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Thoughts on Adventist Higher Education — Part 1


The most important question Adventist Higher Education can ask is, “What should be our primary definition of success?”[1] Everything depends on the answer. There are many different responses that Adventist colleges and universities could give:


Degrees offered

Percent who graduate

Percent who pass their boards

Percent who get jobs in their major after graduation

Percent who go on to get advanced degrees

Student/teacher ratios

Budgets in the black

Expanding the physical plant

Maintaining accreditation

Amount of spiritual programming and activities

Number of scholarships and subsidies provided

Number of professors with doctorates

Amount of research being done

Unfortunately, none of these provides an adequate answer. They are important, but not the most important.

After retirement, I was paid to spend time researching the question posed here, “What should be our primary definition of success?” I read many quotes like the following:

The thing being made in a university is humanity…[W]hat universities…are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words.”[2]

“We argue that an effective and ideal undergraduate college education is one that centers on holistic student development, including the search for meaning and purpose in life.”[3]

“The development of skills and the acquisition of knowledge are important, but they are not the most crucial or lasting components of the college experience. Higher education, at its best, changes the lives of graduates.[4]

We propose character as the aim of education. That is to say, developing beneficial and pro-social dispositions should be prioritized over acquiring more and more facts and formulas.[5]

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” —Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV).

“[Ellen] White’s ultimate aim of education is the restoration of the image of God in the human being.”[6]

I have come to the conclusion that ultimate success for Adventist colleges and universities needs to be defined in terms of their ability to grow young people in multi-dimensional ways.  Therefore, these institutions need to first and foremost become:

“Holistic, life-transformation systems.”

Here is a model of what such a transformation system might involve as presented by David Light Shields in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine, with some modification:[7]

Biblical Worldview

The foundation of personal change is helping students to adopt a “Biblical Worldview.” It centers on interpreting life through the lens of biblical principles and truths. This worldview should permeate and inform all aspects of the student’s experience.

The goal is not indoctrination but guided exploration that openly and honestly compares various worldviews with the one contained in scripture. Such an experience would deal directly with the predominant worldviews and assumptions of our day including postmodernism, relativism, the sacred-secular dichotomy, consumerism, etc. Students need to employ critical thinking skills to decide which one would produce the most satisfying, fulfilling way of life for them.

Building on the foundation of a Biblical Worldview, there are four key dimensions to Christlike character development: intellectual, moral, civic, and performance.

Intellectual Character

Developing Intellectual Character depends to a large extent on how content is taught. David Shields writes,

When teaching is focused on transmitting facts, training in discrete skills, and preparing for tests, students are implicitly taught that the content itself is most important. When the content is taught in a more inductive, open, exploratory manner, when the teacher models and encourages inquiry, open-mindedness, critical thinking, and curiosity, then intellectual character can be developed along with content knowledge.[8]

Ron Ritchard writes that a person with strong intellectual character is curious, open-minded, reflective, a critical thinker, and truth-seeking. Intellectual character includes the ability to take these habits of mind and apply them to life on an ongoing basis.[9]

Moral Character

Developing Moral Character includes behaviors such as integrity, courage, trustworthiness, and responsibility. But it also goes deeper. Fundamentally it is about instilling a strong inner desire to do what is right, what is just. It looks at the heart of the person behind the deeds.

Civic Character

Civic Character is about seeking the common good of society or a group. It includes qualities such as empathy, cooperation, service, generosity, and justice.

Performance Character

Performance Character involves the personal qualities that enable a person to accomplish their goals and intentions in life. It includes such things as mental and emotional well-being, resilience, initiative, and grit.

The four circles in the diagram above overlap because these four dimensions of character interact and reinforce each other. They are not developed in isolation but concurrently. The goal here is not to produce cookie-cutter people but to foster significant progress toward common values and attitudes while respecting each student’s individuality and personality.

There are fundamental changes that need to take place in order for a Biblical Worldview and the four dimensions of character to develop within higher education students. The following are just a few examples:

Teachers need to become specialists in Transformational Teaching. In their book Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education, Charity Johansson and Peter Felten write, “Learning that is transformative is characterized by a deep and enduring change in thinking that is evidenced through changed ways of being in the world.”[10]

We need to remember that telling does not equal learning and learning does not equal becoming. The teaching method that has the least potential to effect change in students is lecture and yet it remains a frequent choice (see graph below). For schools who take the holistic growth of students seriously, transformative methods need to become dominant throughout the faculty, including those who teach STEM courses. Such a vital change will involve a major re-orientation for many teachers requiring many months of reading, individual mentoring, supervised practice, and accountability. Such training cannot simply be added to what teachers are already doing.

Slavich and Zimbardo write,

“In contrast with traditional lecturing, which involves a largely unidirectional transfer of information from an instructor to students, transformational teaching involves conceptualizing teachers as change agents who lead students in the process of collaborating with one another and with their instructor to develop as learners and as people.”[11]

It is sometimes felt that schools need to choose between either emphasizing personal growth or academic rigor, but that is a false dichotomy. The correct answer is both/and. Personal growth happens when in-depth content is taught using transformative methods.

To get the attention it deserves, Transformative Teaching needs to become the predominant basis for teacher evaluation.

It is not possible for our schools to be organized like secular institutions and hope to produce different results. A “Holistic Life Transformation System” is far more than a secular school with devotionals, religion classes, and a chaplain added in. Therefore, as a start, I can envision the need for two new structures:

VP for Student Transformation hopefully led by someone with a doctorate in character education.

VP for Campus Alignment and Collaboration who coordinates what happens in every area of the campus toward the ultimate goal of student transformation.

Schools typically have Learning Outcomes for particular courses. In order to become a Holistic Life Transformation System, schools also need to develop institution-wide Student Development Outcomes that are drawn from the four dimensions of character undergirded by a Biblical Worldview. The more clearly the school can create a profile of the type of graduate they are endeavoring to produce, the better able they will be to create what is needed for that to happen. Such a profile needs to enjoy broad consensus among leaders and employees.[12]

I would suggest that the school add only one item at a time from the Holistic Life Transformation Model above to their graduate profile and not add any more until the school is able to demonstrate that it is being successful in actually building that new characteristic into students’ lives.

To develop the four dimensions of character in students, university leadership must become consistent, vocal champions and advocates, starting at the top. All employees also need to be involved, both teachers and staff.[13] It is rather useless for a student to have a positive experience in a classroom and then get turned off by how they are treated in the finance department. The vision of becoming a “Holistic Life Transformation System” needs to pervade every aspect of school life with the entire campus functioning as one system with each element aligned toward the same captivating goal.

In his important article, “Student Success: Definition, Outcomes, Principles and Practices,” Joe Cuseo writes, “Effective programming involves cooperative partnerships between and among different organizational units of the college, encouraging them to work interdependently in a coordinated, complementary, and cohesive fashion to support the student as a whole person.”[14]

To develop such a cohesive team, I would suggest referring to all university employees as educators because everyone influences students to one degree or another. “Staff” could be called “Departmental Educators.” Professors could be called “Classroom Educators.”

In order to make such a life transformation vision a reality, colleges/universities must give special attention to what they measure.

There is an old truism that you get what you measure. Employees spend time doing what their employers measure. The culture of an institution grows out of what is measured. What you measure tells you what the institution actually values most regardless of the rhetoric.

Measuring the impact of a Holistic Life Transformation System on students requires that we become specialists in measuring not just quantity but quality as well. When asked whether students are being transformed, we cannot be content with simply saying, “I hope so” or calling to mind certain anecdotal stories. We need to know for certain whether or not we are accomplishing our primary purpose based on well-designed assessments and demonstrable evidence. We ought to be looking for trajectory and degree of progress, not arrival.

The assessments would be administered both at the beginning of the student’s college experience and again when they are about to graduate so leaders can compare the two. There would also need to be some kind of interim assessments in order to make mid-course corrections in the process.

There are additional changes that are needed, some of which will be explored later.

As Adventist colleges and universities look to the future, in order to survive and thrive they need to actively pursue a demonstrably distinctive institutional path forward. That path begins by defining success in a unique and compelling way.

The authors of the highly acclaimed book, Blue Ocean Strategy, are clear about the best path to pursue:

“We observed that companies that break away from the competition pay little heed to matching or beating rivals or carving out a favorable competitive position. Their aim was not to outperform competitors. It was to offer a quantum leap in value that made the competition irrelevant.”[15]

Adventist colleges and universities need to break free from current models and wrestle along with the Spirit to find a new institutional model that captures all the uniqueness of the God they worship. Making a full, all-encompassing commitment to becoming a “Holistic Life Transformation System” based on a Biblical Worldview has the potential to produce just such a compellingly distinctive entity.  


Read "Thoughts on Adventist Higher Education: A Sacred/Secular Problem — Part 2" by clicking here.

Read "Thoughts on Adventist Higher Education: Impacting a Student's Worldview — Part 3" by clicking here.


You can comment directly to Kim Allan Johnson at:


A Partial Bibliography

George M. Slavich and Phillip G. Zimbardo, “Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principals, and Core Methods,” Educational Psychology Review, July 24, 2012,

Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education, Charity Johansson and Peter Felten, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)

Transformational Teaching in the Information Age: Making Why and How We Teach Relevant to Students, Thomas R. Rosebrough and Ralph G Leverett, (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011)

The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor, Paul M. Gould (Wipf and Stock Publishers, November 25, 2014)

Preparing Students for Life Beyond College: A Meaning-Centered Vision for Holistic Teaching and Learning, Robert J. Nash and Jennifer J.J. Jang (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 2015)

Higher Education as a Moral Enterprise, Edward LeRoy Long, Jr (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1992)

Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Higher Education in a Fragmented Age, Perry L. Blanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2017)

Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education: Becoming Fully Human, Perry L. Glanzer and Todd C. Ream (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

Assumptions That Affect Our Lives: How Worldviews Determine Values That influence Behavior and Shape Culture, Dr. Christian Overman (Bellevue, Washington: Ablaze Publishing Company, 2006)

Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives, Steve Wilkins and Mark L. Sanford (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, 2009)

Cooperative Learning: Integrating Theory and Practice, Robyn M. Gillies (Los Angelos, CA: Sage Publications, 2007)


Notes & References:

[1] Joe Cuseo, “Seven Timeless & Universal Principles of Student Success,”

[2] Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2010) 1

[3] Larry A Braskamp, Lois Calian Trautvetter, Kelly Ward, Putting Students First: How Colleges Develop Students Purposefully (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2005) xvii

[4] Editor’s Notes, New Directions for Higher Education, Vol. 2104, Issue 166, Summer 2014.

[5] David Light Shields, “Character as the Aim of Education,” May 2011,

[7] David Light Shields

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Charity Johansson & Peter Felten, Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) 3

[11] George M. Slavich and Phillip G. Zimbardo, “Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principals, and Core Methods,” Educational Psychology Review, July 24, 2012,

[12] “Character Development During the College Years: Why It’s Crucial and How It Can Be Fostered,” The Character Education Partnership, October 2011,

[13] “CEP’s Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education,”

[15] W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015,) xiii (emphasis supplied)


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at, which is currently accepting donations.

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash


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