adventist schools. Pawluk cautions that the biology student survey data do not directly correlate with the Valuegenesis findings, but since data from other Adventist universities is not available, comparisons may be helpful in providing context for students’ attitudes toward teachers and authority figures vis-a-vis students’ religious beliefs and Adventist teachings.

For those who want to drill down further on the biology student survey results and on detailed documentation of the study group’s findings and the actions the university has taken, pay close attention to attachments 1, 2, 3 and 4 to the study group’s memo to the board.

Attachment 3, specifically details the responses to the LSU biology student survey.

In the document below, click -> for the next slide. Dark green corresponds with “Strongly Agree.” light green with “Agree,” yellow with “Disagree” and red with “Strongly Disagree.” “Neutral” and “No basis for response” answers have been omitted here.

LSU Biology Survey Findings

*This version changed to note in paragraph two that the board asked administration to report the findings and recommendations of the study group, and the result was Graham and Wisbey’s letter.

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