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UPDATE: On the day of the sched­uled vote, Feb­ru­ary 21, 2013, coun­sel for La Sierra Uni­ver­sity deter­mined that the bylaws indi­cate that all con­stituency meet­ings must take place on the uni­ver­sity cam­pus and that no vote could take place as sched­uled. The West­lake Vil­lage meet­ing was used for infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion on the pro­posed bylaws and a new, prop­erly noticed and venued meet­ing is expected before WASC meets on June 19. Bar­ring sub­stan­tive changes in the pro­posed bylaws, the con­cerns in this arti­cle remain the same.

There is no other way to say it – right now there is a bat­tle going on for the soul of pri­vate reli­gious edu­ca­tion in Amer­ica. This week, on Thurs­day, Feb­ru­ary 21, the La Sierra Uni­ver­sity Board of Trustees and vot­ing con­stituents will be decid­ing whether to change the bylaws in a way that will reduce the influ­ence of the Seventh-day Adven­tist Church over the institution.

(Read the pro­posed bylaw changes here. )

The bylaws them­selves will essen­tially turn the board into a vision set­ting, advi­sory body and con­sol­i­date insti­tu­tional power in the pres­i­dent of the insti­tu­tion. As an Adven­tist aca­d­e­mic has told me pri­vately, the pro­posed bylaw changes will allow the board to do only one thing – hire or fire the pres­i­dent – which is a “very blunt tool to run a university.”

The other major change will be to remove the Pres­i­dent of the Pacific Union from his post as chair­man of the board of trustees at La Sierra Uni­ver­sity because he also serves as chair of the board at Pacific Union Col­lege in Angwin, California.

The changes are said to be pushed for­ward in response to con­cerns that the West­ern Asso­ci­a­tion of Schools and Col­leges (WASC) raised over a per­son­nel action that resulted in the res­ig­na­tion, or con­struc­tive ter­mi­na­tion and/or demo­tion of three fac­ulty mem­bers in 2011 for vio­lat­ing church-based rules.

WASC exists for one pri­mary rea­son – to pro­vide a gen­eral stan­dard of accred­i­ta­tion for edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions to ensure that they pro­vide a qual­ity edu­ca­tion to their stu­dents and do not defraud the pub­lic. WASC takes on a quasi-governmental role because in many cases, WASC accred­i­ta­tion is nec­es­sary for stu­dents who want to apply to other schools, and for schools to obtain fund­ing through loans or bonds. In other words, hav­ing WASC accred­i­ta­tion is like hav­ing a good credit score — it is essen­tial to run an cred­i­ble institution.

It is not WASC’s role to dic­tate bylaw changes, deter­mine who is on the board, or to dic­tate how per­son­nel deci­sions will be made. Threats to remove accred­i­ta­tion should be taken very seri­ously and La Sierra Uni­ver­sity, and its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, the Seventh-day Adven­tist Church, like other insti­tu­tions, can and must chal­lenge WASC when it exceeds its authority.

While some at La Sierra hail the WASC-influenced bylaw changes because they believe insti­tu­tional “auton­omy” will usher in a new era of increased aca­d­e­mic free­dom, the Uni­ver­sity which has been offered a great deal of inde­pen­dence will likely be con­strained even more by a WASC that may see this as a license to inter­fere in its insti­tu­tional affairs. Also, a self-inflicted rift from the Seventh-day Adven­tist Church may lead to a marked decrease in denom­i­na­tional finan­cial sup­port and many stu­dents who attend La Sierra because of its faith-based approach, as opposed to sev­eral other excel­lent sec­u­lar aca­d­e­mic alter­na­tives in the area, such as the Clare­mont Col­leges, Uni­ver­sity of Red­lands, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, etc., may choose these alter­na­tives, or even choose other Chris­t­ian alter­na­tives such as Cal­i­for­nia Bap­tist Uni­ver­sity, Pep­per­dine Uni­ver­sity, etc., while La Sierra will spend the next two to three decades hav­ing to catch up finan­cially in order to compete.

But a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem arises in vol­un­tar­ily open­ing the door for WASC to begin dic­tat­ing admin­is­tra­tive pol­icy. WASC pro­vides accred­i­ta­tion to every Adven­tist school, rang­ing from ele­men­tary to higher edu­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia and Hawaii and it is one of sev­eral regional author­i­ties which pro­vide accred­i­ta­tion to many Adven­tist schools nation­wide. If WASC can tell La Sierra how to set up its board of trustees in order to change the way that La Sierra makes per­son­nel deci­sions, how long until local accred­it­ing agen­cies will knock on the doors of local church school boards and try to tell them who the mem­bers must be, what their pow­ers are, and what per­son­nel deci­sions they must make?lasierrauniversitysign

By push­ing La Sierra to make changes that fun­da­men­tally alter its mis­sion, WASC is over­reach­ing its mis­sion. This ques­tion goes beyond the Adven­tist world and into all parochial edu­ca­tion in the United States where there is no offi­cial gov­ern­men­tal accred­it­ing agency but where the power is vested in this pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion. In other nations, the gov­ern­ment has, through a com­bi­na­tion of fund­ing and reg­u­la­tion, watered down parochial schools to the point where they barely reflect the spir­i­tual vision of their founders.  In the United States, the same is being accom­plished by pri­vate accred­it­ing agencies.

Much has been writ­ten about the pro­posed bylaw changes at La Sierra, but here are some of the major issues.

1.        WASC has failed to demon­strate why hav­ing the same board chair serve both La Sierra Uni­ver­sity and Pacific Union Col­lege presents a con­flict of interest.

WASC has failed to demon­strate how hav­ing a com­mon chair presents a con­flict of inter­est. Pacific Union Col­lege and La Sierra Uni­ver­sity are not sep­a­rate and dis­tinct insti­tu­tions. They are part of the same church, share con­stituents, and are funded together. They are part of the larger insti­tu­tion of the Pacific Union  / NAD / and GC.  It makes sense that as a com­mon body, they are gov­erned in the same man­ner by the same peo­ple to ensure a con­sis­tent qual­ity edu­ca­tion.   (They share a com­mon “board of regents” as it were.)

To bifur­cate these admin­is­tra­tively dri­ves an unnat­ural wedge between the two that is unnec­es­sary and harm­ful to the joint mis­sion which is con­sis­tent with the mis­sion of the church.   Both insti­tu­tions have pro­duced high-quality, award-winning edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ences for decades under this arrange­ment, and split­ting these insti­tu­tions apart in this regard will weaken them both tremendously.

Bar­ring a spe­cific, coher­ent ratio­nale as to why WASC is rec­om­mend­ing this change, WASC has no legit­i­mate inter­est in how both schools are set up administratively.

2.       The pro­posed bylaw changes will weaken the influ­ence of the Seventh-day Adven­tist Church over all of its insti­tu­tions of higher education.

Unfor­tu­nately, WASC’s goal in demand­ing bylaw changes is trans­par­ent. There is a per­cep­tion among the sec­u­lar world that the edu­ca­tion that has been offered by the church is some­how sub­stan­dard because the church expresses its beliefs through its cur­ricu­lum. This is not borne out by the facts or con­sis­tently high rank­ings of these insti­tu­tions but is part of a larger agenda to sec­u­lar­ize pri­vate parochial edu­ca­tion in America.

There is no greater ideal place for faith to grow in young adults than at an insti­tu­tion of higher edu­ca­tion. While most Chris­tians are taught over and over not to com­part­men­tal­ize their faith into sep­a­rate sec­u­lar and sacred call­ings, many in acad­e­mia are actively call­ing for and demand that these aspects of life be arti­fi­cially seg­re­gated. The result is a dra­matic shift away from the holis­tic edu­ca­tion of Mind, Body, and Spirit that has been a trade­mark of parochial edu­ca­tion through­out history.

It is an abuse of its accred­i­ta­tion power for WASC to use its influ­ence to sec­u­lar­ize Adven­tist education.

3.        The entire church in North Amer­ica needs to be concerned.

Leav­ing the deci­sion to the La Sierra board of trustees or its con­stituents is not enough. Pub­lic Affairs and Reli­gious Lib­erty, Adven­tist Edu­ca­tion, and the GC Gen­eral Coun­sel des­per­ately need to be brought into this dis­cus­sion because the results may lay the frame­work for the next gen­er­a­tion of reli­gious lib­erty lit­i­ga­tion across the nation.

Churches won a legal vic­tory in last year’s Hosanna-Tabor case where the Supreme Court ruled that churches and their schools could make their own per­son­nel deci­sions based on their reli­gious con­vic­tions apart from state inter­fer­ence.  Bylaws put in place at the behest of WASC could vol­un­tar­ily con­tract these hard-won rights away and open the door to overt attempts to reg­u­late per­son­nel actions at every accred­ited school. If WASC can con­trol the teach­ers, they can con­trol the education.

It is not unusual for a regional insti­tu­tion to make a short-sighted deci­sion that poten­tially weak­ens the rights of affil­i­ated orga­ni­za­tions in other areas. In the late 1990s, a Seventh-day Adven­tist insti­tu­tion, Colum­bia Union Col­lege (now Wash­ing­ton Adven­tist Uni­ver­sity), sued the state of Mary­land for the right to par­tic­i­pate in a state-funding scheme. The state said that CUC was “per­va­sively sec­tar­ian” and as a result could not ben­e­fit from the state money. CUC argued that they were in fact not “per­va­sively sec­tar­ian” and when the state tried to inspect, CUC turned around and argued that it should not be inspected because it was religious.

This lit­i­ga­tion over a rel­a­tively small amount of money could have sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ened the Estab­lish­ment Clause pro­tec­tions that churches enjoy and two Adven­tist unions, the Pacific Union Con­fer­ence and the North Pacific Union Con­fer­ence were con­cerned enough that both signed onto an ami­cus brief in oppo­si­tion to CUC.

CONCLUSION

This is a com­plex issue and some excel­lent point-by-point analy­ses of the pro­posed bylaw changes that point out their tan­gi­ble dan­gers have been pre­pared. At this point, if this is an issue that you care about as much as I do, you may want to con­tact La Sierra Uni­ver­sity and the Pacific Union exec­u­tive com­mit­tee (whose mem­bers are the same as that of the LSU con­stituency com­mit­tee) and advise them to rethink their inten­tion to sign onto the pro­posed bylaw changes.

As an alum­nus, I have noth­ing but the fond­est regard for La Sierra. I want to see the Uni­ver­sity con­tinue to pro­vide the qual­ity Seventh-day Adven­tist edu­ca­tion it pro­vided me with­out com­pro­mis­ing its beliefs or sep­a­rat­ing from the back­bone of the Seventh-day Adven­tist church.

I’ll end with the words to this hymn by Mar­tin Luther, which is my prayer for the upcom­ing meet­ings this week.

Lord, keep us stead­fast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the King­dom from Thy Son
And set at naught all He hath done.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thy power make known,
For Thou art Lord of lords alone;
Defend Thy Chris­ten­dom that we
May ever­more sing praise to Thee.

O Com­forter of price­less worth.
Send peace and unity on earth.
Sup­port us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

Hymn 261
The Lutheran Hym­nal
Text: John 8: 31
Author: Mar­tin Luther, 1541