Niels-Erik Andreasen and Demetra, his wife of 53 years, recently retired after an extended career of service in Seventh-day Adventist education. In the following conversation with Lael Caesar, Adventist Review associate editor, they share reflections on their transition to retirement, their greatest challenges and successes in higher-education leadership, and their vision for Adventist education today and tomorrow.
How does a Dane become president of Adventism’s historic institution of learning, Andrews University, in a country far removed from the land of his birth?
NIELS-ERIK ANDREASEN (NEA): I grew up in the Adventist Church in Denmark. We were few, but I knew I belonged to something grand, global, and multifaceted, with a gospel commission to reach the entire world. That gave me a dream. So I moved to England as a teenager, attended Newbold College,1 migrated to the United States, completed my studies, then served in Adventist education, culminating with 22 years as president of Andrews University.2 I consider myself blessed to belong to such a remarkable, visionary, worldwide church community.
How does a Greek woman from Athens happen to fall in love with a Dane?
DEMETRA LOUGANI ANDREASEN (DLA): It was an interesting and exciting time for me in a new country, England,3 and visiting Niels-Erik’s home in Denmark. I was very impressed with the Adventist way of life, and also the civility of the Danish people. Prior to meeting my future Danish husband, I was an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Share with us two or three major moments—great leaps forward or awful setbacks—from your career in Adventist education.
NEA: I was once asked by a university board to step down from my post as president on very short notice. We were going through one of those difficult periods: declining enrollment, very tight budgets, program changes—things that upset a campus community. My only preparation for managing failures was this piece of advice: never waste a good crisis—use it to make difficult changes success does not allow.
So it was that one of my best experiences came out of this painful one. The board reinstated me some weeks later, and the university made remarkable strides forward in those next few years: the campus was renovated, including a new entrance, and a proper pride was in place among students, alumni, and local community. A school of international education and distance learning soon emerged, and a year later the university had its best financial year ever—a $15 million gain, equal to 15 percent in restricted and unrestricted funds. This was soon followed by the best-ever campus enrollment of more than 3,500 students.
I learned that, work and pray as you might, success is not guaranteed. Also, that failure need not be final for anyone.
As his spouse, how do you recall those times?
DLA: As a child I had lived through two catastrophic wars in Greece that took the life of my father prematurely. So the Andrews University challenge could not intimidate or threaten me. I was far away at the time, but I knew that no one could take away my husband’s integrity, and I quietly supported him. I also knew that although we all make mistakes that may hurt, the best way to deal with them is to acknowledge, forgive, and forget; not hold grudges or be intimidated, but be benevolent and move on positively.
When challenges show up, we must be direct, transparent, and truthful. It’s the best foundation for rebuilding life and finding a positive outcome.
How did your professional expectations change after you met Niels-Erik?
DLA: It wasn’t just professional expectations: it was my total life goals. That included becoming a Seventh-day Adventist. In due course I married a person of the same faith, but I never gave up my close personal relationship with my Greek family and friends who were Orthodox. Significantly, maintaining relationships and friendships across denominational lines also made witnessing to my new faith easier.
How did your life change, Niels-Erik, after you met Demetra?
NEA: Demetra’s work in a law office introduced her to members of Athenian society—lawyers, professors, etc. However, her social group continued to include “the lame, the blind, the ill, and the poor,” Jesus’ friends. Her professionalism, faith, and social responsibilities taught me to not be overly impressed by those who are high up, or forget that at the bottom we are all equal—in need of human friendship and God’s grace. Demetra and I once thought of becoming missionaries. She would have been a good one.
Demetra, describe your life as a woman married to a man who for many years was a high-profile intellectual in Adventist acdemia?
DLA: I considered it a privilege to be married to a Christian intellectual known for his humility and integrity, who has helped the church’s academic institutions globally. I have supported him in every way I could without letting his status interfere with my own down-to-earth position in the community where we worked.
What suggestions would you give to spouses in similar situations?
DLA: It is easy for a spouse to get swallowed up as a mere accessory to the institution. But as others did before me, I committed myself to maintaining my own individuality and working on my personal, intellectual, and spiritual development. It is the inner being that gives form and substance to the outer personality the spouse brings to this position.
How has retirement changed your situations in the social, administrative, and theological arenas?
NEA: After the wonderful retirement party compliments, you become almost invisible, especially if you move. Socially, it may mean a new circle of friends and acquaintances. Administratively, I share only if invited. I think that is really important. Theologically, Christ and His grace fill the center that the church and its programs once occupied.
Retirement is a recognition of the limitations God has placed on our lives. We cannot deny the aging process. We retire for the sake of many—our spouses, our children, colleagues, the next generation, our workplaces. Appropriate retirement passes the torch while it is still burning bright.
DLA: The administrative position we held in the university brought deferential treatment. By not becoming too used to something that disappears the instant you retire, we were neither surprised nor disappointed upon returning to “civilian life.” However, retirement brings not only changes but also new challenges regarding family, health, and sometimes finances.
What do you mean, Niels-Erik, when you say we should retire for the sake of the workplace?
NEA: Retirement makes room for new talent, fresh ideas, new directions. A few years ago the Wall Street Journal reported a study of CEOs in German companies. It was found, not unexpectedly, that those CEOs who were oldest and had served the longest were also quite cautious about making new investments in their companies’ future, whereas young and recently appointed CEOs invested aggressively. It was really a study of caution versus risk-taking.
There are times the cautious approach of senior leadership is needed, but the study concluded that in general the more aggressive, imaginative approach of new leadership eventually secured a more promising future for the company. A retirement or change in leadership can help achieve that.
Retirement is not quitting; it is installing next-generation leaders with all the goodwill, know-how, and support you can muster. That is not easy to do, but it is part of planning for good conclusions. Those who will not step aside can hold up progress or, worse, unwittingly undo at the conclusion of life some things they worked so hard to accomplish at its beginning.
Your counsel is clearly still valued. You participated in planning the education summit in Chicago in 2018, where Adventist universities discussed collaboration in curriculum, services, and administrative overhead. What are your thoughts?
NEA: It was an important meeting, dealing with changes to North American Division (NAD) higher education. Early in my career most of our undergraduate students came from the local union academies. A decade or two later a third came from the local union academies, a third from other union academies, and a third from high schools. It points to a gradual decoupling of our enrollment from our local academy enrollment.
At present (2018), General Conference statistics for the NAD reveal that approximately 60 percent of our university students are Adventists and 40 percent are local community students not of our church family. We are changing, and the Chicago summit intended to recognize that and respond to it.
The summit recommended generating cost efficiencies by sharing back-office services. Online courses could also be shared between institutions. These are good but small steps. The larger challenges facing NAD institutions have to do with college costs, college culture, and educational mission within the division. The summit urged NAD institutions to employ a unified approach to these challenges. I do not hear much enthusiasm for that, but the conversation should continue.
What about such programs as Adventist Colleges Abroad (ACA)?4 Is it important? Are there downsides?
NEA: I support the ACA program. It was a brilliant concept developed decades ago by La Sierra professors John T. Hamilton and Margaret Hill, that lets students spend six to nine months in an Adventist college abroad, return fluent in the language, and not miss years of college. I was a product of such an opportunity.
ACA does face the overall decline in college language programs, but in my view many more of the 145,000 students in Adventist colleges and universities worldwide should experience study abroad. Adventists are international people. Sharing with others is a “Christian obligation” that the first Pentecost wonderfully reinforced.
How do you reconcile the universities’ right to encourage free thought with the church’s right to theological orthodoxy?
NEA: Alexander Pope wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” We all need more, not less, learning.
The purpose of university education is to guide our thinking toward ever greater understanding: students may change their thinking as often as every semester. With the church, changing thinking takes decades, generations, centuries. Thus university thinking and church thinking may be out of sync sometimes. But the two must be mutually respectful. Respect for and openness to new understanding when it knocks on our door is the key, not thought control. Freedom to think will forever be God’s free gift.
Where to, Adventist higher education in North America?
NEA: We often think of our church’s future as determined primarily by church councils, biblical research, and institutional policies leading to action plans. But external change agents such as economics and culture also influence our thinking about many things, including education. That complicates things for us.
First, we must courageously face the world as purveyors of Christian education to our own youth and others who share our educational ideals, wherever we find them. We probably have too many institutions and programs for the approximately 14,000 Adventist students currently enrolled in NAD tertiary education. We need a broader reach and a greater mix of students—some believers, others who are seekers. I believe we can develop this into a division-wide strategy, and in the process make our universities gateways to our church.
Second, our education must be more affordable: many of our students come from lower-income families.
Demetra, what would you be doing now if you had not retired?
DLA: Having been a social worker by profession, I loved to mentor students at Andrews, especially foreign students. I understood their challenges to adapt to a new culture, perhaps also a new language, while being far away from their family and support group. I would have liked to continue doing this if we had not retired from the university.
Niels-Erik, what would you say to others who may be struggling with a retirement decision?
NEA: I would recommend the same careful, thoughtful godly approach you used at the beginning of your life. Then retirement would be the natural and fulfilling conclusion to a long and productive life, leaving behind a good legacy for family, successors, former colleagues, and employers to contemplate.