by Monte Sahlin

By AT News Team, September 29, 2014

Last week Oakwood University announced that its governing board has voted to ask for a change in its relationship to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. It has been attached directly to the denomination's General Conference (GC) or world body and if the change is approved it will become an institution sponsored by the denomination's North American Division.

The university is located in Huntsville, Alabama, and is a key institution among the historically black universities and colleges in the United States. Since its founding in 1896 its mission has been the education of African Americans, although it includes students and faculty of all races. It is fully accredited and currently has an enrollment of about 1,800 students.

The Adventist denomination has nearly 20 million members worldwide with only 1.3 million of those in North America. Because of the international nature of the denomination, there are 13 "divisions" that each function as governance jurisdictions for an entire continent or regional cluster of nations. The North American Division (NAD) includes the United States, Canada, Bermuda and U.S. possessions in the Pacific, Guam and Micronesia.

The university’s mission is more congruent with the NAD, where its activities are focused, than the GC. Its funding comes almost entirely from within the NAD. The black membership and the Regional Conferences will have greater influence in the university’s governance if it becomes an NAD institution.

This decision would also strengthen the NAD as an organization. Oakwood would be the first educational institution belonging to the NAD. It would join the Pacific Press, which was recently transferred from the GC to the NAD, as another major institution under the authority of the NAD.

The NAD has been an emerging organization within the denomination over the past three decades. Until 1985, it was “a legal fiction,” says one retired NAD officer. “It existed on paper, but not in reality.” At the 1985 GC Session, the bylaws were amended to remove language stating that the NAD had “a unique relationship” with the NAD and a process began for it to operate in the same way that other world divisions had been operating for some time. In 1990 the NAD began to operate a separate treasury from the GC. Since that time there have been a series of policy changes transferring more and more funds and functions from the GC to the NAD.

Most of the Adventist universities and colleges in North America belong to one of the union conferences. Two are affiliated with Adventist health ministries and three are GC institutions; Oakwood, Loma Linda University in California and Andrews University in Michigan.

The decision about Oakwood’s status will be finalized at an October 15 constituency meeting to be held in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the GC offices. It began about a year ago with recommendations from the Regional Conference Presidents’ Caucus. A Transition Taskforce was appointed at an April 20 meeting of the university’s governing board and it conducted an careful study of the issues involved, and it reported to an August 6 meeting of the governing board where the plan was approved.

Pastor Dan Jackson, president of the NAD, said the GC deserves praise for developing higher education for African Americans over more than a century and noted that it had acted on the advice of Ellen G. White, the most prominent co-founder of both the Adventist denomination and Oakwood.

“However, during the past decade the relationship and the affinity between Oakwood and the NAD has grown,” Jackson said. “We believe that the time has come for Oakwood University to take its rightful place within the North American Division family of institutions,” he said. “We say, ‘Welcome home!’”