September 4, 2016

​Higher Ground for Higher Education

Adventist colleges and universities are facing challenges they’ve never faced before.

Larry Blackmer

The first Seventh-day Adventist higher educational institution—Battle Creek College, later Emmanuel Missionary College and then Andrews University—opened its doors in 1874. Today 13 Adventist colleges and universities serve more than 24,000 students throughout the North American Division. When you consider the small beginning made by the church’s pioneers 140 years ago, you can’t help being amazed at what God has accomplished.

Our educational system has never been without challenges, however, and those that our colleges and universities face today are more taxing than ever. Administrators and educators are dealing with unprecedented issues brought about by rapid changes in both the wider culture and the expectations Seventh-day Adventists have of their institutions of higher education. We can move forward in tackling and resolving these issues only with much prayer for God’s wisdom and guidance.

We also must encourage candid and constructive discussion among educators, church leaders, members, and parents as we unite in commitment to strengthen and uphold these God-given institutions. Preparing Adventist young adults to be faithful witnesses for the Lord and to serve society well in specialized fields of study and careers will require ongoing conversation, dedicated resources, and more planning than many of us suppose.

This article sketches out three of North American Adventism’s most pressing challenges in higher education. I’ll begin, though, by noting some of the often-overlooked accomplishments and day-to-day community outreach events of these schools. The challenges they collectively face must also be seen against the backdrop of the very real contributions they are making to both the church’s mission and the communities in which they operate.

Adventist University of Health Sciences—Hosted a science camp for middle-school students from boys’ and girls’ clubs in the Orlando area. The camp was designed to inspire teens to excel in math and science, and thus help break the cycle of poverty and underemployment in which many live.

Andrews University—Recently hosted a community event, “Understanding our Muslim Neighbors,” that drew more than 220 participants.

Burman University—The university’s physical education centre hosted a “Fun & Fitness” event on June 7, 2016, as part of Lacombe (Alberta) Seniors Week. Thirty-two senior citizens enjoyed a workout in the gymnasium and a delicious lunch.

Kettering College—Installed a new MRI simulator, only one of two in Ohio, to provide high-quality instruction and hands-on experience for students.

La Sierra University—Graduated the largest class in its history—428 students. The overall enrollment has been steadily climbing for the past several years.

Loma Linda University—Recently opened the San Bernardino campus, which houses San Manuel Gateway College, a Social Action Center and Community Health Center, and a vegetarian restaurant. The Community Health Center is the largest outpatient facility of its kind in the nation.

Oakwood University—The university’s Peters Media Center was the site of ABC affiliate WAAY TV’s “Town Hall: A Plan for Peace,” a program that sought to engage community leaders, pastors, law enforcement, activists and concerned citizens in a dialogue about being proactive with race relations in the community.

Pacific Union College—Dozens of student film projects were screened at the fourteenth annual Diogenes Film Festival.

Southern Adventist University—Business students offered to prepare tax returns for local residents free of charge.

Southwestern Adventist University—Recently placed second in its division of the prestigious Enactus National Exposition, a nationwide initiative intended to help improve community action projects.

Union College—Two students in a summer research fellowship program funded by the Kelly Adirondack Center recently completed a major project on women writers and their contribution to literature.

Walla Walla University—Expanded its educational footprint by purchasing a new building in Missoula, Montana, to house its Master’s of Social Work program.

Adventist colleges and universities are well known—and some, nationally ranked—for high-quality academic programs, diverse student populations, and engaging community activities. As part of a worldwide educational system built on biblical principles, these schools lead students to deeper commitments to their faith, to their communities, and to mission. Thousands of teachers, staff, and support personnel devote themselves to guiding youth and young adults into personal relationships with Christ, providing them with opportunities to examine faith for themselves by honest inquiry, focused investigation, and a supportive network of spiritually mature mentors. Stories abound on North American Adventist campuses of lives changed and faith strengthened because the system actually works.

But the challenges are also very real, and some of them prove especially vexing because of the faith commitments that undergird all of the church’s educational programs. Not all things are negotiable, nor can Adventist colleges and universities alter their core values to build student enrollments or please those who may not share those core values. Consider the following three issues:

1. Academic Freedom

The issue of academic freedom as it’s currently being debated in some academic circles involves the question of whether the Adventist Church, its institutions, and/or its leaders have a right to regulate or influence what professors say both in the classroom and in other public venues. In other words, is it appropriate for a professor in an Adventist college or university to present material that is opposed to the church teachings, or for a teacher to express opinions that are in direct opposition to a church teaching?

Academic freedom is a deeply held tenet on all higher education campuses. It is intended to protect the professor from inappropriate outside influence on what is being taught in the classroom, and to give the teacher the ability to engage students in careful investigation and divergent ideas. But how does that work in an Adventist classroom?

Not all things are negotiable, nor can Adventist colleges and universities alter their core values to build student enrollments.

The main challenge of Adventist academia in relation to academic freedom is finding resourceful ways of staying true to
both academic rigor, which involves free, progressive and scientific exploration of all dimensions of God’s truth in Scripture and nature, and deep appreciation of and abiding in Adventist faith tradition. Adventist institutions adhere to the principle of continuing and progressive revelation of God and progressive understanding of God’s truth as understood within the context of the inspired revelation of the Word of God.

The church has developed a statement on academic freedom, including how it relates to Adventist educators in an Adventist classroom. In part, the statement reads:

“Freedom of Speech. While the right to private opinion is a part of the human heritage as creatures of God, in accepting employment as a Seventh-day Adventist college or university the teacher recognizes certain limits to expression of personal views.

“As a member of a learned profession, he must recognize that the public will judge his profession by his utterances. Therefore, he will be accurate, respectful of the opinions of others, and will exercise appropriate restraint. He will make it clear when he does not speak for the institution. In expression of private views he will have in mind their effect on the reputation and goals of the institution.

“Freedom of Research. The Christian scholar will undertake research within the context of his faith and from the perspective of Christian ethics. He is free to do responsible research with proper respect for public safety and decency.

“Freedom to Teach. The teacher will conduct his professional activities and present his subject matter within the worldview described in the opening paragraph of this document. As a specialist within a particular discipline, he is entitled to freedom in the classroom to discuss his subject honestly. However, he will not introduce into his teaching controversial matter unrelated to his subject. Academic freedom is freedom to pursue knowledge and truth in the area of the individual’s specialty. It does not give license to express controversial opinions on subjects outside that specialty nor does it protect the individual from being held accountable for his teaching.”

“The church reserves the right to employ only those individuals who personally believe in and are committed to upholding the doctrinal tenets of the church as summarized in the document “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists.” . . . Such individuals are issued special credentials by their respective church bodies identifying them as continuing workers in the church.”1

2. Distinctly Adventist Education

Closely related to academic freedom is the goal of attempting to ensure that the theology being taught on Adventist campuses continues to be distinctly Adventist. It is of common consent that the church has every right—some would say responsibility—to ensure that what is being taught to our young pastors and students aligns with the church’s fundamental beliefs. The theology of the church doesn’t belong to any one person or group. It really belongs to the larger church, the constituency of the church. Whenever there is a need to adjust the wording of the fundamental beliefs of the church, the church at General Conference session must discuss and vote to make such changes. Professors employed by Adventist institutions, therefore, should be teaching distinctly Adventist theology on our campuses.

As one who is directly involved with our Adventist colleges and universities and very familiar with our teachers, I can attest that we have very dedicated and faithful professors on our campuses. They are committed Adventists, engaged in sharing the distinctly Adventist message of hope and wholeness to the students under their tutelage. Occasionally, however, there are some who want to push the boundaries of what most would see as the Adventist worldview. The question at these moments is “How do we handle such situations?”

The International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE), a General Conference committee, is currently developing a new education handbook. One chapter specifically addresses church oversight of the theology departments on our worldwide campuses. Although few disagree that the church has the right to ensure faithful teaching in our institutions, the process of how to actually make that happen is still being discussed. The General Conference has been very open to reviewing the protocol for this process, and there is much discussion still to happen. We ask for your prayers as we balance academic freedom, faithful professors, the need to ensure faithful teaching, the Adventist worldview, and the necessity for some oversight.

3. LGBT Legislation

Cultural influences in Western societies are openly promoting lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) lifestyles, contrary to the biblical position that the Adventist Church has long taken. Legislation allowing for and even protecting these lifestyles is now beginning to follow. Here is a recent example:

California Senate Bill 1146—This bill wouldrequire an institution that claims an exemption from either the Equity in Higher Education Act or Title IX “to make specified disclosures to the institution’s current and prospective students, faculty members, and employees, and to the Student Aid Commission, concerning the institution’s claim for the exemption. The bill would require the commission to collect the information it receives and post and maintain a list on the commission’s Internet Web site of all institutions claiming the exemption and their respective bases for claiming the exemption. Existing law provides that no person in the state shall, on the basis of race, national origin, ethnic group identification, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, color, genetic information, or disability, be unlawfully denied full and equal access to the benefits of, or be unlawfully subjected to discrimination under, any program or activity that is conducted, operated, administered, or funded by the state.”2

In other words, this bill would specify that a postsecondary educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization and that receives financial assistance from the state or enrolls students who receive state financial assistance is subject to that prohibition, and violation of that prohibition may be enforced by a private right of action.

All Adventist higher educational institutions have historically upheld moral conduct standards since their founding. Unlike secular institutions, it has never been acceptable to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage in our schools, whether that be heterosexual or homosexual behavior. U.S. federal law has long recognized that religious institutions have a right to operate their schools according to their beliefs, and has provided exemptions. Adventist schools have exercised these exemptions since the laws were passed. If students are found to be in violation of the church’s lifestyle standards and beliefs, we would then have the right as a religious institution to resolve these situations in a manner that upholds our beliefs and standards. The new language, however, is being applied to any action the institution would take in its attempts to uphold its “religious beliefs,” particularly as it relates to homosexual and transgender issues.

The provisions of this legislation are also an attempt to create a public “shaming” list by making schools wear a “scarlet letter” in their communications. It also would make it possible for students to enact civil litigation against the institution for perceived infractions. In addition, the institution would not be eligible for Cal Grants, a California state grant that up to 40 percent of our students currently receive. This legislation has passed through a number of steps and is now headed to the final two steps before going to the governor for signature.

Although this is a California law that would apply only to the three Adventist higher education institutions in that state, along with other private religious educational institutions, it would provide a legal blueprint for other states to follow. The rights of conservative Christian colleges and universities would continue to be eroded, and our institutions will be severely tested. The law is designed to stop religious institutions from using religion as a basis for what some deem as discrimination, while at the same time using the law to interfere in the religious expression of our faith on our college and university campuses.

I have addressed only a very few of the many pressures, challenges, and questions that educators and others in the North American Division face each day. As we trust in God, knowing that He is in control, we have hope not only for the present but for the future of Adventist schools. Our colleges and universities are here to provide graduates whom the Lord will use to help take this church through the difficult years ahead until Jesus comes again.

Let’s work together to ensure that our schools continue to follow the plan that the Lord laid out nearly 150 years ago, and that we do so with clarity, compassion, and conviction.

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Larry Blackmer, PhD,serves as vice-president of education for the North American Division.