September 3, 2020

​Our Work, God’s Mission

Education in the age of COVID.

Lael Caesar & Andrea Luxton

Associate editor Lael Caesar recently interviewed Andrea Luxton, president, and Christon Arthur, provost, of Andrews University. They spoke about the challenges of leading a university at this stage of the twenty-first century.

What are some ways the pandemic has affected the mission of the university? In areas of student learning, how has it impacted the on-campus/remote learning reality?

AL: We had a traditional Adventist university setting in which it’s residential, in which you have wonderful spiritual experiences and these meaningful, engaging conversations in the classroom. Then all of a sudden, no more.

Our faculty reached out to change the way they did things, to still have that spiritual and personal connection with their students while delivering a great education.

Are you expecting all who were there before to come back, or have you made some other arrangements?

CA: We’ve said to our students, “Don’t forget that Andrews University is your home. Our arms are open wide to welcome you home.” Some of our students are saying, “We can’t quite come back.” But we insist that we still want them to be part of this community. Those who are able to come back for face-to-face interaction and learning, you are home physically. Those who can’t, you might be home remotely, but you’re still home. Our table is wide enough to say, “You’re still at home.”

What is it like working with an international team, working with one of North America’s most consistently international student bodies?

AL: One of the reasons I came to Andrews was because I knew how international it was. That’s what I love about the church. Because we are so international, we have multiple richness and diversities that we bring together.

We have a team that comes to the table with different perspectives, ideas, and understandings, and helps us respond in an environment in which we are in Berrien Springs and all over the world.It has been hugely beneficial for us to have that community and culture.

What’s your plan A for school on campus at a time of coronavirus? What’s your plan B?

AL: Our playbook for the semester is about 60 pages long. It’s available in a way that people can actually click and get the answers they want.

All summer we’ve been putting out lots of messages and information. It’s not just plan A and plan B. It’s plan A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Our plan A is to open as usual on campus. Well, “as usual” is probably the wrong word. We will open the campus with a lot of mitigation, recognizing that some people will still both work and study remotely. That’s our plan A.

CA: It’s hard to describe a plan in one word, but if we could use one word, it would be “flexible.” A synonym might be “adaptable,” because the environment will change. Our strategies are not going to change the core beliefs about spirituality, the reason for our existence, or mission. But it will change and adapt the strategies to fit the changing environment. Our core mission will remain strong, fixed.

What about demanding administrative issues?

AL: Finances has to be one of them. When the pandemic hit higher education, it just gutted everyone’s budgets. It’s going to mean losses, losses for people. That’s always very difficult. When you have people who have done a brilliant job of working for you, you have to furlough them. Or say there’s no longer a job; that has been the hardest administrative issue that we’ve had to deal with.

Anything else?

AL: The students: we’re seeing a good level of retention and commitment to Andrews. But it comes down to asking, Do people feel safe to be away from their homes? Will it ever be back to where it was? Maybe not. What about the fact that we have so many international students? What is the confidence of international students coming to Andrews, or to the United States in general?

How about opportunities?

AL: We have some great people leading out in distance education. Their capacity to be creative and help our faculty find new means of reaching out has been great.

CA: Andrews is well known for its strong, liberal arts education. How can we take that legacy to where it needs to go next? We have to keep asking, What’s next? To stand still is to move backward.

AL: We’re talking about Andrews University as being a place for world changers in a changing world. We have a great seminary; we have the widest range of graduate programs in North America for Adventist schools. That means we are preparing people who are going to be professionals in our church and in society, to prepare them to work in an environment that has changed and is changing. That’s a huge opportunity.

Let’s talk about George Floyd. What can you tell us about your personal and institutional responses to the Black Lives Matter movement?

CA: One of the profound questions that liberal arts cause us to grapple with is What does it mean to be human? What’s the value of human life? What are things we do culturally, individually, collectively that value the humanity of all people?

Christ and the gospel call us to be more human. God made this human person and breathed into that human person. That person became a living soul. That’s core Adventist theology. That’s core to the humanities and liberal arts. What makes a person human? It is the presence and the spirit of God in that person. When we devalue that human being, what are we doing to God’s creation? The spirit of God makes that person human.

One of the things we’ve done is to say, “Let’s find students who want an Andrews education, but have difficulty accessing it for whatever reason.”

We have created a scholarship in George Floyd’s name, not to celebrate him, but to honor the human spirit. Starting this fall, a student can come to Andrews on a full-ride scholarship named after George Floyd. We celebrate the human spirit.

AL: Some of the most profound questions that came out of the George Floyd situation are How did we get to a situation in which things like this happen? What happens in the way we run our society? You have to ask, “What about us? Are we at risk of having structures, or having an environment in which we are not fully living out the expectations of the gospel in the way we relate to individuals, in the way that we teach individuals to make a difference in society?”

Over the past few years we have consciously tried to look at ourselves, ask that question, and be honest about it. We have to take an honest look at ourselves as a group; we have to say, “What can we do differently?”

CA: An Ubuntu saying has stuck with me. “I am because you are. Because you are, I am.” It gives this sense of community. When you are diminished, I am diminished. When you are at your highest pinnacle, so am I. I cannot diminish you and think for a moment that I am not diminishing myself.

AL: Early in my presidency, we had one of those moments. We tried to do a lot of listening. We tried to be honest about what we were hearing. What we heard was, “We are not innocent.”

That set us on a path to say, “How can we do things differently in the way we educate, in the way we hire people, in the way we value people?” It’s a difficult conversation because of systemic racism. Some people hate the term systemic racism. I like it, because it’s not a personal accusation. I don’t have to be defensive about it; I can be part of a solution.

What is the one thing that determines either that Andrews succeeds, or if you miss it, you’re destined for oblivion?

AL: Losing sight of the mission.

What message do you have for parents and students?

AL: I know times are hard. I know that everything has been changing around you and your families. But beyond that is a God who doesn’t change. God gives us all hope. If we rely on God’s faithfulness, then the future is good.

CA: We had a student toward the end of the Andrews experience. [Their] reflection note said, “I came to Andrews; I really didn’t want to. I was at a point in which my family’s God was not mine; my family’s religion was not mine. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a Seventh-day Adventist. I thought, Why am I going there? I’m not even sure what I believe. But my years at Andrews have caused me to discover who God is. I am leaving today with my faith restored, my love of God renewed, my beliefs enhanced. Had I not come to Andrews, I couldn’t say those things.”

Even when it is indiscernible, change is happening. Students are being transformed even when we can’t see it. It’s indiscernible, but it’s happening.

AL: I’ve had the opportunity to travel, and I keep meeting people I’ve known when I taught secondary school or college. They say, “Do you remember when you said this?” I can’t remember. Then they’ll say, “That changed my life,” or “That led me to this.” God works in the lives of students, and we are simply a means of opening up that conversation between God and our students. We educators have been given a wonderful gift.

Lael Caesar & Andrea Luxton
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