The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has distributed a 5-page draft of a proposed new policy on the independence of church-owned and operated colleges and universities. (See Spectrum Online, “General Conf. Proposes Policy on Board Independence for Higher Education.”) This document, although couched in diplomatic terms, makes it clear that the church is not willing to compromise the doctrine and theology of its institutions and relegate its faith to a mere expression of tradition.
In stark contrast to concerns raised by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) that called for a decrease in church influence and essentially called the denomination and its organizational structure “external parties” and “related entities,” the proposed GC policy draws no such distinction. It makes it clear that these institutions are an integral part of the church itself. The University is the Church. The Church is the University.
“Boards of trustees govern their institutions as part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and thus carry very significant responsibility for knowing and assuring that institutional strategies/policies / practices are consistent with established denominational policy and mission purposes. A board is not free to disregard established denominational policy by claiming that the organization setting denominational policy is an external party (i.e., not the formal constituency or membership) and, therefore, limited in its ability to influence the operations of the institution.”
On May 23, the La Sierra University constituency will meet in session to consider and vote on proposed bylaw changes, which would bring the University into compliance with the claimed goals of WASC of creating more independence in board structure that is further from denominational control and influence.
In an age of ballooning costs of higher education, securing and maintaining third-party accreditation is essential to the financial survival of most institutions of higher learning, including faith-based schools. WASC accreditation is a prerequisite for making federal loans and many private loans available to students. The goal, of course, is to ensure that federal dollars go to schools that meet specific academic standards and do not defraud the public.
But this power also makes WASC a quasi-governmental agency. When WASC attempts to influence how much operational control a religious organization can have over higher education institutions that belong to the religious organization, it creates an issue where the church can be coerced to change the way it operates those schools. If left unchecked, accrediting agencies could use their financial influence to dramatically change the way that church institutions operate – even to the point of secularizing them.
There is nothing wrong with federal loans going to students who decide to attend institutions that offer a distinct religious perspective, so long as they meet the basic standards, but there is a problem when the accrediting agency that makes that determination decides to pressure institutions to change their basic governing structures in a way that does not affect the quality of education provided.
Over the past 20 years, WASC has attempted to cross the line to dictate policy to schools beyond its charter, and universities have objected. In 1994, WASC adopted a controversial diversity statement despite the objections of 14 colleges and universities, including the University of Southern California, Stanford, and Caltech. USC released a press statement that affirmed diversity on campus but stated that WASC’s effort was “yet another example of an accrediting agency going beyond its original purpose, which was to protect the public from being defrauded by institutions that do not meet minimum academic standards.”
USC President Steven B. Sample argued that “as accrediting agencies have grown increasingly bureaucratic, they have intruded more and more into the life of colleges and universities, restricting each institution’s ability to pursue its own goals.”
Sample wrote, “There is nothing in this document that we could not live with. USC is strongly committed to diversity; in fact, our own commitments and achievements with respect to diversity go well beyond the document and well beyond the commitments and achievements of the vast majority of institutions that are accredited by WASC,” Sample wrote. “Thus, our objection is simply that WASC is overreaching its legitimate authority and purpose, and in the process moving American higher education one step closer toward centralized control.”
It was appropriate and wise for USC, Stanford, and Caltech to express concern about the increasing power of WASC and its attempts to step beyond its purpose. WASC plays an important, albeit limited role and any attempt by WASC to inappropriately influence an institution, no matter how well-intentioned, must be identified and resisted.
At La Sierra University, this is particularly sensitive because the university is the flashpoint between traditionalists and progressives who are engaged in a debate over whether Adventist institutions will be primarily secular with a sprinkling religious tradition, or unapologetically Seventh-day Adventist.
This struggle has been documented on this blog, on Spectrum, Advindicate, and other sources. But perhaps no more precise description of this struggle has been written by any other than Dr. Richard Winn, incidentally the current executive director of WASC. Winn, a former Seventh-day Adventist who left the church because of doctrinal issues, served for many years as a pastor and co-founded Weimar Institute. He has written several Christian books, including His Healing Love; If God Won the War, Why Isn’t It Over; and God’s Way to a New You.
In November 2011, Winn gave a presentation for the Adventist Society of Religion Scholars in San Francisco, California entitled “Sociology Trumps Theology” which is available at the La Sierra University School of Religion website in its entirety (PDF format). Again, for the record, Winn denies any direct involvement in the La Sierra University accreditation issue and states that his personal beliefs do not reflect the position of the accrediting association.
In his must-read presentation, Winn describes a discussion he had with students who had attended Adventist schools but did not believe much of the theology of the church. He asks them why they chose to attend Adventist schools:
“When I asked why they had invested so many years of their lives in this distinctive form of education, their responses were somewhat generic. This is where their friends from academy were going. They were fulfilling family expectations. They hadn’t considered other options. They were comfortable with the lifestyle expectations – the non-smoking policies, the conservative diet, the participation in religious ceremonies and the telling of common stories. It was about a sense of spiritual community.”
“One of my Seminary colleagues told me some 20 years ago, ‘Adventism is my sociology, it’s not my theology.’ Why, then, did he remain actively engaged in the church, even on the payroll? His response was very thoughtful. ‘The church has developed an amazing world-wide system of schools and hospitals through which we can do genuine good for humankind. It’s a system of caring that can make a real difference in the world. Within it, I know what I can do, who I am, and how I can use these structures to achieve personal goals. I just ignore the doctrines.’“
Winn gets to the heart of his paper,
“I would propose that the Adventist church, especially in North America, is experiencing an enormous shift. A large number, particularly among the more highly educated, are migrating from a doctrine-as-defining-feature Adventist identity to a sociological identity.”
So what is the point of Adventist education if not for the doctrines? Why be an Adventist if you do not subscribe to its beliefs? Winn answers the question: “The quest for a sense of belonging, for a fellowship with people who hold common values, supersedes a quest for precise alignment with often-esoteric doctrinal statements. Those long-standing members of the faithful may reveal a very complex, multi-faceted set of ties that bind, not the least of which may be momentum and inertia. And the frontal lobes are perhaps not the dominant force in these attachments.”
“I’ve seen progressive Adventists who have long wished that the church in North America would become just like them. I now suspect this to be a fool’s errand. Such a shift would ruin the church for the thousands of members for whom scholarship is suspect and certainty is paramount. For the conservative wing of the denomination, “church” is a transaction in certainty. Those who need certainty have struck a contract with those who deliver certainty. And the currency of this transaction is biblical literalism. Should either party question the currency of this transaction, its value would immediately plummet, creating an organizational recession of major proportions. Should Adventism thrive in North America, I propose it will come through the introduction of an underground currency, first a trickle and then a flood of tolerance toward an increasingly broad sense of Adventist identity.“
In other words, Adventist higher education would soon “broaden” itself away from its distinctive religious doctrine by way of an overbroad “tolerance,” which would be relegated to nothing more than social aspects and tradition.
While such an approach would certainly end a lot of what people consider Adventist provincial discussion, I think it would actually be harmful to the University. If La Sierra University is to compete and provide an alternative to the general excellence in secular higher education which already comes with vastly more resources, it must hue to the blending of theology and unassailable academic excellence that has led to its current success. Adventist colleges and universities must be places where faith is fostered, encouraged, and built up, not mitigated or compromised away.
For institutions whose founding and resulting success can be traced back to the unapologetic pursuit of Biblical truth, forfeiting the foundation and expecting the success to continue would be an exercise in futility. Adventist institutions have been phenomenally successful because of, not despite, Adventist beliefs and doctrine. True, not all who attend and benefit from the success of the university will believe the doctrine, and there may be tensions that can lead to wonderful conversations, but it cannot be removed or distanced from its spiritual roots. Students attending should not feel as if they are required to defend their faith at every turn.
Practically speaking, until the college experience becomes one that is affirming of faith, Adventist high schools which tend to be more conservative theologically and follow more traditional lines of Adventist teachings should prepare their students for the challenges they will face at the college level by teaching them to think critically.
The Church is the University. The University is the Church.
“In acquiring the wisdom of the Babylonians, Daniel and his companions were far more successful than their fellow students; but their learning did not come by chance. They obtained their knowledge by the faithful use of their powers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They placed themselves in connection with the Source of all wisdom, making the knowledge of God the foundation of their education. In faith they prayed for wisdom, and they lived their prayers. They placed themselves where God could bless them. They avoided that which would weaken their powers, and improved every opportunity to become intelligent in all lines of learning. They followed the rules of life that could not fail to give them strength of intellect. They sought to acquire knowledge for one purpose-that they might honor God. They realized that in order to stand as representatives of true religion amid the false religions of heathenism they must have clearness of intellect and must perfect a Christian character. And God Himself was their teacher. Constantly praying, conscientiously studying, keeping in touch with the Unseen, they walked with God as did Enoch.
“True success in any line of work is not the result of chance or accident or destiny. It is the outworking of God’s providences, the reward of faith and discretion, of virtue and perseverance. Fine mental qualities and a high moral tone are not the result of accident. God gives opportunities; success depends upon the use made of them.” Ellen White – Patriarchs and Prophets 486