A special visiting team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has commended La Sierra University for the considerable work the school has completed addressing concerns regarding university governance expressed by the regional accrediting association.Read More
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.
In a couple of days, fewer than 100 people will determine whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America will hold onto any of its tertiary educational institutions. The constituents of La Sierra University have been called to a special session this Thursday, February 21, where they will be asked to approve radical changes to La Sierra's bylaws that will loosen the University's connection to the Church. Under pressure from WASC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a sub-committee of La Sierra's Board of Trustees has drafted proposed bylaw changes that dilute church representation on the Board of Trustees, weaken the position of the Board chair, and transfer most of the Board's governing power to the president of the University.
The proposed bylaw changes ensure that lay Trustees will always outnumber church official Trustees; in fact, the provision regarding Board quorums is amended so that there is no quorum unless lay Trustees outnumber church officials. The new bylaws would make the office of board chair an elected office, elected by the other board members, and would prevent the Pacific Union president from ever serving as chairman, or vice chair, of the Board of Trustees, assuming that he continues to serve as chairman of the PUC Board of Trustees. The proposed bylaws also strengthen the position of vice-chair and make that officially a lay position.
These changes are in response to WASC's expressed desire for greater board autonomy, by which WASC means greater independence from the official Seventh-day Adventist Church. But all of our union-affiliated colleges' governing boards are set up exactly like La Sierra's: the union president is ex-officio chairman of the board, and all affiliated conference presidents are board members. No other secular accrediting organization has ever taken issue with this arrangement. But you can expect that, if La Sierra knuckles under to WASC's demands and approves these bylaw changes, all the other regional accrediting bodies will try to enforce similar demands of our other colleges. If sound educational policy demands an autonomous board in Southern California, then sound educational policy demands it in Northern California, Washington, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, and Maryland, as well. Eventually, and sooner than you think, all of our Adventist tertiary educational institutions will be Adventist in “heritage” only; they will no longer be governed by officers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
How did we get to this dangerous place?
We got here because some of “us” do not want our educational institutions to be governed by the Adventist Church, and are willing to go to great lengths to see that they aren't. This faction has long seen accreditation as a way to secularize Adventist tertiary education. They would love for the SDA Church to be forced to choose between a truly Adventist education, on the one hand, and secular accreditation with its prestige and government money, on the other. They constantly argue, on such blogs as Spectrum, that Adventist education cannot be truly Adventist and still maintain secular accreditation. Indeed, they argue that Adventist education cannot be real education, much less accredited education, unless it abandons the Adventist educational philosophy. For example, T. Joe Willey recently wrote at Spectrum:
Beyond governance issues and outside interference, how will Adventists come to terms with not just biology, but all of higher education? This will be problematic if the church’s traditionalists continue to maintain that Scriptural authority has absolute priority over history, science, psychology, social science, philosophy as well as theology — that it is infallible and cannot be circumvented and is above challenge by methodological naturalism or scientific data or evidence. If this policy is going to be used to cast off outside approvals or accreditation commissions . . . the church could then face closing down its academic colleges and universities [or] transforming them into unaccredited Bible colleges. Willey, “The Accreditation of La Sierra University: Tampering with Financial Consequences,” Spectrum, January 28, 2013.
So far, there is no real conflict between accreditation and upholding the Adventist philosophy of education, just a strong desire for such a conflict on the part of secularists within our midst. Secular accrediting associations understand that church schools exist to further the mission of the sponsoring denomination, which will sometimes include a different view of origins, among other things. Creationists in the Adventist Church and elsewhere want Darwinism taught and understood in our schools—indeed, we want our students to understand it better than students in state universities—but we want it taught and understood as a false theory of origins. The truth about our origins is set forth in the Word of God and in the inspired testimonies of Ellen White.
But although there is no genuine conflict between Adventist education and secular accreditation, certain ones so desperately want such a conflict to exist that they are willing to foment it. They are willing to make it actually happen. Which brings us back to the immediate situation at La Sierra.
Apparently, former La Sierra Trustee Lenny Darnell wrote to the WASC commission with responsibility for accrediting La Sierra and urged them to demand that the board structure be changed. Darnell managed to record himself saying, “And if there's any way that Lenny can figure out, there's gonna be a memo to the WASC commission that says that you need to demand that we dismantle this ex-officio structure, or these problems will never go away. And this needs to be . . . whatever language you want to use, you need to say that we're coming back in two years and it has to be different.”
Even if we didn't have a recording of Lenny Darnell planning to solicit WASC to demand the exact change to the structure of the Board of Trustees that WASC ultimately demanded, and that the constituents will be asked to vote on Thursday, it could easily be deduced that Randal Wisbey, or some intermediary working on his behalf, had contacted WASC and solicited bylaw changes, based upon the following facts:
- Denominational ownership has never before been seen as an impediment to secular accreditation.
- All of the union-affiliated Adventists colleges have governing boards set up exactly like La Sierra's: the union president is ex-officio chairman of the board and all affiliated conference presidents are board members. WASC is essentially decreeing that any sectarian school that is actually governed by the sect--as opposed to just loosely affiliated with a denomination--cannot receive secular accreditation. This is an astonishing position, and may well be a novel argument. As far as I am aware, no other secular accrediting organization has ever taken issue with our standard governing board structure.
- WASC would never say, “La Sierra, you're too tightly bound to your sponsoring denomination; make changes to your bylaws to loosen the connection” without knowing in advance that the suggestion would be agreeable. If the president, Board of Trustees, and the Pacific Union were all united on the present board structure, such a demand to re-structure the board would be expected to draw a lawsuit. Yet WASC made that demand of La Sierra because it had been assured that the administration wanted these board changes, and hence WASC would not be buying a lawsuit by demanding them.
- WASC would expect to lose such a lawsuit. When I've mooted this issue online, liberals argue that WASC has a free hand to bully colleges because accreditation is voluntary and a college can simply choose not to be accredited. This is a poor argument. Accreditation is effectively no longer voluntary; federal grant and loan aid depend upon accreditation, as does transferability of credits and use of a degree as a prerequisite for admission to graduate schools. Because accreditation is crucial to a college, it cannot arbitrarily be removed; an accrediting association cannot make unreasonable demands. If La Sierra sued, WASC would back down, but they never would have made this demand had La Sierra insiders not solicited it.
- Randal Wisbey resents efforts to interfere with La Sierra's inculcation of Darwinism. He allowed Louis Bishop to be disciplined three times for pointing out that La Sierra was undermining Seventh-day Adventist beliefs on origins, he demonizes those who, like the founders of Educate Truth, call attention to La Sierra's wrong teaching on origins, he has frustrated all efforts, internal and external, to address La Sierra's origins problem, he fired Lee Greer over Greer's rapprochement with Larry Blackmer on the origins issue, and he had three Trustees thrown off the Board for their efforts to address the problem. Wisbey wants these bylaw changes in order to put an end, once and for all, to any efforts by the Board of Trustees to address the origins issue. The proposed bylaw changes will put faculty, curriculum, and normal university operations far beyond the purview of the Board of Trustees.
- If the bylaw changes were really driven by WASC, they would address only WASC's stated concerns: the structure of the board and the close connection to the official Seventh-day Adventist Church. But the overwhelming majority of the bylaw changes take governing power away from the Board of Trustees and give it to the president. This is contrary to WASC's stated policy on governing boards. WASC intends for governing boards to have strong oversight and strong committees in such areas as finance and academic affairs, but these bylaw changes strip the Board of most of its power to in these areas. In fact, the bylaw changes strike out the committee names (Executive, Membership, Academic Affairs, Personnel, Student Life, Trusteeship, and Finance) because these Board committees will no longer be necessary—the Board will lose its governing authority in these areas. That most of the bylaw changes are contrary to WASC policies demonstrates that WASC was never the driving force behind the bylaw changes. This is a power grab. Randal Wisbey is seizing power from the Board of Trustees and from the Church.
Where do we go from here?
First, we go to California and defeat these bylaw changes. They will require a two-thirds majority to pass, and things are not so far gone that two thirds of the La Sierra constituency will vote for something that has the potential to divest the entire church in North America of its tertiary educational apparatus.
And make no mistake, we are playing for all the marbles. Some fourteen months ago, I was blogging with someone who seemed extremely knowledgeable about La Sierra, but who was using a pseudonym. He wrote:
Interestingly enough, the LSU bylaws are being rewritten under WASC's guidance as we speak. Presuming the "permanent" (ex-officio) board member positions including the automatic Chairmanship by the PUC President are eliminated or weakened would you expect the PUC to stand idly by and see their "ownership" of LSU diluted by a bothersome third party whom they see as the cause of their problems in the first place? Perhaps they will go to the courts to protect their investment and control.
On the question of how much WASC can interfere with curriculum and board structure, my answer is, not much. The strategy of using secular accreditation to effectively wrench La Sierra free of church control is too cute, and it won't work if the church is willing to sue WASC on First Amendment Freedom of Religion grounds. But, as I've said several times, if La Sierra even comes close to setting a bad precedent with WASC, we should close it down and sell the property.
As for how much WASC can interfere with board structure - isn't that what is happening[?] Quite a bit, it seems, if rumors are correct. WASC even visited the LSU campus a couple of months ago to lay out exactly the changes they are demanding. . . . In the end, I don't think the church will have the option of shutting down only LSU. I think it's going to be an all-in game. Accept accreditation and accept severe limits on church structural and functional control of the church's tertiary institutions in the U.S. or close them ALL down.
I have since come to believe that the person I was blogging with was Lenny Darnell, the same former La Sierra Trustee who said he would write WASC demanding that the ex-officio board structure be done away with. Lenny is wrong about La Sierra, and Adventist education, and Seventh-day Adventism, but he's right about one thing: This is an all-in game, one hand for all the chips on the table. We defeat these bylaw changes or we risk losing all of our colleges.