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The Secularization of Adventist Higher Education in North America

Much has been said recently regarding the future of Adventist higher education in North America, and there have been various blogs that have addressed this issues before. The Spring 2009 issue of Spectrum magazine perhaps gave us the best summary up to date of not just the problems, but the various solutions being looked at. See “The Changing Landscape of Adventist higher Education in North America” by Alita Byrd.

In this article, Byrd cites 5 solutions that in some form or another, either combines colleges/universities together, or changes the struggling colleges to community college status that would act as feeder schools to the larger Adventist Universities.

Specialty status was also discussed: each school could identify itself with its greatest strength and become a center in its area of expertise. Southern Adventist University has already identified itself in the area of visual arts and media, Washington Adventist University could be an ideal center for the study of political science with its obvious close proximity to Washington, DC. Technology as a potential solution was also mentioned.

As recent as August 15th 2009 Jan Paulsen, the General Conference President, stated in a presentation on the campus of Andrews University, that something must be done with Adventist higher education in North America very soon – within the next 10 years – as the status quo cannot continue to exist. “Structures”, as he termed it, must change if Adventist higher education is going to survive in North America. He also stated that while the problem is of great significance to the church, it also must be seen in perspective to the world church.

Currently North America has 13 colleges/universities (15 by some measure). The world church as a whole has 105 universities. Some of these universities have far more students than our schools have in North America. Babcock University in Nigeria states on their website that they have greater than 3,000 students on its main campus alone, while Solusi University in Zimbabwe has more than 2,500 students.

It must also be understood that the only universities/colleges in North America receiving financial support from the General Conference are: Loma Linda, Andrews, and Oakwood. Monies for the universities or colleges not under General Conference support must operate from student tuitions, regional Union subsidies, alumni gifts, endowments, and whatever other sources they can find.

Paulsen’s closing thought on the issue was, people will pay for a high quality education.

As some Adventist institutions of higher education struggle with finances and enrollments, there is another possible outcome which has not been discussed. It involves the gradual loss of ideology for the preservation of the institution – a slow move to secularization. This precedence is not new. Many universities founded by religious bodies have moved away from their roots for various reasons.

The University of Southern California was established in 1880 as a Methodist-based college. By 1952 all ties with the Methodist religion were cut. Harvard University perhaps gives us the best example of this. Harvard was established in 1636 to provide training for Puritan ministers. Under the Federalist party, Harvard had prospered, but with the 1824 demise of the Federalist party in Massachusetts, and rise of the Jeffersonian Republicans, state funding of private universities was stopped. To counter this move, Harvard’s board of overseers who had been made up of politicians and ministers, was slowly replaced by alumni drawn from Boston’s upper-class business and professional community and funded by private endowments. By 1870 this transition was complete, and by the mid 1880’s, the unofficial symbol of a parochial education – the required chapel – had been discontinued.

What is an educational institution to do when there is dwindling financial support and enrollments, and a critical point is reached when the educational institution’s needs cannot be met? The institution has little choice in how it deals with this situation; either they eventually close their doors, or implement different measures, perhaps drastically.

Therefore, should an institution be allowed to do whatever it feels it needs to within reason, if it results in increased enrollments, better funding, or recognition professionally? If getting the best teachers means getting non-Adventist professors, should this be done, especially in the face of fewer qualified Adventist teachers available? And if a college isn’t able to get enough qualified Adventist young people to attend, then should the college actively market to non-Adventists? For some institutions, this is already happening.

There is also another issue to be considered; what happens when an academic discipline is taught in a way that doesn’t coincide with church doctrinal teaching. When such an issue arises, actions may be taken that could include the withholding of subsidies and/or having certain teachers dismissed. What if a university feels this is a threat to academic freedom? How should they respond?

The relevant issue in both cases is that the university-denominational bond is strained, pushing one away slowly from the other, that unless resolved, could lead to the seeking of support elsewhere.

Compounding the issue is willingness of the various colleges and universities to work together. Byrd cited several solutions, but with time running out, few have been implemented to any extent. Most recently Atlantic Union College attempted a merger with Loma Linda University that met with no success. The reality of assuming a substantial debt and declining enrollments was more than what the university could deal with.

Constituents and alumni represent another challenge to merger or change as many are unwilling to see their college or university school lose its identity as they once knew it, perhaps more out of prestige than for its ability to function as a quality educational institution.

The move away from denominational dependence and identity is a slow process. In Harvard’s case, it took 60 years. Even after this time, Harvard was still known as a school for Protestant young people, early into the 20th century.

While finances are a big part of the issue, money alone cannot solve the problems Adventist higher education face. At the heart is the commitment to the vision and mission for which the church stands for.

For example, the Valuegenesis projects have been significant sources of information in gauging the admitted spirituality of Adventist educated young people and their views on church doctrines and values. Two areas that were the rated lowest among young people were in the areas of the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment and Ellen White.

Perhaps we should “re-Vision” these to be more relevant. The myths of Ellen White abound, and anyone studying her life and writings in-depth is aware of many issues that are not consistent with how she is viewed by many church members. A re-visioning of her role needs to be done, and in a way that doesn’t “throw out the baby out with the bathwater.”

The Investigative Judgement, a veritable hot potato of the last few decades, needs to be looked upon also for its valuable historical significance and how from within this movement grew the tree of the Seventh-day Adventist church. If we don’t make Ellen White and the Investigative Judgment more relevant than it is now, we face the likely chance of it being lost with the next generation.

The challenge to the future of Adventist education and the church in North America is real. There are solutions being looked at, painful though they may be, that must be implemented very soon. At the heart of issue is the need for a re-visioning of our heritage, values, and doctrines. If these are not made more relevant to today’s young people, we risk losing many of them.

Recently, a young Adventist college graduate heard a group of us discussing our concerns for the church and educational system in North America. He commented that “when your generation doesn’t like something you whine about it and try to change it, we just leave.”

May we strive to work even harder to change what we can.

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