Chicago Declaration Affirmed at Adventist Higher Education Summit

Attendees were abuzz at breakfast on the final day of “The Future of Adventist Higher Education: Chicago Summit 2018” about the vote that would happen in just a few hours.

Since Thursday, August 9, through today, Sunday, August 12, the over 200 attendees at the Summit had heard from presenters and engaged in discussion with each other about the possibility of an overarching Adventist University System. Individuals in leadership at Adventist colleges and universities, conferences, unions, and the North American Division all attended to contribute to the conversation on whether an alliance among the higher ed institutions should be formed, and what concerns and questions were involved in that decision.

Sunday represented a half day of meetings, and after breakfast we jumped right in with NAD President Dan Jackson facilitating a panel discussion with Gary Thurber, president of the Mid-America Union; John Freedman, president of the North Pacific Union; Joy Fehr, provost at La Sierra University; Bradford Newton, Board of Trustees chair at Pacific Union College and executive secretary of the Pacific Union Conference; Mark Johnson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada; and Larry Moore, president of the Southwestern Union.

The panel had 45 minutes to reflect on the four days of meetings. Several shared the personal ways Adventist education had touched their own lives and the desire to see future generations have that same opportunity to grow, not just in knowledge but in relationship with Christ and the Adventist Church. More than one said they would not be sitting in this room today without the experience they had and the Adventist teachers who changed their lives.

Newton admitted he’d come to the meetings skeptical and was surprised to find himself now on board. “Our costs are inaccessible to the vast majority of our members...we need to do something different...what can we do together to move the curve toward affordability? Access, not only to our own members, but to the communities we’re trying to serve?” he asked.

Freedman shared a quote his father used to say: “the best time to plant an oak tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant an oak tree is today.” We can’t wait much longer he told the audience, adding that “hope is not a strategy.” He concluded by saying that “the Adventist culture is not one of cooperation, it’s one of individualism” and we need to do better if we are to succeed.

Each panelist echoed the need for a spirit of collaboration. Fehr said, “I truly believe in the strength of working together...we’re truly stronger as a group…” Freedman added to this by saying, “There’s nothing we can’t do when we work together under the Holy Spirit…[but] we can’t do nothing.”

Thurber said that, “Adventist education is paramount to our church’s mission and growth, but it is not a given that we’ll always have it.” He reminded the audience that there was a time in our history when no one could imagine the church without its colporteur program, and there was a time we couldn’t imagine the church without Review & Herald Publishing, but both are gone now. We need to make changes now so the same thing doesn’t happen to Adventist education down the road. “Change is hard but it can be a beautiful and wonderful thing,” he concluded.

Moore closed out the panel by saying something substantive needs to be done. “I hate to say more meetings, but I think unless our college leadership and our union leadership get together to take stock of what we’re doing, nothing is going to happen...but to do that we’re going to have to sacrifice some time and some funds. We can’t have a meeting every five years and hope for the best.”

The rest of the morning was spent discussing the new draft of the Chicago Declaration which had been revised based on audience feedback over the past days. Much of the more specific language had been removed, as well as the timeline, and the declaration now stood at a simple one page (down from over three pages previously):

Joretta Nelson, a senior vice president and owner of Credo, led the final discussion on the declaration that would occur before the vote. Nelson was a friendly face for many in the audience, as Credo is a consulting firm for several of the Adventist colleges and universities. She said that she’s worked with 150 or so schools over the years, but “every time I get to work with one of your schools, I am touched so deeply [because] I can call out from you something deeper than yourselves.” She added, “We work with a lot of places without hope but that is not you. You have hope. You just need to act like it!”

Nelson gave the following assignment:

“Imagine the 2030 press release you would write about the outcomes of a fully realized higher education system. What is the evidence that such a system has addressed the needs explicated in this summit?”

Unlike previous days, where the seating assignments were more sporadic, today the tables were grouped by institution so each school could confer among themselves before sharing publicly with the entire group. As an alumna of Andrews University, I was invited to sit at their table where President Andrea Luxton and Provost Christon Arthur led out in an energetic discussion with the group of nearly 20 representatives from Andrews.

Each school chose its top five answers to Nelson’s question and submitted them via the app. Once all the schools had submitted their top five, and the moderators had removed any duplicates, attendees were left with 42 answers that ran the gamut from higher enrollment and retention rates, to customized degrees and job placement for students, to more mentoring and better training for faculty, to affordability, and building all courses on a biblical foundation.

Next, Nelson asked participants to read silently through the Chicago Declaration and then confer with each other on what they liked and what they’d still like to see. Attendees at the Andrews table appreciated the slimmed down version of the declaration and that much of the rigidity had been removed.

Once the tables finished their discussions, Nelson then asked that everyone go vote on the app for their top five answers, while keeping in mind the spirit of the Chicago Declaration they’d just read. Those answers, as chosen by the group were:

  1. Make Adventist Education affordable so that kids whose families make less than $50,000 per year can afford to go to Adventist schools.
  2. Faculty support: System wide support through a Teaching & Learning Center that focuses on pedagogy, modalities...also discipline teams, research teams.
  3. Meaningful and measurable preparation for and successful internships during studies and employment after graduation based on industry perspectives and needs.
  4. One division platform for Online Education.
  5. Customized degrees enriched through micro-credentialing, badging, and competences-based learning.

One individual pointed out that none of these spoke to what George Knight had called for yesterday — maintaining the uniqueness of Adventist education for the students. Nelson said that she felt the Chicago Declaration as a whole — the spirit of the document — spoke to this concern in an overarching way, and the audience gave their general consensus to this.

Finally, it was time for the vote. Attendees were asked to vote either yes or no to the following statement through the app:

“I affirm the strategic alliance concept as outlined in the 2018 Chicago Declaration.”

Of 121 responses, 93% voted yes and 7% voted no. Gordon Bietz asked if everyone had voted, because there were over 200 attendees to the Summit (though several had to leave earlier in the weekend and weren’t present for the vote). One attendee shouted out that he didn’t have the app, but he was voting yes verbally.

With overwhelming support, the Chicago Declaration was affirmed. The audience then gave a heartfelt standing ovation to Bietz, who was instrumental in the creation of the document and in organizing the Summit.

With the vote official and much to do to move forward with the concept of alliance, questions turned to the best way of disseminating the information to the masses. Bietz told the audience that within the coming weeks, all of the presentations would be made available on the Adventist Learning Community, an open source platform, primarily for pastors and educations, but that anyone can access.

Another attendee said this was great for everyone in the room, but how would regular members find out what was discussed here? Larry Blackmer said that he was sure the official Adventist press, like the Adventist Review would be reporting, but the attendee said the members she knows — especially the young members — do not read the Review. Blackmer said Adventist Journey, the NAD’s publication, would undoubtedly feature a story too, but the attendee was undeterred, saying the young people don’t read that either.

Blackmer, appearing slightly exasperated and amused, said finally, “well then they’ll read about it in Spectrum!” which resulted in much laughter and a few of cheers.

So, what happens now? Bietz and Blackmer were both clear throughout the Summit that this is just the beginning. But it is a promising start. With 93% of attendees, representing the various schools, conferences, and unions in the North American Division affirming the Chicago Declaration, the path has opened for an alliance that could mean Adventist higher education has a future, and that future is bright.

Read a summary of Day 1 here. Read a summary of Day 2 here. Read a summary of Day 3 here. Read an interview with Gordon Bietz here.

Alisa Williams is managing editor of

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Well reported, Alisa, and many thanks!

John Freedman, president of the North Pacific Union, made for me the telling observation: “The Adventist culture is not one of cooperation, it’s one of individualism” and went on to say we need to do better if we are to succeed, Alisa…

It is something of a fundamental (miss?) belief that God created the world and all who dwell on the earth, but will in the end confer eternal life on a small subset of creation who (evolved to?) justly deserve life. This seems the underlying impetus to the downside of individualism.

When we come to live in the hope that by one man sin and with it death has become the existential fate of each human, and that by one man, Jesus Christ, upon his resurrection has replaced death with life as humanity’s inheritance, we inescapably will see ourselves in the other, including, of course, Seventh-day Adventists all.

The Chicago Declaration is a healthy sense that we are all in this together.


Once the tables finished their discussions, Nelson then asked that everyone go vote on the app for their top five answers, while keeping in mind the spirit of the Chicago Declaration they’d just read. Those answers, as chosen by the group were:

  • Make Adventist Education affordable so that kids whose families make less than $50,000 per year can afford to go to Adventist schools.

This seems to be the chief concern (rightfully so, IMO), so it surprises me that there was no push-back to the assertion that there have been “extraordinary increases in costs of providing a traditional college/university experience over the past 25 years.” Twenty-five years is roughly the length of time I have been out of college, and while I don’t have the exact numbers, AFAIK the cost increase at my alma mater (Walla Walla) over that period is roughly 100%. Why is there no discussion of the root causes of this increase? Very little of it has gone to professors’ salaries. Shouldn’t there be a pie-chart breakdown of the primary cost drivers and how we might address them?

All I seem to hear at alumni presentations by SDA university administrators are that (1) the cost is still worth it, and (2) our tuition/fee inflation is in line with peer institutions. This may be entirely true, but it is not particularly helpful for Adventist students and their families staring down tens of thousands of $$ in student-loan debt. I submit that our failure to buck this nationwide trend represents a colossal failure on our part, and I would like to see an analysis of what went wrong and how we can improve the situation going forward.

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It does speak to an elephant in the room-that of how poorly our “official media” is viewed and received in the pews, and how the seemingly better received and perhaps relevant “unofficial” journals (primarily Spectrum and AToday) are received by the laity but roundly dissed from the pulpits.

I’m not about to suggest either “ditch” is fake news, but will ask how does the church look when it begins to depolarize the imbroglio between the aisles instead of trying to leverage some theological capital. What do I mean? Well, I will suggest our corporate predilection for mismanaging important issues such as “scholarly latitude” vs “trust/loyalty oaths” (or that other taboo subject so poorly covered in church official publication, gender equality) may doom La Sierra. LSU has starred in the last two acts of that play “literal YEC” vs “evolution”, and interestingly seems to be one of the most, if not the highest scoring with regards to solvency, costs, and profit. This golden goose may be sacrificed, for what, more pate de foie gras for some more theologically conservative but financially unsustainable institutions, ones just a half dozen or so years back had no compunction to vilify and deny LSU even common courtesies and benefits?

I for one am uncertain that this declaration is the harbinger of a future for religiously over-controlled institutions of higher inculcation.

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I fully agree with you. I saw this clearly at the institution where I taught for 32 years. The increases in tuition were caused by the need to compete by having more “comfortable” dorms, more up-to-date sports facilities, a large recruiting team, a very large counseling center, a diverse employment office. Nothing to do with the actual education that took place in the classrooms and the library.


Thank you very much, Alisa, for this very informative report. I am impressed by the difference in the procedures used at this Conference and the way things are handled at the meetings organized by GC personnel, like the scandalous eschatology conference in Rome.

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The driving force behind this Declaration of Adventist Higher Education is to make Adventist education more affordable for Adventist families.

Here are the brutal, undeniable, compelling facts :

There are 4,140 colleges and universities in this country, if we include the two year community colleges.

Perusing the list of the top 200 (out of the 4,140) colleges graduating students with the most student debt, I find THREE SDA schools:


What an indictment of our system, when three of our thirteen NAD schools, outrank 3,940 other colleges in the nation with crippling student debt load !

That might be remotely acceptable, if our colleges had high rankings in ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE.

None of our schools ranked in the top two hundred for excellence of education, but three ranked in the top two hundred in creating crippling student debt.

Conversely, in the top one hundred colleges (of the 4,140)
that achieved the lowest student debt for its graduates,
two were small Baptist colleges,
and one was the Mormon Brigham Young University.

If these other religious colleges can achieve this affordability, why cannot we??.

NEW YORK UNIVERSITY (NYU) SCHOOL OF MEDICINE is now offering ALL present and future medical students FREE tuition for all four years of medical,school. This is regardless of whether they are financially able to pay their own costs. They will have to cover their living costs during those four years,

When will LOMA LINDA SCHOOL OF MEDICINE do the same ???


Good questions. I’ll make a few observations. 1). Some of our institutions have high numbers of international students that come financially unprepared for the costs of an American education and leave heavily indebted. That may be in play. 2) Many of our institutions do not have adequate endowments, which is the way private institutions help students defray the high costs. Church subsidies, in some instances, have also been reduced. 3) Consolidation and efficient delivery has often been missing. Some of our institutions are top-heavy on administration and have not maintained economically feasible student to teacher ratios. BYU is no doubt one of the lowest on debt because it represents a form of consolidated delivery for that faith group, rather than a regionalized form of delivery as with Adventists. The Chicago Declaration is, in my opinion, headed in a needed direction.

i wonder if it’s just church interests that factor in this discussion…towns like clinton and south lancaster, for instance, are probably minimal to nonexistent now that AUC has gone belly up…what has happened to housing prices since then…what about the many businesses in these towns that suddenly have no clientele, and have no realistic hope of rebuilding a new clientele…should the commonwealth of massachusetts have been consulted before the closure of AUC caused a drop in state tax income…

berries springs is basically an insignificant dot on the map without AU…should michigan state be tapped for the upkeep of an institution that is propping up property values and contributing to local businesses and, ultimately, state income…

2nd opinion,

You rightly state that


Well stated, because our regionalized form of delivery guarantees much duplication of services.

Furthermore, regionalization results in a plethora of smaller institutions which rack up costs due to duplicated administrations and plants

I have long advocated for one centralized Adventist University , but so many competing interests and protections of their own turf, make this sensible solution unlikely.

In the meantime Adventist youth should seek out the cheapest, nearest college / community college, with in state tuition, and minimal commuting costs.

Charismatic, youth orientated Adventist chaplains should be stationed in large metropolitan cities where many Adventist students attend public schools.

These chaplains could coordinate worship / entertainment/ dating experiences that would be a huge benefit to those students feeling isolated on large.non Adventist campuses.

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With all due respect for Dr Bietz et al, I find the idea dangerous. I see a GC chancellor and a vetting process for all faculty, staff, and administrators- to conform to a 19th century view as understood by Ted Wilson et al. Where will women faculty stand, particularly in some fields of study. What will happen to one who challenges Usshers/White chronology? There could be consequences!


Tom, me too. I see exactly this future.

How could that be really achieved? Where should the money come from, to pay wages and facilities and equipment?
I don’t see much problem with students getting loans and paying them off later on when many of them make literal fortunes. Why not? It’s THEIR education.

All my three kids got some loans and were proud to pay them off later on. Why not?

You are 100% right. There may be an hidden agenda on the part of the GC. Let’s not forget that the GC wants to micro-manage the Universities. Scary.

I sent you a private message, did you get it?
If not, please contact me via email,
Nothing about Spectrum, but important.

I did not get a private message call my sister Dr. Elizabeth Larsen at Loma Linda and give her the message. I don’t want to share my phone here,

Can you show Dr. Zwemer how to access his private mail here?

I guess a private message generates the same kind of email as any post here but never gets mixed with any public post. And it adds a temp number close to one’s avatar to inform that there is a private message.

Dr Zwemer,
Well, it’s Elaine Nelson who is looking for your sister’s email address, and asked me to ask you about it. I passed a copy of Elaine’s request via private message to you, but if you didn’t get it, the only option is for you to email me even if a blank page so that I can then send you Elaine’s message via email. Otherwise, well, Elaine will have to find another way to contact your sister. Will see…