December 4, 2019

Preparing Thoughtful, Careful, Broad-Vision Leaders

Adventist Review

Adventist Review and Adventist World associate editor Gerald Klingbeil recently sat down with Ginger Ketting-Weller, newly installed president of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS), a General Conference institution in the Philippines that offers a variety of graduate degrees. Dr. Klingbeil, a former AIIAS professor, asks the new president about her background and her vision for AIIAS. 

Dr. Ketting-Weller, please help our readers around the world understand what is AIIAS. It’s an acronym, and most people will wonder what it stands for.

AIIAS stands for the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies. It got this long name because when the Philippines presidential decree was made establishing this institution, there was full support for the institution, but the “university” name could not be used since there were no undergraduate programs. The institution was structured with a School of Graduate Studies and a Theological Seminary. It was decided to call it Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies.

So all the AIIAS degrees are graduate degrees up to the doctoral level?

Not all of them. The seminary offers programs through the PhD. The education and business programs also offer the PhD degree. Currently, the public health program offers the MPH but no doctorate.

You’ve been here on this campus now for some time. Please share with us your first impressions of the institution.

We have been here three times in the past year, so we had gotten acquainted. My impressions during my first five weeks of work here have been extremely positive. I walked onto campus and immediately was warmly welcomed in ways that fit this multicultural institution with people from so many cultures and languages. Our welcome was symbolically characteristic. They wrapped a hand-painted Filipino shawl around my shoulders. Being wrapped in that shawl was significant. We operate “in the Filipino shawl” here at AIIAS, yet each one of us comes from our own places.

That’s the beautiful thing here: we have to work a little bit harder to communicate and to understand where each is coming from, but the resulting communication and work together is so good-hearted, so rewarding, and so focused on mission that it has been an extremely energizing and happy place to work thus far.

Do you know how many nationalities are represented here on campus currently?

We have students currently enrolled from sixty-two countries, “from Angola to Zimbabwe,” I like to say. I believe the total number of countries that have sent us students over the years is at 123.

You are a very seasoned educator. You worked most of your life in North America. You grew up in Asia in the mission field, and in your last position you were the dean of the School of Education at La Sierra University. How would you describe the role of AIIAS within the framework of the global Adventist educational network?

Each division has its own schools, all the way from kindergarten or preschool through postgraduate. And each division has aspirations to grow their educational systems. But some of the divisions are further along than others. Because graduate education must be so specialized and is costly, the General Conference established this particular institution to serve the world church.

There are four General Conference educational institutions that serve the world church. Loma Linda University and Andrews University are both based in North America, and Adventist University of Africa in Kenya is the newest one. AIIAS officially began in the 1980s to serve as a seminary especially for Asia, although the seminary had been operating for some time under another name. Our other programs were also needed in preparing leaders for the world church. Interestingly enough, AIIAS doesn’t just serve Asia. It draws students from all around the world.

When you look at the school, what particular strengths do you see here in terms of what AIIAS can contribute to the world church?

I think one of the strengths is the fact that even though AIIAS was initially established to serve Asia, we have faculty from probably every continent. For example, we have faculty from Asia, South America, North America, Europe, Russia, Africa, … and all of that together provides such a multicultural set of perspectives. I think that’s one of our greatest strengths, along with the diverse student body. Another strength, frankly, is our location. Our costs are not as high as some that other Adventist graduate schools face. This country is very friendly to people who come to teach and study here, so visas are easy to get. We’re able to control costs more easily. We are located in a really beautiful location about 1,200 feet above sea level. We’re not in the city; we have a sense of space around us. AIIAS provides a haven where people can come and study a little ways away from the city; it is a very peaceful place to focus, which you really have to do in a graduate program.

Another strength I would mention is that our faculty are practitioners. They’ve worked in the field, so although they’re academics and they’re developing new scholars, they are also deeply committed to mission, to successful approaches in the areas in which these students will go out to lead in the world church. AIIAS has been careful to get the type of faculty who will foster and model excellence in academia and at the same time have their feet on the ground.

What are the challenges that you see? If you look at the next five or 10 years for AIIAS, what challenges do you anticipate?

I’ve been steeped in the challenges of North American higher education for quite some time. And I know how difficult it is to coordinate programs among Adventist institutions there. Differences in location and operating costs can create challenges for those institutions which are in more expensive areas. You find potential students making decisions based on cost as much as anything, because that’s a challenge for people all around the world. But then those institutions that operate in regions that have a higher cost of living have a harder time attracting students, even though their programs are strong. I’ve watched all of that in North America, and then I come to this location where we are wonderfully supported by the church, and membership is constantly growing.

However, even the church in growth areas has to exercise stewardship. We are beginning to face some of the same challenges here that I’ve seen in North America, including coordinating programs. There are programs that the institutions want to start, but the demand may not be strong enough to sustain several of these programs in the same region or division. Additionally, sponsoring church entities may send students to where the programs are the most affordable, when maybe there’s a broader range of characteristics that they should consider in terms of the fit for how they’re wanting to train their people. I’m not one of those people who thinks just one institution is the best institution for every Seventh-day Adventist or every future leader. Each one has its niche, and it has to be a fit.

But I am very concerned because some of the problems that are so intense in North America reveal to us the future of what we’re going to have to face here as we allow proliferation of programs and tuition competition. I hope the church will think ahead and exercise courage to make some difficult decisions in regions that haven’t yet experienced the challenges that arise when higher education growth is unplanned.

What are your dreams for AIIAS? If you could say, “Oh, I wish we could do this or that?”

I remember an impression, which I believe that the Holy Spirit put in my heart, as we were planning to come here, that our focus must be training for leadership at all levels. I’ve been on many search committees and know how difficult it is to find really good leaders to fill positions. AIIAS specifically was established to prepare leaders for the world church — for the Asian areas initially, but for the world church. We need to prepare our students for thoughtful, careful, broad-visioned leadership. That mission has guided my predecessors here at AIIAS for some time, and it certainly still fits the need today.

What I’ve noticed is that not only are our graduate students current and future leaders, but we also have many faculty and staff who go on to become leaders elsewhere. And we have teachers at AIIAS Academy who can become model teachers and administrators, who can go out to sow that leadership knowledge.

Finally, and not least important, on this campus we educate the children of our faculty, staff, and students. Many times, the children of leaders also become leaders. They watch the skills their parents model, and they learn from those. Their parents express high expectations of them, and they catch that bug of mission. A leader of one of our communities on campus said to me the other day, “It is my heart’s highest desire that my children will become missionaries.” These children are currently in AIIAS Academy. We need to be preparing the youngest ones on up, on our campus, for mission. We are not enough to finish the work, but we’ve got to do our best to prepare all of our people for that.

Finally, another dream is that we will not go shallow with our leadership training. Leadership training can be by-the-book or theoretical, but many of us learn it simply by doing, and along the way we make mistakes. It’s my goal to bring leaders here who have learned through humbling experiences and reflection, who will teach our students real-life leadership, … as well as teaching what is theoretical, book-based, biblical, and all of that.

I look around the world I live in today, and I see that we are suffering a great lack of careful thought, lack of a service orientation, lack of a biblical grounding, lack of integrity. Those are things that I feel strongly that we need to foster and address as we do our leadership development here on this campus.