Adventist higher education may be in trouble. The sentiment that our colleges and universities are in dire straits is ubiquitous throughout campus life. For the two years I’ve attended Walla Walla University, rumors about other campuses closing, disdain for aspects of campus life, and a general notion of arrested development for Adventist higher education have been a constant recurrence.
At the end of my first year at the university, a conversation with an administrator revealed that students’ concerns about a decline in Adventist education were not just speculation but deeply felt by the administration. Though recent reports have found a rise in overall enrollment in Seventh-day Adventist institutions, these numbers fail to meet past peak enrollment. Adventist higher education is at a crossroads: make difficult yet necessary changes or fade into irrelevance and, eventually, permanently close its doors.
In my observations as a student, the most significant problems are solvable, and I suggest solutions below. It is now simply a question of how big of a change our campuses are willing to make and at what point it would be too late.
1. Open the tent.
Recruitment strategies for Adventist higher education solely target Adventist youth, with little emphasis on attracting students from diverse backgrounds or other spiritual traditions. In a world where youth interest in the Adventist church continues diminishing, it is not sustainable to keep marketing to a demographic with shrinking interest.
This approach not only narrows the market for enrollable students but also prevents current students from experiencing the richness of cultural and intellectual exchange that comes with a more varied student body. Rather than providing a safe place for Adventist students to interact with and better understand those who did not grow up in the same community, Adventist higher education maintains the Adventist bubble in which many students have spent their entire lives.
Adventist colleges are forgoing a very consequential opportunity: to show all young people a uniquely loving and safe community rooted in the Adventist faith.
2. It’s all about education.
Our schools' primary purpose and focus is arguably to reproduce active members for the Seventh-day Adventist church. However, such a narrow vision does not allow for opening the tent and may also be the root cause of why many Adventist young people choose not to attend Adventist colleges.
Long gone are the days when an Adventist high school diploma guaranteed a good union job with a pension, as an old teacher of mine used to joke. To attract Adventist and non-Adventist students making decisions about their educational paths, it is imperative to reinvigorate the association of an Adventist degree with a distinguished level of academic excellence. Limited programs, moderate to low national rankings, and the dismissal or absence of certain subjects that may challenge church dogma plague each of our schools. To save Adventist education, our schools have to rise above the mindset of only hosting programs that have utility to the church and the fear of teaching what it does not presently seem to understand.
Presently, our schools are not and cannot be at the forefront of the academic conversations occurring nationwide in many science and humanities departments. Doing so requires willingness to engage critically with subjects in ways the church heavily discourages. Until our schools are willing to both allow and engage in nuanced conversations in subjects such as theoretical physics, anthropology, gender studies, the history of biology, etc., they will fail to reach the academic and intellectual standard they each claim to aspire to.
To be clear, this does not mean doing away with church doctrine or making our schools less Adventist. Rather, it means encouraging our schools to have students critically read and engage in conversations at the forefront of academia, especially when we disagree. No benefit comes to students from ignorance, and intentionally challenging students' faith enables them to understand and embrace it more fully.
3. A love so unique
The motto of Big Lake Youth Camp, the Oregon Conference Seventh-day Adventist summer camp, is to provide a love so unique that those who experience it will spend their entire lives pursuing the source. Our schools could greatly benefit from this approach.
For the last several years, one of the primary issues on Adventist campuses has been the school's policies and treatment towards queer students. While my own campus, Walla Walla University, has stated openly that they desire to love and include queer students on campus, it is commonly felt among the students that—given the church's clear position on queer people, the discriminatory measures that exist on all campuses and the pushback against those who have tried to fight against the discrimination or simply be themselves—this love only goes so far.
Academic and author bell hooks captures the diametrical opposition between what queer students and others who support them are told and what they experience at Adventist campuses in her book about love in a polarized society:
When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another's spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care. (6)
Even if Adventist schools reject opening their tents and insist on their current academic trajectory, they must, above all else, commit to loving all their students. If love and abuse cannot coexist, then love and discrimination cannot coexist.
Adventist education faces many challenges, but these challenges can be overcome. If our schools are to survive, they need to change. They must seek ways to include others in the fold, reinvigorate academic and intellectual life to a higher standard, and most importantly, seek to love students how Jesus loves them.
Matthew Peinado is a former Spectrum intern and student at Walla Walla University majoring in social work.
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