The General Conference has circulated a five page discussion draft of a new policy on board independence at Seventh-day Adventist tertiary educational institutions. The document emphasizes that board independence does not mean independence from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its mission, and its educational policies:
Boards of trustees function as stewards of the institution and are given authority to govern within the context of Seventh-day Adventist identity, doctrine, and educational purpose. Board independence therefore must not be interpreted as freedom to disregard denominational interests, policies or goals for higher education. Nor is it the liberty to lead the institution in a direction that runs counter to what the Church intends through its educational institutions.
For Seventh-day Adventists, board independence functions within rather than outside of a prior commitment to the Church and its mission. Broadly stated, board independence is the constituency's confidence and expectation that the board, relying upon its own processes and commitments to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and to quality education, will ensure that the operations of the institution serve the educational mission of the Church and provide practical benefit to the community and the world. Boards must earn and maintain the respect and trust of their constituencies by demonstrating accountability to denominational identity in education, to quality in student learning outcomes, to regulatory agencies and to the needs of society.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has lately been hinting that even denominational schools must be independent from their sponsoring denominations. In a letter to Randal Wisbey, WASC President Ralph Wolff stated:
WASC Standards of Accreditation call for institutions affiliated with or supported by religious organizations to have "education as their primary purpose and [operate] as an academic institution with appropriate autonomy.’ Institutions are expected to have a history free of ‘interference in substantive decisions or educational functions by … bodies outside the institution’s own governance arrangements." (July 5, 2011 letter from Ralph Wolff of WASC to Randal Wisbey)
The 2013 WASC policy manual contains a section titled “Policy on Independent Governing Boards," WASC states, “A general principle of governance is that an educational institution’s board and administration should preserve their independence from donors, elected officials, and external parties, such as ‘related entities’ described above.” Elsewhere, it states that, “A related entity may be a . . . religious sponsor . . .” WASC is thus saying that a higher educational board must preserve its independence from its sponsoring denomination.
There seems to be conflict here. WASC contends that a higher education board must be autonomous and independent from the institution’s sponsoring denomination, but the General Conference policy on tertiary educational boards states that such boards must govern within the context of Seventh-day Adventist identity, doctrine, and educational purpose, and board independence must not be interpreted as freedom to disregard denominational interests, policies or goals for higher education.
WASC has complained about—and the proposed bylaw changes are designed to address—the fact that both Pacific Union College and La Sierra University are affiliated with the Pacific Union, and therefore Pacific Union president Ricardo Graham is ex officio chair of the board of both schools. WASC has even hinted that there is a conflict with having the president of an organizational unit of a church serve as chairman of a college board:
Concerns can arise when the board chair is responsible to a related entity, such as a religious institution, or serves as chair of more than one educational institution. The board chair has a special leadership role, for example, in setting agendas, making appointments, and leading discussions, and therefore can wield more influence than other board members. Whatever loyalties the board chair may have to other entities, the board chair must act in the best interests of the educational institution when acting as board chair. . . . Finally, a serious potential conflict exists if one person serves simultaneously as board chair of two institutions of higher education, which may be competing for students, faculty, and/or resources; therefore this practice is discouraged and will be subject to careful scrutiny by teams. (WASC “Policy on Independent Governing Boards,” emphasis added.)
The GC document deals directly with this issue, as follows:
The Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes, with certain limitations, that a trustee may serve simultaneously on more than one board. General Conference policy outlines the following framework for persons serving on multiple boards: “Because of the common objectives embraced by the various organizational units and institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, membership held concurrently on more than one denominational committee or board does not of itself constitute a conflict of interest provided that all the other requirements of the policy are met. However, an officer, trustee, or director serving on an organization’s board is expected to act in the best interest of that organization and its role in denominational structure.
Thus, whatever WASC thinks about Ricardo Graham chairing two college boards, it does not violate General Conference policy.
It cannot be a coincidence that the GC released this document two weeks prior to the scheduled vote on proposed La Sierra bylaw changes. Clearly, the GC is acutely aware of the vote on May 23rd and is weighing in with a repudiation of WASC's views on board autonomy. The church leaders in Silver Spring are awake at the switch, so to speak.
A confrontation between WASC and the Adventist Church has clear religious liberty implications. Secular accreditation authorities exist to ensure that educational institutions achieve a basic standard of educational and academic competence, so that the public is not defrauded and public financial aid to education is not diverted into fraudulent enterprises. Secular accreditors have no authority to decree that religiously-affiliated or pervasively sectarian schools must be autonomous from their denominations. WASC is now essentially arguing that that a denomination can found, but cannot actually govern, a tertiary educational institution. WASC's aggressive position sets up a potential First Amendment Freedom of religion lawsuit.
WASC's position vis-a-vis La Sierra and other Seventh-day Adventist is complicated by the fact that it has a former Adventist minister and a former Adventist college president on its staff. Richard Winn is the Executive Director of WASC. Winn is a former Adventist minister who left the church over doctrinal differences. At an Adventist Society of Religious Studies meeting in November, 2011, Winn argued that Adventist institutions such as our colleges need to accommodate “cultural Adventists,” i.e., “Adventists” who reject the church's doctrines but still appreciate the sociological and sub-cultural aspects of Adventist life. He is now in a position to implement his stated ideology. Additionally, Richard Osborn is a Vice President of WASC; he was president of Pacific Union College between 2001 and April, 2009, when Osborn and the PUC board reportedly reached an amicable agreement that he step aside. Osborn's current feelings toward Elder Graham and the Seventh-day Adventist Church are not known.
I have pointed out elsewhere that it is inconceivable that WASC would be taking its current intrusive stance without assurance from LSU insiders that no legal action will be taken against WASC. Randal Wisbey has obviously been complaining to WASC of interference from the larger Seventh-day Adventist church. Possibly, Wisbey is finding a sympathetic ear among former denominational employees now working at WASC. Whatever has happened, the end result has been that WASC has recommended changes to the structure of the board that will allow greater autonomy of the university from the SDA church. Because of the disastrous precedent it would set, however, the church can ill afford to allow these changes to be voted under pressure from secular accreditors.