12 August 2018  |  The board chairs and top administrators of the 12 colleges and universities operated by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in the United States and Canada met in Chicago through the weekend, following a teachers’ convention last week that involved thousands of K-12 and higher education faculty from Adventist schools.

The “Summit on the Future of Adventist Higher Education” began Thursday evening with a keynote address by Dr. Richard Hart, president of Loma Linda University. It included reports on trends in higher education by several presenters on Friday, reflections on the fundamental purposes of Adventist education on Sabbath, and ended with setting goals for future collaboration on Sunday.

Of the 120 participants in the room during the Sunday-morning meeting, 93 percent voted to approve a statement entitled “The Chicago Declaration.” It summarized the foundational purposes of Adventist education, the current realities that are squeezing higher education institutions, and suggested both innovations and collaborative steps that could assure a future for the Adventist colleges and universities.

Specific action steps voted as part of the declaration leave it to the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU) to develop the way forward. The presidents were asked to begin ongoing conversations with their boards, faculty and other interested parties this fall. A representative group will meet at the time of the North American Division annual meeting in November to refine the document and propose additional action steps.

There was a sense of urgency among the participants, stated an Adventist Today reporter at the meeting. They “wish for more than collaboration, but do not want a unilateral merger.” A “strategic alliance” is the key concept. “In this alliance, they want to reduce the debt burden on students, provide much more support to faculty to use cutting edge learning tools, establish greater collaboration between online learning and campus learning, reduce barriers to credit toward degrees, and provide better accesses to internships and preparation for employment after graduation. If the stakeholders trust each other, there is optimism something will really be accomplished.”

The issue of merger was raised by Spectrum magazine, the journal of the largest organization of Adventist academics, even before the meeting. On the Tuesday before the meeting, the journal published an interview with Dr. Gordon Bietz, the NAD associate director of education for higher education and the key organizer of the Summit. It characterized an early draft of the Declaration as “a proposal to effectively merge” the colleges and universities “by creating an Adventist University System of North America,” despite the fact that Bietz immediately said that the suggestion was “beyond what I read in the declaration” draft.

Bietz pointed out to Spectrum that “functioning like a system through various collaborations doesn’t mean ‘merger’ because each campus is independently operated. There are a lot of things we can do in a collaborative fashion without losing autonomy and without merging.”

Failure to change and find better ways to deal with the needs of Adventist families and young people could result in the closure of more institutions. The example of Atlantic Union College (AUC) was in the minds of all the participants. As Adventist Today has reported, AUC lost its accreditation because of an unsustainable level of debt. Attempts have been made to keep it open despite lack of accreditation, but those have failed despite a small group that continues to hold onto the concept of continuing some form of activity in the name of one of the oldest Adventist colleges.

Presentations about the current realities in higher education included Tim Fuller, a well-known consultant to colleges and universities; Brooke Hempell, an education researcher at the Barna Group; Richard Osborn, a veteran Adventist educator who is now vice president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting agency in the western United States; Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University; and Vinita Sauder, president of Union College. Dr. George Knight, the respected historian of the Adventist movement and retired professor at Andrews University, spoke on Sabbath morning about “What Matters Most in an Adventist Education.”

The full text of the declaration as it was voted follows.

Chicago Declaration: The Future of Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education

The relevance of Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education: Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, practices and world view have never been more needed in today’s world. A world too often filled with filled with emptiness, insecurity and restlessness needs the revelation of God’s character in the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ. A world torn apart with senseless acts of violence needs to know that the battles we face in this world are a small part of a much-bigger conflict. People who are divided within themselves and among themselves need to be guided toward the restoration of relationships with God and fellow human beings. People stressed out in the pursuit of production and consumption, addicted to devices and medicators, need the blessed peace that can be found in a genuine experience of the Sabbath. A world that is deteriorating needs to re-discover healing for both people and planet that is possible through a plant-based diet. A world that lives in fear of death and global catastrophe needs a blessed hope of the return of Jesus and the ultimate healing of the nations. Considering these facts, Seventh-day Adventist higher education has never been as essential as it is now.

In light of the following realities: (1) Declining population of traditional college/university student population; (2) Decreasing financial capacity of many SDA families to afford private higher education; (3) Decreasing willingness to borrow to finance a private education; (4) Extraordinary increases in costs of providing a traditional college/university experience over the past 25 years; (5) Increasing availability of competitive educational modalities that no longer require a residential campus [e.g., free community college, online degrees, subscription-based programs]; (6) Employer expectations for competency-based education; (7) The closure of Seventh-day Adventist schools in both the K-12 and higher educator sectors, and (8) the lack of a supportive structures between the Seventh-day Adventist K-12 and higher education entities in our division.

We share a commitment to shape a strategic alliance, consisting of a coalition of the willing, with the goal of first piloting and then evaluating the efficacy of an eventual higher education system. We intend for this to result in a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts as demonstrated by, at least, the following five key success objectives: [To be developed.]

While designing mutual-growth synergies, we will remain cognizant of the need for and significance of (1) A robust Seventh-day Adventist identity; (2) Local university identity; (3) Local union conference ownership; (4) The authority and role of college or university boards of trustees; (5) Alumni support of individual institutions; (6) Providing top-quality education; (7) Local, national, professional and regional accreditation; and (8) Partnership with the K-12 system.

Toward accomplishing the above objective, the Adventist Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) will guide the following steps:

  1. Each college/university president will facilitate an ongoing conversation this calendar year (2018) about the Chicago Declaration that includes his or her board of trustees, faculty and campus community.
  2. As the conversations in step one begin/occur, AACU will establish a creative team to outline a way forward in the strategic process when the AACU executive meets at the 2018 North American Division Year-End Meeting.
  3. By the end of this calendar year (2018), each campus will select a campus coordinator to encourage the ongoing campus conversations and to serve as a liaison between each campus and the creative team.

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