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New La Sierra University President: “LSU Has Unique, Necessary, Progressive, Prophetic Voice”

Incoming La Sierra University president Christon Arthur

Christon Arthur, provost at Andrews University, will take over as La Sierra University president this summer, replacing interim president Richard Osborn. He believes La Sierra’s “unique, necessary and progressive prophetic voice” is matchless in Adventist higher education. 

Congratulations on your appointment as president of La Sierra University. You are set to take up the reins on July 1. What are you the most excited about when it comes to your new job?

It is my profound joy and greatest honor to serve at La Sierra University. It is humbling to be a part of a community that had a constellation of great Adventist leaders such as Fritz Guy, Larry Geraty, Randal Wisbey, Joy Fehr, and most recently Dick Osborn. These are huge shoes to fill, and I probably will not try to fill them. I am excited to be in the company of these great leaders. 

And equally excited that my wife and I will call La Sierra University our home. I am excited to be home among outstanding faculty who expand the minds of our students, contribute to the thinking of the church, add value to the Riverside community, and enrich the lives of our various communities. Our professional staff help create the environment where our students can flourish. They give of themselves and their expertise for the sake of the cause. 

La Sierra University is a cause worthy of our expertise and contributions. Every person ought to align themselves with a cause (or causes) that is bigger than themselves—to dedicate their lives for a higher purpose and a higher calling. My wife and I are excited for the opportunity to dedicate ourselves to the most noble cause of La Sierra University.

La Sierra University exists for our students. And we have the best students. As a Hispanic-serving university, we dedicate ourselves to the Adventist community; to the students who are the first generation in their family to attend college, students who are the hopes and dreams of their families, students who are seeking a high-quality academically rich transformative experience.

I am honored to be at this university where it is not enough for students to be better informed. They are transformed through the life-changing work of Christ and the educational presence of faculty and professional staff. It is good to be home!            

You might have said it all right there in the first answer! But maybe you can tell us more about your goals and plans for La Sierra University. What would you like to achieve as president?

As members of the diverse La Sierra Community, we are committed to inquirylearning, and service. Our community is rooted in the Christian gospel and Seventh-day Adventist values and ideals to seek truth, enlarging human understanding through scholarship; to know God, ourselves, and the world through reflection, instruction, and mentoring; to serve others, contributing to the good of our local and global communities. We pursue this mission with excellence, integrity, compassion, and mutual respect. 

This aspirational value proposition informs my vision for La Sierra University—a vision that will be refined and improved as I interact more with the university’s constituents. 

At its core, my presidency shall seek to maximize the value of La Sierra University. My vision is an expanded value proposition for our University. The imagery to conceptualize this value enhancement is an inclusive table, with Christ—His teachings and values—at the head, and room enough at the table for all who share those values. 

La Sierra University shall be known—not for those whom we exclude—but for those we include. We shall embrace inclusive practices. Broadly speaking, everyone should experience the transformative work of Christ that is happening at La Sierra. We understand that some may make different educational choices. But everyone who wants to experience the La Sierra transformation is welcome. La Sierra will be affordable and accessible. 

At the table, we will continue reimagining and creating a culture where students and employees can flourish and experience a sense of belonging. La Sierra shall be our home—our place to belong. And to everyone who is looking for an academic home, I want to be the first to say to you, welcome home! 

What do you believe are La Sierra University’s biggest challenges right now?

The higher education landscape is fraught with challenges. Many private, independent, faith-based universities like La Sierra face the same challenges. 

You might get a sense of the challenges our industry faces because of the vocabulary we have adopted from the US military. We now use the VUCA terminology from the military to describe our reality. 

Volatility – the speed of change is swift and overnight. The impact of global change is immediate and explosive. We all remember COVID-19. Volatility is a challenge. 

Uncertainty – we don’t know what we don’t know. Best practices are yesterday’s solutions. They are irrelevant to address today’s or tomorrow’s questions. The gaps in our knowledge are widening. It’s difficult to adapt to change when uncertainty is a significant part of the academic menu. 

Complexity – we need to test 10 to 15 ideas in the hope that one or two of them will be successful. Higher education (and most Boards of Trustees) does not have an appetite for that level of risk-taking and innovation. Instead we want immediate results, but the reality is that complexity gets in the way. 

Ambiguity – clarity is elusive. We see through opaque lenses. While a single narrative is simpler, there are multiple plausible interpretations of the same data.

And in the midst of these VUCA realities, as an industry we are experiencing declining enrollments. For the past few years, demographers have been warning about the enrollment cliff: demographic shifts in the USA have resulted in the lowest number of college-aged students in 2025-2030. The next five years will be among the most difficult for enrollment. 

Enrollment decline is a big challenge that is coupled with a declining public perception of the value of a college degree. In a recent poll, only 37% of Americans saw value in a college degree. That is a drop from well over 50% who saw value a few years earlier. The Adventist public also questions the value of an Adventist college degree. The declining public perception of our value is worrisome. Interestingly, in that same poll, only 32% of Americans said they trust corporate religion. La Sierra University, a Seventh-day Adventist University, is impacted by both perceptions—declining appraisal of the value of our degree and declining trust in corporate religion.  

Every college and university in our industry faces financial challenges. Financial instability is directly correlated with the enrollment decline. The cost to recruit each student is increasing. The expectation for scholarships is at an all-time high. In fact, it is possible for colleges and universities to have enrollment growth and experience declining net tuition revenue.    

Generally, constituents want quick solutions. University administrations are expected to be rapid response units. Perceived failure is fatal. The expectation is to get it right the first time, and every time after that. And yes, be innovative, which assumes failure (fail fast and fail early). As an example of the fragility of university leadership, Harvard university has had four presidents in the last six years.

And yet, the La Sierra University academic community is up to the challenge. The higher education landscape is difficult. But it is not too difficult for us.      

So the enrollment of La Sierra University is down? What is the current enrollment?

La Sierra, like other private, faith-based, independent colleges/universities, has experienced enrollment decline. Currently, we enroll nearly 1,600 students. 

COVID-19 took a toll. The enrollment cliff has a negative impact. These are impacts that affect every Adventist college and university in North America. We are all swimming in the same pool. It is not enough for La Sierra to be different. It must be differentiated. It is with eager anticipation that I will engage the campus in leveraging our differentiation.    

What do you believe makes La Sierra University unique among its sister institutions? Do you feel La Sierra and nearby Loma Linda University have a complementary relationship?

Part of being differentiated is to leverage our unique identity. La Sierra has a unique, necessary and progressive prophetic voice. 

A robust liberal arts education equips students with critical thinking skills, faithfulness to God, deep love for self and responsible care for others, care for God’s creation, verbal and written communication, analytical skills, empathy, responsible citizenship, and so on. La Sierra takes the liberal arts education one step further. It is better equipped than most to provide students with a broad view of life. We shall continue to distinguish and differentiate ourselves by highlighting our strength of bringing non-dominant voices broadly, to the curriculum and to the biblical text, equipping students for practical service to meet the diverse needs of our communities and serving urban community needs. 

We shall leverage this unique identity. La Sierra shall become the center for critical (theological) thought—the place where the church fosters its thinking. It shall become the home of relevance for pastor-teacher development where the church equips pastor-teachers to meet the needs and lived experience of the church and society. It shall become the incubator to shape civil discourse where the church does its modeling of difficult conversations. It shall become the model of virtuous faith where employees and students embody and model the virtues espoused in the fruits of the Spirit.

The future of Adventist education requires partnerships. Currently, we have collaborative agreements with Loma Linda that allows our students majoring in the pre-health professions to continue their education at Loma Linda University through articulated pathways. The faculty of both institutions engage in collaborative research and scholarship. We need to do more articulation of pathways with Loma Linda University. 

La Sierra is also actively pursuing conversations with Pacific Union College to seek mutually beneficial collaborations. Once these partnerships with PUC and Loma Linda are strengthened, then we shall explore deeper relationships with other sister institutions.  

What ideas do you have for attracting more students to La Sierra? 

Working with the university leadership, we will seek to make La Sierra more accessible. We want to be within the reach of our constituents. The power of stories will be utilized. For example, a La Sierra University student recently remarked that the faculty had challenged and broadened her worldview. That student sees the world differently because of the transformative experience she had at La Sierra. The student is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. We need to provide avenues for the stories of students’ transformation to be known. La Sierra University is a place of transformation. We have a story that prospective students will find compelling.

Prospective students want to be associated with causes that are bigger than themselves. La Sierra University is known for its service and community engagement. That is Christ’s method—to love and serve others, especially the least of these. We will share the compelling service and community engagement narrative. La Sierra University is not simply a place where students are being prepared to live their calling in the future.We have a culture where employees and students experience their high calling now, offering opportunities today for service and community engagement. 

Students are looking for academic degrees that equip them to fulfill their calling. As a university we will continuously review our degree offerings to see where there are gaps, where we need to invest, and where we need to ensure currency and relevance. The current strategic plan outlines commitment for restructuring, investing in new program offerings, streamlining processes to better onboard prospective students, etc. 

Our best days are ahead. Academic excellence nurtured by faithfulness is our hallmark.       

You are leaving your position as provost at Andrews University, in which you have served since 2016. How has that job prepared you to be a university president? How do you feel your preceding jobs have prepared you? What do you feel are the biggest strengths that you bring to the job?

I started my academic career in 1989, as a high school teacher. In 2001, I began my higher-education career at Tennessee State University. There, I was promoted, granted tenure, and cut my teeth in university administration. In 2010 I felt called to give back to Adventist education and moved to Andrews University to serve as dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research, and consequently as provost. 

At Andrews University I had the honor of serving with two of the greatest Adventist university leaders. I served in the cabinet of Niels-Erik Andreasen and as an executive with Andrea Luxton. Working with those two outstanding university presidents has been the best preparation for this assignment.

Andrews, a nationally-ranked comprehensive university, is complex in its operations. Probably someone who did not provide university or senior leadership experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is ill-equipped for the complexity of university leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic was the epitome of the VUCA reality. Andrea Luxton’s mentorship and working with her in an executive role provided opportunities for great insights. At Andrews, my work with faculty and the faculty senate in shared governance, with the student government to ensure their voice in administration, with academic deans to ensure quality impact, providing leadership in compliance and accreditation, and my work with the Board of Trustees and colleagues in administration provided both breadth and depth of leadership experience. 

I am looking forward to bringing my varied experience to inform my shared governance transformational leadership at La Sierra University. I am a student of leadership. And I am looking forward to serving this illustrious university.      

You have a strong academic background, and significant experience in academic education and leadership. How do you hope to strengthen the academic quality at La Sierra?

La Sierra University is known for its strong liberal arts education. We will continue to strengthen the liberal arts, and to deepen the pursuit of truth in our disciplines. La Sierra will exist within the intellectual tension of having truth and pursuing truth, of being and becoming, and of already existing and not yet being what we are called to be. This intellectual tension is healthy, and as a university, we will embrace it. Our faculty, professional staff, and students will continue to embrace research and community and professional engagement to enrich our disciplines and the communities that we serve. Research and community and professional engagement have an end in mind—the application of learning and knowledge. We will continue to apply knowledge and learning to societal issues and make a difference in the lives of our communities. 

Finally, at La Sierra University, the nurturing of faith and the mastery of learning will continue to be complementary. Students will not leave their intellect at the church door in order to nurture their faith. And they will not leave their faith at the classroom door in order to excel academically. The one will inform and enrich the other. And La Sierra is better equipped to accomplish this Adventist truism than most other places.    

How do you feel about moving to California?

My wife and I are excited about moving to Southern California. We had 14 years of Michigan winters, which I loved and my wife hated. She is ecstatic about not having to drive in the snow. There might be other driving challenges, but she has done her holy dance of not having to navigate snowy roads. We are thrilled to call La Sierra University and Southern California home. My career has had three expansive time series: 10 years as a high school teacher on the island of Grenada, 10 years at a public university in Nashville Tennessee, 14 years at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and God willing, an equally rewarding and productive tenure at La Sierra in SoCal. I was reminded that the weather and climate may not be too dissimilar from the Caribbean. In a sense, we have come full circle.      

What changes do you see Adventist third-level education undergoing in the near term? Does Adventist higher education have a future?

Adventist education has a bright future. It is God-ordained. To achieve that future, we must undergo significant changes. I will highlight two. 

First, be more trusting that each college or university is doing God’s work and engaged in the healing ministry of Christ. And maybe that change has to begin with me. That I do not elevate and leverage La Sierra University at the expense of sister institutions. It is very easy and tempting to do that, as La Sierra has a unique mission—but so does each Adventist college and university. 

We have an Adventist system of higher education in North America, and we need to think and act more like a system and less like 13 independent entities. When I served at Tennessee State University, our system had 6 universities, 30 community colleges, and over 30 technology centers. We branded ourselves as the 6th largest university system in the USA. We highlighted each other’s unique attributes. As a church system, we have a few things to learn from the public systems about how to be and act as a higher education system.

Peter Senge, social scientist, got it right when he posited that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The sum of Adventist education is greater than the individual institutional parts. We are 13 individual institutions with 13 individual boards, but now we must pay attention to the whole system. What is the Adventist higher education system in North America? Who are we? What’s the whole? When we care for the whole, the results will be exponential.   

Along these lines, we need to create more partnerships. Our inherent mistrust of one another stands in the way of this work. Doing the hard work of creating trust and thinking as a system will pave the way for mutually beneficial partnerships.  

What do you do when you aren’t working? Tell us what you like to do when you have free time.

I treasure quiet time. Silence is a gift. I enjoy quiet moments with family and friends. A good book and a quiet space are golden. (Probably a pattern is beginning to emerge.) 

I am a bit of a foodie—maybe an emerging foodie. I am looking forward to sampling the SoCal cuisine. 

My wife and I like to start our day by going to the gym at 5:00 AM. When we start our day with physical activity, we can tell the difference in our alertness and productivity. We hope that we will be able to keep that routine.

About the author

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. More from Alita Byrd.
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