by AT News Team

Updated February 22

On Thursday, February 21, a special meeting of the constituency of La Sierra University (LSU) met to consider changes recommended by the institution’s bylaws committee in response to concerns conveyed by an accrediting body in mid-2011. The university is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church and some members have expressed fears that the changes will reduce the denomination’s control of the school.
LSU has been criticized by independent Adventist groups for several years, first about how evolution was taught in some science classes at the university and more recently because the university accepted a major donation from an Adventist physician, naming a center after him in the business school, despite his involvement with abortions. Internal conflict related to how to handle the outside criticism led to faculty and board members being dismissed last year. The turmoil resulted in a “Notice of Concern” from the Western Association of School and Colleges (WASC), the primary accrediting body for the university.
Two key changes recommended by the bylaws committee are in direct response to the WASC concerns, stated Meredith Jobe, an attorney who chairs the committee: “That the board chair be elected by the board from among the four union officers on the board, rather than automatically being the union president [and] clarification to the board role in setting basic university policy, while holding the president strictly accountable for the implementation of that policy.” The issues here are standard in nonprofit institutions; a clear line of authority rooted in the purpose and constituency of the organization without conflict of interest or confused chain of command.
The university is under the control of the denomination’s Pacific Union Conference and the president, secretary, treasurer and vice president of the union are ex-officio board members. Up to this point the president has been ex-officio chairman of the university board. WASC expressed concern because he has the same role for Pacific Union College, also in California. It is very unusual for the same person to be chairman of the board at two colleges or universities at the same time and there is no other such situation in the Adventist Church in North America.
Jobe also stated in the letter introducing the report that the committee did not change three key elements of the bylaws because it “was committed to maintaining the university’s connection to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” These are “(a) the make-up of the constituency; (b) the constituency’s election of board members; and (c) the constituency approves all changes to the bylaws.” As long as these elements are retained “we believe the school will remain clearly integrated with the Church and its mission.”
Nonetheless, sources have told Adventist Today that a number of alumni and other Adventists are concerned that the change in the ex-officio role of the union conference president as chairman of the board, along with a couple of other, less obvious changes, result in church authority being attenuated. If the amendments are voted, the bylaws would specify that the majority of the board members must be laity, not employees of the denomination, and the second and subsequent references to the union conference would be shortened from “Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists” to “Pacific Union.” The committee could have recommended PUCSDA for the additional references throughout the document. It seems an attempt to shift the reference point away from the denomination in the view of some.
Another source told Adventist Today that the lay majority on the board has been a reality for nearly two decades, although not specified in the bylaws. This source pointed out that a lay majority is present in many of the denomination’s governing bodies and is required in some conference bylaws.
Greater concern seems to focus on the proposed revision of the language defining the role of the board and the job description of the university president. The new language “will essentially turn the board into a vision setting, advisory body and consolidate institutional power in the president,” wrote Michael Peabody, a Los Angeles attorney and LSU alum, earlier this week in ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent Adventist web publication devoted to religious liberty issues. The accrediting body “exists for one primary reason,” Peabody said, “to provide a general standard … for educational institutions to ensure they provide a quality of education … and do not defraud the public. … It is not WASC’s role to dictate bylaws changes, determine who is on the board, or to dictate how personnel decisions will be made.”
Clearly, accrediting bodies have operated in a wider frame of reference than Peabody defines. Atlantic Union College lost its accreditation not because of issues related to the quality of education it has provided, but because of financial issues in the institution and the union conference that sponsored it. But this wider framework may not be something that the denomination should accept. “Threats to remove accreditation [and] the Seventh-day Adventist Church … can and must challenge WASC when it exceeds its authority,” he wrote.
Peabody stated that WASC has failed to demonstrate why having the same board chair at LSU and Pacific Union College presents a conflict of interest. He also expressed his view that “the proposed bylaw changes will weaken the influence of the … Church over all of its institutions of higher education [and] the entire church in North America needs to be concerned.” He has experience with issues of this kind, serving as a staff attorney with the Church State Council in the California state capital from 2004 through 2008, and currently a partner at the Bradford & Barthel law firm.
The proposed changes in the section specifying the role of the university board does shorten the list of functions and delete a sweeping statement which authorizes it “to order and control all affairs and business.” But it also introduces new language that has not been present in the past, empowering the board to “ensure proper implementation of the University’s mission and major policies, and to ensure that the University’s mission and policies are aligned with the goals, philosophy and objectives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
“I think this is a classic conflict over how much detail does the board gets its hands into,” a retired church administrator told Adventist Today. “Do you see yourself in a role similar to the proprietor of a small business and feel like, ‘I want to be able to fire someone if they go too far.’ Or, do you see yourself as part of a larger body that focuses on large issues and leaves the hiring and firing and related things to managers that you appoint?”
Other observers have told Adventist Today that this is primarily an issue about trust. “There has been a lot of distrust sown around La Sierra,” said an alumnus. “It is too bad. I think this would be something that could easily be hammered out in a committee if it were not for the level of distrust that has been created by these independent ministries and the horrible things they have said.” It is rare that amending the bylaws results in more than a few yawns at a constituency meeting.