December 20, 2005

Back From the Brink

?Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.?

1550 page8 capT WAS THE WETTEST OCTOBER EVER IN central Massachusetts, with more than 15 inches of rain that overwhelmed creeks and reservoirs, and dampened the tourist traffic that usually brings tens of thousands of visitors to view New England?s brilliant fall foliage. Storm drains overflowed; streets were flooded; aging roads and bridges were swept away.

The leaden skies were unrelenting: grayness settled over the region just when longtime residents usually can count on the season?s ?bright blue weather.? Even the famed sugar maples seemed muted and distressed. The flaming red and orange leaves of yesteryear were filtered pastels this year, washed out and washed away.

In South Lancaster, where Seventh-day Adventism was first planted 140 years ago, small and struggling Atlantic Union College hunkered down to survive the deluge. Students and faculty shared too-small umbrellas as they hurried across the campus, pausing in the doorways of the college?s grand old buildings to shake off the water and the mood. Outdoor sports events were postponed, and finally, canceled. At chapels and dorm worships, speakers and song leaders sought to lift the slumping spirits.

For a college whose Latin motto is ?Fiat Lux?--?Let There Be Light?--it seemed a particularly dreary month. The college?s struggles with declining enrollments, inadequate capital, and threatened accreditation status over the past 10 years had put it on higher education?s ?endangered species? list. Adventist educators across the country were predicting--some publicly, most privately--that the denomination?s oldest college still on its original site might soon close its doors after 123 years of existence. Someone waggishly suggested that a better motto for the school might actually be ?Lux Flux?--?The Light Fails.?

But then, ?sometimes a light surprises . . .?

Lord, in the Morning
The sun came up over the College church at 6:23 a.m. on November 3, hinting at a day both brighter and warmer than average. For weeks college administrators, faculty, staff, and students had been worrying about and praying for what would happen on this day. After two years on ?probation? status with the prestigious New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accrediting organization that evaluates all the region?s colleges and universities, a decision had been promised at a NEASC session that morning that could dramatically affect the college?s future. And ?probation? was actually the better news: in November 2001 the organization had recommended ?termination? status for the college, though the decision that could have effectively shut the college?s doors had mysteriously never been implemented.

1550 page8Dr. George Babcock, president of Atlantic Union College since 2003, board chair Dr. Donald King, and vice president for finances Earl Kirchberg were slated to give a progress report that Thursday in Boston to the NEASC Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. An inspection team from the organization had made a thorough survey of the campus in mid-September, checking to see if its many recommendations for changes in financial support, fund-raising, governance, and student retention were being implemented. Babcock, the longtime academic vice president of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, and a former associate director of the denomination?s Education Department, had been rallying all campus personnel and students for more than two years toward the goal of regaining the prized ?full accreditation? status, without which fund-raising and student recruitment had proved very difficult.

?Trying to convince potential donors that AUC is the right place in which to invest--and trying to persuade potential students that they will have a secure academic future here--has taxed all our ingenuity while we have been on probation,? says Babcock. ?Not many alumni or incoming freshmen want to risk money or career plans on a place that might not exist in five years. It was crucial that we actually reach the goal of returning to normal and full status as an accredited Adventist college.?

Through It All
Babcock came to the college in June 2003, when it was, by most accounts, at the low ebb of its history. Initially reluctant to leave retired life after a 42-year career in Adventist education, Babcock accepted the invitation of the college?s board of trustees when they pledged him an unusually free hand in reshaping the troubled school. Unaware that NEASC had recommended ?termination? status by NEASC two years earlier, and that the organization had already twice reaffirmed its negative decision, Babcock discovered the college?s actual situation shortly after he became president. On June 11, 2003, NEASC rejected an appeal by the college to improve its accreditation status.

To make matters even worse, the new president also discovered that the college was in deep trouble with the U.S. Department of Education for its handling of Title IV student aid funds, on which almost all of the college?s 500 students were dependent. Babcock recalls waking up one morning in mid-June 2003, with the distinct impression that he ought to visit the Boston office of the Department of Education, even though he had no specific appointment.

?I arrived at their downtown office at 10:30, and went in and introduced myself,? he remembers. ?That?s when they told me that they had had a meeting that very morning about AUC. I was surprised and asked, ?Why?? And they said, ?We?re sorry to inform you that we voted this morning to withhold all federal funding for any student coming to AUC.??

Shaken, Babcock asked for an emergency meeting with departmental personnel, and three hours later emerged with their pledge to give the college a few months to attempt to implement agency requirements for distributing and accounting for student aid moneys.

?We were within a whisker of being closed down by NEASC,? he says with a thin smile. ?And the vote had already been taken by the federal Department of Education. The place was dead. It just hadn?t been buried. We literally came within a week of closing the doors.?

The new president quickly began assembling a small team of administrators and consultants to provide what amounted to ?triage? care for the college. The college sought and obtained significant pledges of both emergency and long-term financial support from the Atlantic Union Conference. Major revisions in the college?s curriculum were implemented with faculty participation; financial record-keeping was improved to bring the college in line with government requirements; urgent maintenance concerns in the campus?s historic buildings were addressed.

Perhaps most important, Babcock and his team began articulating a new vision of the college to its constituents, one that focused on the college?s historic mission in supporting evangelism, discipleship, and training for church ministry in the context of vigorous liberal arts and professional programs.

Rise Up, O Church of God
AUC?s relationship with its primary constituency in the Atlantic Union has long been both complex and fluctuating. Founded in 1882 by Adventist church leader Stephen Haskell as ?South Lancaster Academy,? the school grew into ?Lancaster Junior College,? and finally in 1922, a four-year college. At its peak enrollment, nearly 900 students attended the college, though average enrollment in the 1970s and 1980s was approximately 700 full-time students. A sizable majority of the student population was White, and hailed from upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Never segregated, the college welcomed African-American, Asian, and Hispanic students, though until the 1970s they usually enrolled in only small numbers.

1550 page8The changing demographics of the Atlantic Union were reflected in the racial and cultural makeup of the campus from the late sixties onward as significant numbers of Black and Latino students, mostly from New York City and coastal southern New England, enrolled at the school. Today, the college?s student body reflects the racial diversity seen in the Atlantic Union?s 96,000 members, nearly three quarters of whom are African-American (American, Caribbean, and African), Hispanic, or Asian. The college is routinely listed as enjoying one of the most richly diverse student populations in a region that boasts literally hundreds of colleges and universities.

Other factors contributing to the college?s changing fortunes since the 1970s have included the general population shift from Snowbelt and Rustbelt regions to the Sunbelt, and the lack of growth in the White Adventist population in the Northeast in recent decades. Some observers also cite the difficult 1983 decision to close Pioneer Valley Academy, a sizable Adventist boarding school in New Braintree, Massachusetts, which annually provided several dozen students to AUC, as a continuing reason for the college?s enrollment difficulties. The college?s small enrollments prevented it from offering a fuller range of preprofessional programs in law, engineering, and applied medicine, which would have made it more attractive to some students. Many college-eligible Adventists in the Atlantic Union chose either to enroll in community or regional private colleges, or travel hundreds of miles to enroll at other universities.*

Revive Us Again
The emergency measures taken in the summer and fall of 2003 to stabilize the college?s financial situation and secure its student enrollment provided AUC with crucial months to address the wider concerns identified by the accrediting body, some 28 of which had been included with the initial 2001 decision that recommended ?termination? status. Chief among these were restoring budgetary controls for the school; implementing financial reporting standards; meeting government requirements for student aid accounting; increasing alumni and donor financial support; addressing deferred maintenance challenges; and improving student retention. In November 2003 President Babcock went before the NEASC Commission to request that it change its recommendation from ?termination? to ?probation.?

In the spring of 2004 the college announced a 7 percent reduction in tuition for the coming academic year as part of its plan to spur new enrollment, even as most other universities and colleges, Adventist and otherwise, were announcing double-digit increases. A modest uptick in enrollment in August 2004 seemed to validate the new approach as constituents began to look again at the reviving school. New academic programs in vegetarian/vegan culinary arts, evangelism, health science, mathematics, and preengineering were added during the 2004-2005 school year, and are deemed important contributors to a 34 percent increase in first-year and transfer applications recently reported by the college administration.

Crucial financial support was also offered from both institutional and alumni sources when the college needed it most.

In 2005 the Atlantic Union Conference committed nearly $1.2 million beyond its regular subsidy to secure the college?s financial health. Another $750,000 in general alumni giving seemed to signal renewed confidence that the college would survive its brush with death. Just two weeks before the NEASC Commission on Higher Education, an alumna and college trustee, Lois Peters, along with her husband, LeRoy, pledged $1 million to the college. Dr. Duane Cady, AUC alumnus and chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association (profiled in an Adventist Review cover story on June 23, 2005), recently agreed to serve as chair of the college?s ambitious $25 million ?Cornerstone? capital campaign slated to begin soon.

Other kinds of support have been equally important in restoring the college?s reputation as strongly supporting the mission of the church. Adventist evangelists Mark Finley and Ron Halvorsen--AUC alumni--have pledged their support and time to serve as adjunct instructors for the college?s new Center for Discipleship Evangelism, along with former General Conference president Robert Folkenberg and North American Division Young Adult Ministries coordinator José Rojas. Retired faculty and staff living in the community continue to give their time and expertise as part-time instructors and project coordinators. Area pastors mentor and train students in the college?s pastoral ministry, evangelism, and Bible instruction programs.

A Great Day Is Coming
The NEASC Commission on Higher Education meeting to which Babcock, King, and Kirchberg had been invited on November 3 was the first major test of whether the college?s extensive efforts to reform and reinvent itself over the past two years had been successful. If AUC could not climb beyond its probationary status, important potential donors had signaled that they might be unwilling to contribute. Students selecting a college for enrollment would be disinclined to choose a school whose future was uncertain.

1550 page8At the 10:30 a.m. meeting, the president and his colleagues offered a detailed response to the September NEASC site visit report, illustrating the progress that the college had made in each of the major areas of concern. The members of the NEASC Commission on Institutions of Higher Education listened politely to Babcock?s report, asked several questions, and then caucused privately to consider their conclusions.

?I had been told not to expect even a preliminary verbal report until at least the next day,? the president says with a laugh, ?and I didn?t expect a written report for several more days. But I wasn?t even all the way back to South Lancaster (a distance of 40 miles) before my cell phone rang, and I got the good news!?

The NEASC Commission voted unanimously to remove Atlantic Union College?s probationary status and return it to the prized full accreditation it had enjoyed until 1998. According to the site team report, upon which the commission relied, the college has made ?substantial progress toward addressing the concerns cited in the fall of 2004.? ?The mission of the College is being made clear to all, and the constituency is supporting the mission,? the report continued. ?With increasing support from the Atlantic Union of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the College has attained stability ?not seen in almost a decade,? according to the board chair.?

The site visit report additionally noted improvements in strategic planning, academic self-assessment, marketing, restored financial integrity, student retention, faculty morale and governance, even as it noted that significant progress must still be made in these and other areas.

In a telling summary of how much the prospects of the college have changed, the report concluded, ?The morale that has been developed in the past two years, the culture of participation, and the faith earned by the college?s new leadership represent a crucial kind of money in the bank.?

Now Thank We All Our God
Reaction to the good news was swift and heartfelt.

?Two words sum up my reaction,? says board of trustees chair and Atlantic Union Conference president Donald G. King. ?The first is ?ecstatic.? And the next one is ?providential.? God certainly brought Dr. Babcock to us to give leadership at the administrative and fund-raising levels, and it?s been my pleasure and joy to work alongside him at the governance level of the institution.

?When Dr. Babcock first came to us, there was a lot of skepticism,? King adds, ?people wondering what he was up to. Some even thought back then that he was coming to close the college. But as time wore on, people sensed the genuineness of his leadership. And morale on the campus and in the community has been up for quite a while now.?

Adventist educators across North America were quick to celebrate the good news for a sister college.

?All of those of us in Adventist higher education have been hopeful that AUC would obtain full accreditation status,? says Dr. Gordon Bietz, president of Southern Adventist University and current president of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities. ?There may be those who believe that there are too many SDA institutions of higher learning in the United States, but my conviction is that the loss of AUC would have been a significant loss to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I am grateful for what they have achieved over the past few years and pray for their continued success.?

Dr. Larry Geraty, president of La Sierra University in Riverside, California, and president of AUC from 1984 to 1992, feels a special connection to the college.

?Ever since spending eight of the best years of my life at AUC, it has been in my thoughts and prayers,? he says. ?It is a wonderful institution with a very proud history. I was overjoyed with the news that NEASC has lifted its probation. Now AUC can continue its special mission.?

Andrews University president Niels-Erik Andreasen noted that AUC?s good news is also good news for the church?s entire system of higher education.

?When one Adventist college prospers, all benefit,? Andreasen says, ?and the community of Adventist colleges and universities is strengthened.?

Pacific Union College president Richard Osborn was similarly pleased. ?We prayed at the request of George Babcock numerous times for what many of us honestly thought was a hopeless cause,? Osborn wrote in a congratulatory e-mail. ?We?re delighted that AUC, which was established in 1882, the same year as PUC, will continue to offer Adventist higher education to one of the most populated regions of the country.?

We Gather Together
On the campus, faculty expressed relief at the accreditation news.

?A psychological and emotional burden has certainly been lifted,? says Dr. Karin Thompson, music professor and president of the faculty senate. ?We know that there?s a lot of work ahead yet, but this news will certainly be helpful in recruiting and in establishing the school?s reputation.?

Dr. Brad Booth of the college?s Education and Psychology departments points to an open communication style on campus as one of the reasons for strong faculty morale, even through the college?s difficult times. ?Everything about the way the school administration has operated in recent years has been open, out on the table,? he says. ?When we were in trouble, Dr. Babcock would tell us, ?We?re really in trouble, and this is how NEASC is upset with us.? We needed that. Now,? Booth adds, ?morale here is higher than anything I?ve ever experienced.?

1550 page8?I don?t ever remember seeing everybody in prayer so much as they have been in the past several years,? says Dr. Susan Willoughby, chair of the AUC Social Work Department and an instructor at the college since 1972. ?And I?ve never seen so many faculty and staff respond when special offerings for the college are called for. We know that the president is doing the same thing. He?s out there, working, working with every layer of AUC?s staff and students and alumni and friends.?

Asked about whether they had felt any trepidation about enrolling at a school that was on probationary status, several students professed not being particularly worried about the outcome.

?Yeah, I knew the college was in a tough spot,? says Erick Perez, a business administration major originally from Queens, New York. ?But it didn?t really bother me. I guess I just had confidence. I?m very satisfied with my experience at AUC. The best part for me is the people you meet, the opportunities to grow as a Christian and as a leader.?

?I attended the Adventist elementary school just down the road as a kid,? says Lancastrian editor Jeff Lambert. ?We were having special prayer for AUC 10 years ago when I was in fifth and sixth grade. So when I came here, it wasn?t that troubling to me. I just kind of knew it was going to make it.?

?If there?s one thing that?s always been good here, it?s the teachers,? Lambert adds thoughtfully. ?These teachers actually care. The classes are small; they take time out of class if I need to work something out with an assignment. They?re here to help, no matter what. You can?t beat that.?

Kirosha Huggins, a junior accounting major, thinks the school?s news will help AUC students feel more confident about their choice to attend the college.

?It will be very good for attitudes around here,? she says with a grin. ?Others won?t be able to talk down the school anymore. And when new students arrive with at least one positive thing to focus on, it?s likely that they?ll see a lot of the other good things that are here as well.?

A Season of Clear Shining
Weather summaries from central Massachusetts through the first half of November indicate that the college?s improving fortunes have been mirrored in the climate as well. Days have been warmer, brighter, and drier than average, as if to reward the soggy landscape and dispirited residents for what they recently endured.

And on the campus, the upbeat mood is palpable, verbal, and contagious. At the chapel service official announcement of the good news in the College church on Tuesday, November 8, waves of grateful applause rolled across the assembled student body when the college president took the podium.

?No matter how loyal [you have all been] to the institution,? Babcock told the cheering students, faculty, and staff, ?no matter how supportive the board has been, this would not have happened without God?s direction.? At the president?s urging, all those in the church divided into prayer groups of two or three to praise God for a very tangible illustration of redemption.

Challenges--important ones--remain for Atlantic Union College. Rebuilding constituent confidence, robust enrollments, and sustainable financial strength will continue to push administrators, the college board, faculty, and staff to go the extra mile, make the additional phone call, and be careful with every dollar spent. But morning--welcome morning--has broken in a place that very much needed it.

?The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,? the Word says (John 1:5, RSV). For all who understand the quality and value of a distinctly Adventist higher education, it appears that a season of clear shining lies in this college?s future.

Fiat Lux.

*Recent statistics provided by the General Conference Education Department indicate that up to 70 percent of college-eligible Adventists in North America now choose non-Adventist institutions of higher education.

Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World.