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Tensions between Secularization and Sectarianism in Adventist Higher Education


My son Bruce, a journalist for the newspaper Good Times in Santa Cruz, was assigned to write a story about the possible effects of climate change on the Bristle Cone Pines in the White Mountains of California.  He arranged to spend a day with a researcher studying these unique high altitude trees.  Bruce asked me if I wanted to come along.  

After hiking all over the mountain during the day we ended up in the cafeteria at the White Mountain Research Station maintained by the University of California.  Sitting at the table the professor asked me where I was from, and I told her Loma Linda. Immediately her comportment changed, and our conversation quickly turned into a warmer exchange.  She exclaimed that she had been raised an Adventist and attended Pacific Union College the first quarter of her freshmen year.  She was planning a career in biology.  When her teacher outlined what would be covered in the textbook he mentioned that three chapters devoted to evolution would be skipped (too controversial, he said).  Promptly after class she went to her room and read those three chapters and decided that she wanted a fuller education in biology than PUC was willing to give her.  So at the end of the first quarter she dropped out.  

From there she enrolled in the University of Santa Cruz and eventually obtained a PhD in botany.  Her family objected to her attending an “outside” university.  Both parents were physicians from Loma Linda School of Medicine.  Then she went on to say that her folks lost confidence in the church’s short-age chronology for earth’s history, “after learning that the veritable ages of still living Bristle Cone Pines had been determined to be older than 15,000 years” through some of her own research, along with others.

In modern universities, biologists and other scientists give scientific knowledge a privileged place in the academic mission of higher education.  However, this has the potential to create controversy (and even loss of employment) in Adventist post-secondary education.

In the spring of 2011, during a La Sierra University faculty convocation, the North American Division vice president for education defended the Adventist Accrediting Association Board’s decision that the university “deviated” from the philosophy and objectives of education by teaching the theory of evolution in biology.  He declared that: “We have no reason to exist if we’re not teaching a uniquely Seventh-day Adventist message. We, as a North American Division, put $28 million a year into our education system [closer to $23 million when you exclude subsides to the three universities owned by the General Conference].  And if we wanted our kids to have just a Christian education or just a good education, we’d send them somewhere else.”  

Educational accreditation is a type of quality assurance, in which the academics and governance of educational institutions are evaluated by an external body to determine if peer-review standards are met.  Federal student loans and grants are associated with accreditation; colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized accreditor in order for their students to be eligible for federal student aid, such as Pell Grants and federally-backed student loans. In the case of Adventist post-secondary institutions in 2012 this amounts to approximately $390 million (National Center of Education Statistics).  The government also has an incentive in granting these funds.  Accreditation is an affirmation that a college provides a quality of education that the general public has the right to expect and that the educational community recognizes.1  The government financial aid programs are accountable to a federally-recognized accreditation agency supported by Congress (The National Education Act) and the U. S. Department of Education. 

Adding to the troika is another $486 million contributed by students and parents in the form of tuition (although this gets complicated because some tuition money — perhaps 30 % — is borrowed through student loans or an outright grant from the government).  It is quite likely that students and parents expect their tuition to buy the student an improved future livelihood and probably a future spouse of the same faith. 

There is significant difference between the orthodox watchdog of the Adventist Accrediting Association and accreditation from the regional accrediting agency recognized by the federal government, although they share a demand for common quality education.  The Church’s perspective, values and philosophy are “expressed in the distinctive characteristics of Adventist education — derived from the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White that point to the redemptive aim of true education: to restore human beings into the image of their Maker.”2

There are many sources of secularization that take hold in faith-based institutions.  But the financial role that federally-based accreditation plays is often glossed over. Adventist institutions don’t talk about the secularizing influence that federal and state aid has on their programs when they are advertising themselves to potential students. It seems that the zeal to bring Christian learning up to date, improve the quality of education and attract more students through accreditation has the potential to countervail what the church is attempting to do to maintain pedagogy of its religious teachings. 


Seventh-day Adventists believe their colleges arose from “divine inspiration.” Today, however, these church-started schools largely appear to mimic secular institutions in their course catalogues and statements of academic purpose.  Among other things, this is driven by the fact that Adventist colleges and universities depend heavily on tuition income (accompanied by a much smaller amount of church financial support), while seeking secular accreditation through government’s regional agencies. 

These schools have come to rely on non-religious academic standards, allowing students to participate in state and federal loans and transfer course credits. These standards also permit the institutions to acquire government tax-exempt bonds for capital improvements.  

The concern voiced by conservatives is “Whose bread I eat … whose laws I keep.”  Ellen White herself voiced concern that “we will not be tied by so much as a thread to the educational policies of those who do not discern the voice of God and who will not harken to his commandments.” But by 1928, to “prevent the closing of a school or a department” the General Conference took “necessary steps to accredit pre-medical and normal departments to guarantee their continuance.”3 From this point modern Adventist colleges and universities have continued to evolve.  

By reviewing the historical past you can see that peer-reviewed accreditation has resulted in better trained faculty, wider course offerings and academic policies which reflect more openness and freedom.  

The Making of the Modern University

By the 1960s, traditional faith-based colleges were more influenced by secular than Christian thought, most scholars of American higher education agree.4   Much of this change in direction was driven by economic necessity.  It is well known that organizational secularization follows from the pressure to compete for students, funding and faculty.  Of course, others have observed that secularization can thrive in the very midst of denominational particularity — what can be called the deformed partnership between secularization and sectarianism.5   

The relationship between piety and intellect can create colleges with looser religious requirements in order to maintain a competitive edge “with the attractions of a commercial and industrial economy.”6

In some ways, Adventist colleges and universities are still unique in the higher education landscape. Despite secularization, Adventist institutions maintain an  intimate community atmosphere, unlike larger public institutions, to the benefit of students. Faculty in Adventist-supported colleges and universities show considerable interest in their students, in part because these schools place minimal pressure on the faculty to conduct and publish research.7   These schools continue many of the old-time denominational religious emphases by retaining a more communal environment, including obligatory chapel and worship attendance and an imposition on acceptable behavior both on and off campus as well as “sensible” dress codes (a form of in loco parentis discipline).  Students are also required to take so many hours of religious classes before graduation.  

Nevertheless, leading educators in the Adventist system are concerned about the drift towards secularization.  So they maintain a dogged determination to resist secular influences while at the same time worrying about how to attract students from divergent Adventist homes that are also undergoing cultural and societal secularization.  There are estimates that 75 % of Adventist high school and academy graduates attend secular community colleges or universities.   

Students and parents (both Adventist and non-Adventist families) select an Adventist tertiary school for various reasons.  There are 4,599 public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the country to choose from, including in many cases nearby community colleges.  The average cost of enrollment in one of the Adventist institutions is slightly more than $32,500 per year (NCES).  According to Henry E. Felder, former dean of the School of Business at La Sierra University, Adventist students face lower admission rates, are less likely to return for a second year, and are less likely to graduate than the first-year undergraduates in public institutions.8  Despite the higher cost of an Adventist college education where only half will graduate after six years, thousands of students are drawn to Adventist institutions. Many students rejoice at the opportunity to hear the gospel throughout their college experience, and say they fear that public institutions undermine the overarching philosophy of Christian life. 

Academic freedom is another area where secular accreditation plays a role. Professors at Adventist tertiary institutions have a special responsibility in teaching immature minds that enter college. For the most part high school students come from rigidly authoritarian experiences. They are not prepared for the nearly total freedom that awaits college freshmen.  Consequently, an experienced college teacher recognizes that some new ideas must be introduced slowly with respect for students’ own beliefs and traditions.  Perhaps the greatest margin where tension is likely to occur involves theology and science.  But evidence-based reasoning is pervasive in the curricula of all disciplines, not only hard sciences.  In this respect, the professor “is expected to expound the Word of God conscientiously and with Christian concern for the eternal welfare of the persons under his or her care. Such a privilege precludes the promotion of theological [and scientific] views contrary to the accepted position of the Church.”9   At the same time, faculty also believe that “it is their responsibility to be serious scholars who give students a genuine education.”10

The issue of academic freedom came to the forefront recently at Pacific Union College.  There the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “the challenges of protecting academic freedom while observing church doctrine at liberal-arts colleges with strong religious ties” can create a “clash with church teachings.”  Some Adventists educators refer to this as an oxymoron.

Church leaders have been known to view academic freedom with a jaundiced eye.  However, in the governance of higher education, broader academic freedom standards have found their way into Adventist higher education because of federally-backed accreditation.  Accrediting agencies recommend policies that protect teachers while encouraging institutional autonomy, and as a “public benefit” the institution pledges “every effort” to avoid theological and scientific controversy and offer clear and understandable learning free from sectarian and denominational propaganda.  This is not easy at times.  For example, La Sierra University boldly advertises its religiously-oriented position on academic freedom by stating, “Convinced that God is the author of all truth, the university maintains an atmosphere of freedom and openness for intellectual exploration and expression.”11   But quite likely a free market in some opinions does not become a free market in all opinions.  This was surely the case in teaching biological sciences at La Sierra University.12

Over time, and ever so gradually, accreditation has changed the topology of all Christian schools (not only Adventist institutions) that offer a liberal and science education.  This should not be surprising; a college does not exist in isolation.  Along with modern educational markets, public opinions and students’ values there are also non-religious forces that sometimes push these schools away from their distinctive Christian ethos and way of operation.  Once a college expands its vision to become a university and to serve a broader constituency, “its days are numbered when any substantive denominational tradition could survive.”13   According to George M. Marsden, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, part of this fear springs from a deep foreboding on the part of the church-related university administrators and faculty that religious universities are intrinsically inferior to non-religions ones.  

Tuition, Grants-in-Aide and Discounts

Mission and finance are not independent of one another.  What a school does for its students, parents, community and society affects its revenue-generating capacity.   And the school’s ability to generate revenue affects its ability to advance its mission and serve its various beneficiaries.  

It is possible to analyze the annual revenues, tuition and discounting reported by Adventist institutions, by reviewing the Internal Revenue Service Form 990 for non-profit and tax-exempt Corporations.  This information provides a general picture of financial operations.  For example, in 2012 the total revenues for all North American tertiary schools was nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, or $737 million (the latest 990 reports). [Gross revenues and net assets for Southern Adventist University and Kettering Medical College are not included in this table (see footnote)].14   Expenses reported include $686 million, leaving a total gain of $51 million for 2012 (about 9.3 %).  This table summarizes the main streams of tuition revenues, expenses, gains/losses and net assets for all Adventist higher education.  Andrews, Oakwood and Loma Linda Universities are owned by the General Conference.



Notes:  AUHS = Adventist University of Health Sciences, AU = Andrews University, KC = Kettering College, LSU = La Sierra University, LLU = Loma Linda University, OU = Oakwood University, PUC = Pacific Union College, SAU = Southern Adventist University, SWAU = Southwestern Adventist University, UC = Union College, WWU = Walla Walla University, WAU = Washington Adventist University.

Approximately 66 % of the total revenues in these Adventist institutions came from tuition (most of the rest for cost of living on campus).  By comparison, the tuition revenues at public institutions only account for about 16 % of income.  

It is less expensive to attend a public institution than an Adventist school.  One reason is that Adventist colleges receive far less of their total revenue from government sources and much more from tuition.  The wealthier public institutions finance an even smaller percentage of their budgets with tuition, and rely on endowments.  

Adventist institutions have accumulated net assets of over a billion dollars and receive very little tithe subsidy from the church in general (about a third of church subsidies are contributed by the General Conference to Loma Linda University, see chart).  You can also observe that these institutions discount tuition on the order of about 25 % (average) with the least by Loma Linda University (5 %) and the most by Oakwood (47 %) and Washington Adventist Universities (48 %).  The president’s salaries vary from a low of $52,010 annually to a high of $505,539.

The competitive advantage of setting a higher tuition and then giving back student financial assistance in the form of grants and scholarships is driven in part by the competitive need to attract students.  The school’s listed tuition (its list price) is about as informative as the list price of a car.  Almost all students pay less than the list price.  Students with greater financial resources are likely to pay close to the listed prices.  

Government financial aid programs will be discussed in greater detail in the next report on how Adventist students actually pay for their college education and the role of state and federal student loans in buoying up tuition.  It could happen that federally-backed accreditation agencies might in the future insist on greater adherence to their governance standards and policies because of a significant tuition stream from government loans and grants.  Perhaps one benefit would be the growth of the idea of secularization as a progressive path for higher education.  On the other hand, collegiality between these agencies and the church might collapse and become impossible when Adventist colleges and universities are dominated by non-academic church leaders insisting that these schools focus on a uniquely Seventh-day Adventist message.15

End Notes

1.  “The Commission’s mission is the enhancement of educational quality throughout the region and the improvement of the effectiveness of institutions by ensuring that they meet standards established by the higher education community that address the needs of society and students.” From Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.  The Principals of Accreditation.  Foundations for Quality Enhancements.

2. General Conference Working Policy, 2004-2005:223.

3. Loma Linda College.  Its Planning:  Its Mission.  The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald.  August 5, 1915.  p. 18.   General Conference Committee January 2, 1928.  Fall Council appointed the Board of Regents that same year.

4.  William C. Ringenberg.  The Christian College:  A History of Protestant Higher Education in America.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2006.  p. 132.

5.  James Burthchaell.  The Dying of the Light.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.  June 1998.

6. Andrew Tatusko.  Strained Partnership Between Secularization and Sectarianism in Higher Education.  PhD Thesis.  Seton Hall University.  2012.  p. 85.

7. Generally a tertiary institution will remain a college, in distinction to a university, to accentuate their commitment to undergraduate education.

8. Henry E. Felder.  Are Adventist Colleges and Universities Worth it?  Spectrum.  Fall 2012.  p. 74.

9. From Theological and Academic Freedom and Accountability.  SDA official position.  This position paper was approved and voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Executive Committee at the Annual Council session in Washington, D.C., October 11, 1987.

10.  Robin Wilson.  Clash over Professors Lectures on Sex Tests Academic Freedom at Religious College.  Chronicle of Higher Education.  February 7, 2014.  P.

11. La Sierra University Academic Bulletin 2013-2014. p. 5.

12.  T Joe Willey. The Accreditation of La Sierra University:  Background Differences Between Church and State Accrediting.  Spectrum.  December 27, 2012.  The Accreditation of La Sierra University:  A Formal Notice of Concern.  Spectrum. January 21, 2013.  A Wall Unto Them on Their Left:  Adventist Education in the Midst of a Sea of Science.  Reports of the National Center of Science Education January-February, 2012. The Accreditation of La Sierra University:  Tampering with Financial Consequences.  January 28, 2013.

13. George M. Marsden.  The Soul of the American University.  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press.  1994.  p. 287.

14. Southern Adventist University does not report on the IRS 990 because it considers itself a church rather than an academic institution before the IRS.  Kettering Medical College is embedded in Kettering Medical Center and does not report revenues separately from the medical center.

15.  WASC Statement on Diversity.  Approved on February 23, 1994. p. 2.

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