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Global University Science Ranking Reveals Adventist Weakness

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In August, the annual Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities was published for 2023. It is an international ranking of the world’s top 1,000 public and private universities created by researchers at Shanghai University. It utilizes six criteria related to “scientific activity,” including publications of university professors and researchers, relevant awards, and number of citations in subsequent publications. 

For those interested in the intersections of science, education, culture, and religion, a natural question emerges: what is the connection between this ranking and religious community? In fact, the bond is very tight and woven through many visible and invisible threads. In this brief essay, I will focus on only two points of connection, namely education and the role of religious institutions in the production and promotion of knowledge. 

The Shanghai ranking highlights a very problematic reality for Adventist higher education institutions. The Adventist movement was built on institutions that value scientific innovation for its contribution to core and patrimonial aims such as health reform and educational reform. Despite this, no Adventist universities are listed in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, this year or in past years—not even Andrews University or Loma Linda University.

This fact is all the more troubling because other religious institutions such as Brigham Young University—which was founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a year after Andrews University in 1875—are listed in this ranking in quite prestigious places. The presence of BYU is an important example because the Mormon Church shares with Adventists a history that is related in its doctrinal and millennial aspirations. In addition, a significant number of Catholic institutions (Boston College, Notre Dame University, Fordham University) also make it into this ranking with high performances in the very fields Adventists would be expected to excel in: public and clinical health, food sciences, and medical technology, for example. 

Methodist-founded Vanderbilt University appears in this ranking for its health, medical technology, and other related fields. Methodism is also part of the spiritual identity and history of Adventism. My general point is that the Shanghai ranking includes many prestigious universities that have historical origins very close to religious institutions, are related to religion and its institutions, or simply belong directly to religious organizations—and yet Adventist universities remain unrepresented.

Adventism has historically been built on a theology and ethics in which health and education are central. The practice of a healthy lifestyle with a balanced (sometimes vegetarian) diet, abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and the Sabbath have been the fuel that drives the institutional and doctrinal discourse of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The church centers a large part of its social and ecclesial actions on the construction of educational institutions where these principles are to be consolidated and where excellence in knowledge and innovation can, theoretically, be promoted. 

How, then, can we explain this lack of recognized excellence in Adventist universities precisely in the fields that have been seen as essential to denominational mission?  Do perceived tensions between theology and science leave students attending Adventist universities with an understanding of the natural and social world that is worse than 1000 other options? 

There is certainly a complex fascicle of explanations, but I propose that an underlying cause is the way that Adventist strategic church leadership has hampered the expression of its own academics. In short, there is a crisis of expression and action on the part of engaged intellectuals in the worldwide Adventist church. This crisis is equivalent to a "rejection" of intellectual elites in the social, economic, political, and educational life of the church. The careful application of professional tools belongs in the public sphere of cultural production. Useful knowledge values mutual critical engagement. Every religious organization has a public space of its own where engaged intellectuals and practitioners produce knowledge through critical thinking (i.e., analysis!) from a multidimensional and non-canonized (present truth) perspective of thought. They have the role of ensuring the effectiveness, legitimacy, and stability of the system and overseeing the relationship between memory (past), identity (present), and traditions and values (future).

The absence of the Adventist universities in the Shanghai ranking is not caused by the fact that there are no competent Adventist academic "stars." Instead, the problem is a lack of strategies to promote a critical mass of public intellectuals, university professors, and researchers who will foster innovation and preserve excellence—central to the mission of Adventism.

Through the first several decades of the denomination, Adventist leaders invested primarily in educational and health science work. This stemmed from the principle that religion and science are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. The Adventist organization initially followed a classic model described by Charle & Verger in creating its higher education institutions. According to this model, universities are first established under the control of and in service to ecclesiastical-religious institutions or personalities. They then play an active role in society by producing knowledge and innovation in diverse fields and attracting excellent human intellectual capital.

This model shows that, historically, religious institutions and science can form a happy marriage worthy of being listed among the world's elite universities because these religious institutions have put aside conflicts, power crises, and doctrinal difficulties for the sake of university autonomy. In doing so, they have recognized a doctrinal, epistemological, and legal master for their development. 

In contrast, the Adventist organization has fundamentally failed on this point. Hence, a loss of the intellectual elites has occurred because the ecclesiastical leadership has historically not relinquished its control, power, and influence. Unlike the other religious universities present in the Shanghai ranking, Adventist pastoral and bureaucratic leadership did not transform university autonomy into a value of intellectual and institutional modernity. This has hampered the universities’ ability to produce knowledge in the priority areas of Adventism through research and innovation. It has also disrupted communities and gatherings that allow intellectuals to express themselves in a global and intra-organizational public sphere. 

Instead, bureaucratic pastoral leadership has marginalized intellectual and professional elites, sharing at least some similarity to what was practiced by communist countries when intellectuals became “enemies of the people”—when in reality, they were only the enemies of unique authoritative thinking. A return to excellence in Adventism and an elevation of Adventist institutions to the rank of elite universities will be possible only through a renewed role for intellectual rigor and critical analysis, which presently are silenced, withdrawn, and disenfranchised.


Pareto, V. (1968). Traité de sociologie générale (t. XII). In Oeuvres complètes (Dir. G. Busino), Genève: Droz.


Mihaela-Alexandra Tudor is full professor and PhD supervisor in Media and Communication Sciences at Montpellier University. She is also deputy director of the research center CORHIS. She has authored books, book chapters, and research articles on mediatized religion and politics, secularization, cultural analysis of interreligious networking and dialogue.

Title image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

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