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Educate Truth and Consequences: The Assault On La Sierra University Continues

On May 29, Spectrum reported on a web site attacking La Sierra University for employing faculty members who teach naturalistic evolution. Today, three months after the story broke, we now know that the website, “Educate Truth” originally created anonymously, is owned and operated by Shane Hilde, a high school English teacher, who attended both LSU and Weimar and who lives near Loma Linda.

Educate Truth is an agglomeration of news bits, opinion pieces, and leaked personal correspondence. It also features a petition entitled “Petition to Our Seventh-day Adventist Church Leadership.” The petition originally addressed Randal Wisbey (President of La Sierra University), Ricardo Graham (President of the Pacific Union Conference), Don Schneider (President of the North American Division), and Jan Paulsen (President of the General Conference). A clause has now been added as a side bar on the text of the petition stating:

“While the petition is general in its language, it will be used specifically to address La Sierra University. It will be presented to the Board of Trustees on November 11, 2009. It is our goal to reach 10,000 signatures by this date.”

As of the writing of this article, there were 3,939 signatures, many of them “anonymous,” and some of them apparently faked (Darth Vader was among the signatures listed).

Clearly, Shane Hilde and those allied with the Educate Truth website intend to stop at nothing short of forcing the firing of La Sierra University faculty members. This despite the efforts of President Jan Paulsen to put out the embers of controversy with an article reiterating the church’s stance on the issue of origins. Undeterred by both union and world leadership caution, Educate Truth has sought to push the issue, funneling old self-supporting and traditionalist fears about church change toward the La Sierra University Biology Department. As has happened in the past – from Glacier View to Southern to Walla Walla – when academics are attacked, the personal becomes all too political.

The latest episode involves La Sierra student Carlos Cerna. Cerna attempted to insert Young Earth Creationist views in a capstone biology course final paper. When Cerna was told that his paper was inadequate for the objectives of the course, he accused professors of grading him harshly for his views and for challenging prevailing scientific views.

Cerna exchanged emails with his professors, but did not get the response he wanted. His paper was given a “C” grade, which Cerna felt was reprisal for his Young Earth Creationist views. Cerna then leaked his email correspondence with Gary Bradley and Lee Greer–who co-taught the course–on the Educate Truth site.

Inside Higher Ed, a prominent news site, wrote about Cerna’s interactions with his professors and about the contents of Educate Truth in an article entitled Creating Controversy. The article included statements from Bradley and Cerna. When Spectrum contacted the reporter requesting comment on how the story was initiated, he demurred, saying only that the information was in the public domain.

Educate Truth, in turn, jumped on the retelling of the Cerna story alleging that it validates their quest to see Biology Department faculty dismissed.

Cerna’s professors tell a different story. They note first that the purpose of the paper was to demonstrate students’ understanding of prevailing scientific theories, whether or not students personally accepted those theories. They also note that Cerna was given extra help by having a professor read a first draft of his paper and provide detailed advice, which Cerna refused to follow. Cerna accused Greer of saying that the professor would grade him harder than other students for his creationist views, which Greer says is simply untrue. Cerna never spoke with Greer about the grade afterward though he was invited to do so. After the class ended and Cerna graduated, it came to light that Cerna plagiarized parts of the paper (discovered by someone working with Biology Chair Jim Wilson on If this had been found while Cerna was still a student, he would have received a failing grade.

While Educate Truth has tried to paint Cerna as a martyr in a fight against Creationism, using the student’s experience as a call to arms against the university, in reality, Cerna represents the dishonest lengths to which this small, vocal group will go to in order to get back at their former professors.

The episode reveals the willingness of these critics of La Sierra University to misrepresent facts, to publicly defame school employees, to disregard copyrights (in the case of syllabi publicized online) and to violate personal privacy by leaking personal correspondence on the Internet. Such tactics provide a seemingly shaky foundation for a campaign to see professors dismissed.

What’s at Stake

Despite its questionable approaches, the Educate Truth crusade has had an impact. Since the debacle began, Adventist college administrators and science faculties have gone quiet, refusing to enter the discussion publicly, although many privately find the tactics and arguments against La Sierra University troubling. Many church administrators, likewise have indicated their unwillingness to become entangled in the assault. Significantly, two church leaders have publicly addressed the brouhaha, both Pacific Union Conference President Ricardo Graham and Jan Paulsen have sought a more thoughtful discourse on the issues at stake.

The assault against La Sierra University has created an atmosphere of suspicion on campus, reminiscent of earlier attacks on Adventist faculty from PUC to Southern to Andrews to Walla Walla over the decades.

Failure to directly confront Educate Truth’s tactics could have broad consequences. There is a great deal at stake. If those affiliated with Educate Truth are able to influence La Sierra’s board of trustees in forcing the resignation of professors, it would radically impact the school, Adventist higher education, and the church as a whole.

The removal of LSU biology professors would negatively impact the integrity of La Sierra’s science and pre-med program. A department which currently provides students with a rigorous and thorough exploration of cutting-edge information and technology would be curtailed by the threat of interference from individuals who are not actually confronting the root issues of scientific thinking in the context of faith. The best place for literal Young Earth Creationism’s arguments would be in the laboratory–conducting experiments and presenting scholarly papers, not trying to silence the Adventists who are actually engaged in the professional quest to unite faith and science.

Caving to Educate Truth’s bully tactics would also stymie the pursuit of knowledge and truth, a principle that Adventist pioneers championed from the church’s foundation. Instead, academics would be constrained by statements drafted in committee meetings, and the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads, would lose out. Adventist higher education will suffer a serious blow on the day that consensus statements supplant the search for truth. It is no small matter that many involved in the crusade received training in self-supporting institutions or have a history of preferring graduates of such schools for church employ.

The church as a whole would be impacted by such a move. Future generations of Adventist youth will be presented either with a church that embraces honest inquiry, intellectual curiosity and academic integrity, or with a church that values uniformity and loyalty to a set of static creeds.

Former La Sierra University president Larry Geraty wrote on the need for academic excellence and truth-telling in the December 2002 – December 2003 issue of the Journal of Adventist Education. In an article entitled “Academic Excellence, an Adventist Priority,” Geraty writes,

    Academic excellence is a response to God’s call to tell the truth. Christians are called to be responsive to a reality they did not make—to something that is Other. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means showing respect by refusing to manipulate or deceive them. Academic excellence is an outgrowth of the Christian commitment to telling the truth. It means refusing to allow the sloth that so easily besets us to keep us from taking seriously the reality of what we study. It means honoring those with whom we communicate by being clear, responsible and honest. Christian scholars worship a God of truth, so they cannot indulge in any kind of scholarly mediocrity that sacrifices truth to expediency.

The health of Adventist higher education, indeed the future of the mind of the church, depends in large part upon how church leadership responds. Will they stand resolutely against the discomforting political nuance of the few loud voices clamoring, “Educate Truth!” (whatever that means), or will they uphold the scholarly Adventist tradition of intellectual honesty within the context of church faithfulness?

Alexander Carpenter contributed to this article.

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