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.
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?
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.
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.
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: John 8: 31
Author: Martin Luther, 1541