Oakwood Personnel Cuts Reveal Troubling Trend in Adventist Higher Education

Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education in North America is in trouble, as yesterday’s announcement of personnel reduction at Oakwood University reveals.

Adventist Review News Editor Andrew McChesney wrote Thursday that the Hunstville, Alabama institution announced a plan to eliminate 46 positions in order to save $2.8 million in the near term, and an estimated $11 million over the next five years.

On Friday morning, Oakwood University President Dr. Leslie Pollard delivered the institution’s first ever virtual town hall meeting from the Peters Media Center on the Oakwood campus. In the broadcast, which was streamed on Livestream and Periscope, Pollard spoke about the university’s recent successes, and then responded to questions from virtual audience members. Conspicuously absent from his remarks was direct mention of the university’s budget and personnel cuts.

“One of the things that keeps us going here at Oakwood is the wonderful quotation by Mrs. Ellen G. White,” Dr. Pollard said as he opened the virtual meeting. “She said, ‘We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history.’”

Pollard said Ellen White’s statement “speaks to the comfort and the confidence, as we look back at the history of Oakwood University, of how God has blessed us.” He cited renovations and additions to the university, including the women’s dormitory, a $2M gift for a new wellness facility, and the completion of the Peters Media Center as examples.

After listing a few other bright spots for the university, Pollard took questions from online viewers.

The first question pertained to enrollment. “Given what’s happening in Adventist Education, how do you plan to increase your enrollment?” Pollard read from a screen.

“Something is happening in higher education in North America,” he said.

“Across the last five years, there are some alarming and disturbing trends that are getting in the way of, I believe, Adventist Higher Education.”

Pollard said that during that time, the Adventist Church’s thirteen institutes of higher education in North America have seen a combined 15% loss in enrollment. “That’s a cause of deep concern for those [interested in] advancing the mission of Adventist Higher Education,” Pollard said.

Pollard also noted that 2015 alone saw a 5.2% enrollment decrease “across the board, a loss of about 662 students collectively.”

The president offered his explanation for the decline. “Adventist Education is tied to how the church performs in other areas. Evangelism and Church growth is the basis for Adventist education.”

Pollard suggested that a decreased emphasis on evangelism can be blamed, at least in part, for the slide in enrollment. He called for a commitment from local conferences and churches to “grow the base of people, thereby growing the pipeline for Seventh-day Adventist Education.”

To help buoy enrollment, Pollard said that Oakwood has increased its recruiting team, and has commissioned faculty and staff to participate as “first-person recruiters.”

“We’re keeping Seventh-day Adventist Education at Oakwood extremely affordable,” Pollard said, noting the university’s flat tuition rates for the past two years. Oakwood University’s website currently touts a report from the BestValueSchools.com website that named Oakwood the 13th best value of colleges and universities in Alabama for 2015.

Pollard named a range of other initiatives aimed at keeping the university affordable and attractive for prospective students.

A second virtual audience member voiced a similar concern: “How will Oakwood move away from tuition dependence?”

Pollard responded that Oakwood in its inception was a self-reliant institution. “I believe God is moving us through these times of hardship toward being independent and self-reliant,” he said.

Pollard referred to the university’s “Industry Recovery Strategy,” which is to take businesses deemed “mission compatible” with Oakwood and place them in main thoroughfares in and around Huntsville to generate revenue for the university. The Edible Arrangements franchise is one such example.

Pollard spent 45 minutes addressing audience member questions, then offered a final statement thanking viewers for keeping Oakwood University “in the center of your prayer life.” He added, “We are seeing spiritual warfare at Oakwood campus at a level that I believe is rare.”

“By the way, finances are never the problem with the people of God,” Pollard said in closing.

Oakwood’s budget and staff reductions are not unique among Adventist colleges and universities in North America. Andrews University, on the heels of three years of declining enrollment, has undergone two rounds of budget cuts at the recommendation of its board.

Atlantic Union College closed in 2011 over its financial problems and a loss of accreditation. It reopened in 2015 after hiring Dr. Avis Hendrickson as its president in a bid to regain accreditation. It offered B.A degrees in Religion/Theology, and a B.S. in Health Sciences/Biology. Dr. Hendrickson noted in a Spectrum interview that the college needed more students to survive. 2016 will provide a critical test of the institution's viability.

Many Adventist institutions are relying heavily on adjunct faculty members—who receive far less pay and no benefits—in order to remain in good financial shape. That reliance on contract teachers is not unique to Adventist schools. The Atlantic wrote about the problem, which has made it harder and harder for adjunct faculty members to make ends meet. Their story, published in September, was called “There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.”

For Adventist education, enrollment drops and financial stability plague leaders at all levels. Dr. Larry Blackmer, the North American Division Vice President for Education, told delegates at the 2015 Year-end Meeting that during his time in charge of the Education Department, the division has lost a net 271 schools, equating to some 16,000 students. Perhaps the most notable of those losses was Mt. Vernon Academy, the denomination’s oldest boarding academy in operation, which announced its closure in 2015 after a long period of mismanagement and insolvency.

The North American Division is mulling consolidation plans on a number of levels, not least of all the prospective restructuring of the division itself. This era within the North American Division seems likely to be characterized by belt tightening and consolidation, even as Adventist membership in the Global South accelerates.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7270
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according to the mcchesney review article, at least three different outside consultants had asked why an institution the size of oakwood had so many employees, which leads one to suspect the announced cuts reflect an unsustainable over-hiring practice in the past…

but i think the big reason for a decline in adventist enrollment would have to be the cost…my impression is that most of our colleges charge a whopping $20,000.00 + per year now, which, over 4 yrs, even with one child, would be enough to bankrupt many families…and the fact that an undergrad degree doesn’t always lead to meaningful employment would add to the perception that the costs at our colleges are too high…

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Certainly past over-staffing shouldn’t be overlooked as a significant factor, but current drops in enrollment shouldn’t either.

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the fact that dropping enrollment is an issue in other adventist institutions shows that oakwood isn’t unique, and that it is the main consideration…i wonder if a churchwide survey of families with school-age children has been done to pinpoint the causes for the dropping enrollment…

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Walla Walla is almost 26,000 per year. Add room and board and it’s over 35,000.

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I appreciate Pollard’s linking mission/evangelism to education. However, if we see evangelism just as a means to increase the student base, we have missed the point of both, evangelism and education. Isn’t it time to view education a form of evangelism? (and I don’t mean to do evangelism and call it education!)… In other words: if tent meetings and “March of the Monsters” type of public evangelism no longer works - how about using at least some of the funds to better educate people? If education is such a high priority for the Adventist church, why not provide more financial help?

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It doesn’t’ take to much insight to figure this out. It’s way too expensive for one thing. So, one must incur 10’s of thousands of dollars of debt, or go to a public university. I don’t personally know any SDA’s who have the money to send their kids to one of our colleges without incurring a lot of debt. Denominational employees get a subsidy, so they have an advantage, but the rest of us are stuck with the bill. One partial solution, which is what our kids have done, is to get all the required stuff out of the way at a local community college. That saved thousands, and they were both able to enter the SDA college as Sophomores. But they will still be in debt when it’s all over.

I don’t know what the solution is, but if something doesn’t change, many of our institutions could go the way of AUC.

No one has yet given me a good explanation as to why the cost of education has so far outstripped the inflation rate. PUC was about $2000 when I was there 45 years ago. Now it’s around $32,000. If it had kept pace with inflation, it would be around $16,000 now. There is no excuse for this.

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Maybe it’s time for the highly profitable “right arm” of the gospel to assist its sister, Adventist education, more aggressively and generously. Perhaps Healthcare and education are the new partners in “evangelism thrust” rather than papering large cities with paperbacks. Adventist higher ed has provided health care with a high percentage of its highly paid leadership teams. Although it does provide internships, jobs and some scholarship support, they, too, would benefit from the synergy from closer financial collaboration.

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Cost is a significant factor, but there is a sinister underbelly that will affect the future of this church. Currently, there are families faced with the decision between lower-cost community colleges, schools offering larger scholarships, or the sacrifice of church school tuitions. They are opting out of the sacrifice for reasons mentioned in the article (lower investment value towards future employment), but a parallel is a statistically lower return for investment in those church school graduates who choose to remain in or serve the church, which was an original reason for the existence of church schools.

There are a number of church school alumni and their children who claim an unshakeable belief in God and His Word, but question the church’s relevance in their lives. In conversations with various ones with college-age children, they view the rules and regulations of the denomination and its schools as unnecessary and optional, not worth the tuition investment or “trauma” for their child to get ahead in life. I dare say that if our focus as a denomination was to religiously adhere to the real two commandments (love God, love each other) instead of the exclusive pride of the 10 (and particularly the 4th), our schools’ relevance would be obvious.

I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water and eliminate standards. I am saying that from my vantage point in a corner of North America, our reputation as a denomination needs an alignment. Recent media attention demonstrates we’re known as Sabbatarians, more healthy, cultish and sectarian (re EGW) and possibly not Christian, traditional and conservative (which can be code-speak for homophobic, racist, chauvinist—you get the picture), a bit eccentric (Ben!) but benign in community threat or influence. “Loving, caring people” is not usually the first descriptor and too frequently does not even grace the list, but “love one another” actually was the first commission, predating “go ye into all the world . . . .” Our schools already are primary evangelistic centers, and both schools and churches could take a more significant role if active alignment to loving God and humans is commonplace and supersedes ego.

Just a note: this sweeping generalization of our reputation may not hold for pockets of places where our members truly have been conduits of God’s grace to their community, and I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the reprobates!

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Related: demographic reports from the North American Division’s Education Task Force during the October 2015 Year-end Meeting revealed that nearly 70% of Adventist households live on a combined household income of $49,999 or less (with nearly 40% making LESS than $25,000 annually).


Source: 2015 North American Division Education Task Force Report

So while Dr. Pollard’s statement that “Finances are never the problem with the people of God” seems intended to encourage trust in God’s provision and in available financial aid, the statistics suggest that particularly with the people of God, finances are at least part of the problem.

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“Finances are never the problem” if you believe in student loans. I attended SDA schools from K thru professional school (LLUSD), and despite 70% tuition subsidy for undergrad exited with $176K student loan 20+ years ago. I was single when I graduated and wanted to sign up for a mission service term, but was denied because I wouldn’t be able to pay my student loan debt while being a missionary dentist. Relying on student loans to finance our young people at our schools is criminal. A bachelors degree today can cost nearly as much as my graduate degree did 20 years ago, and yet has much less earning potential in today’s market. The average graduate with a bachelors degree will earn $770K over their working lifetime. Saddling them with over !100K in debt at the beginning of their career is wrong.

Now look at what the LDS church does. Tuition for a non-LDS student is $5150/year. Bowever they’re doing it, we need to do it, too. Student loans are the most onerous form of debt we can possibly incur for our children and we need to stop asking our young people to take them on.

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From the beginning, we have treated SDA private education as the public educational system of the Church. Costs were kept as low as possible with the tithe subsidy functioning as the endowment. Students could work their way through in many cases and parents had no access to government loans.

Once government money became available and costs skyrocketed, we could not ensure that every Adventist student who wanted a Christian education would be supported enough to get one without borrowing government money. So the borrowing began as a trickle and became a flood. Debt piled up for families and students who could not afford to repay it, especially if that indebtedness forced a dropout who then had no earning power without the degree. The graduation rate from some of our colleges is horrifyingly low (it’s not very admirable from nonSDA colleges either).

And, with so many campuses who replicate buildings and services at a high cost per student, we have avoided mergers and economies of scale since local unions do not wish to lose “their” college. They seem to feel better if it must close for financial exigency rather than merge for the same reason. We used to recruit with the argument that small classes provide a better learning environment for students; hence, keep our schools small. Other colleges and universities (even those like Harvard with many billions in their endowment) happily offered classes with 3-400 students in them taught by outstanding professors aided by numerous teaching assistants (we are talking undergraduate–graduate is different). Now, with online learning and technology that can livestream lectures to students in their personal space or check on the lecture later when more convenient, we are Model T’s trying to compete with modern automobiles.

We need a long-term study/summit to rethink everything we do and why we do it. This is only going to get worse. Reducing staff and working harder to recruit is at best a bandaid over a gaping, potentially fatal, wound.

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This amount, which is true for others, doesn’t even mention what is taken out for taxes, etc. Some of the lower income families may not pay taxes, but for those that do, your take home pay is even less.

I’m also curious how the income info was obtained? Were surveys sent out to members asking about income amounts?

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I don’t remember hearing the discussion of the report’s data gathering methodology (I might have simply missed it, or they might not have said). But what I can say is that the data was collected by a group of very capable researchers and administrators. I wouldn’t think the data would be suspect in any way, but it would be interesting to hear more about the way the data was gathered.

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I took special note of this.

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We need to consider demographic and social changes since Adventist colleges and academies were created in the 19th and early 20th century. More than a dozen colleges were situated in most of the union conferences because it took several days’ travel (usually by rail) to reach the college. Similarly, (usually) one boarding academy was established in a conference (often the size of a state), first because that’s what the conference and its members could afford to build, and, again, travel time across a state was an arduous and expensive undertaking. Neither of these situations apply today. Travel is easier and less expensive, and parents are less inclined to send their students across a state to live in a boarding academy when there are often full academies, or at least 10-grade schools, in their local communities. The “winnowing” of institutions like AUC and Mt. Vernon Academy will probably continue in the future–angering alumni and traditionalists alike. However, the denomination in North America would probably be better served by four or (at most) five strong universities, and many fewer healthy secondary schools.

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Thanks for your reply. I didn’t think it was suspect, or anything like that. Just wondered when and how they questioned the members.

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I would imagine that a similar article could be written about SAU. Three consecutive years of declining enrollments. Bloated staffing that needs to be cut. Tuition costs inexplicably increasing faster than inflation. Scrapped white elephant projects and programs not essential to the core mission. Difficulty in finding a replacement for the current retiring President no doubt because the controlling Union is theologically one of the leading backwaters of Adventism in the NAD.

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Birder, look up Baumol’s cost disease.

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Adventist education in the US will continue to decline with the current strategy. High schools are struggling and the current governance appear to be operating as business as usual. These are the feeders to the tertiary and it is inevitable that numbers will decline. There is leadership within the NAD that sent their children to public school when they lived a couple of miles within a large Adventist high school. Ironically when their children went to college, they choose Adventist ones as 80% of the fees were subsidized. When the leadership have minimal personal investment in education other than tradition it’s hard to see any significant change. High school numbers will continue to decline and Adventist education will continue to offer a sub standard product. We are all party to this tragedy and it’s sad.

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