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Barring appeal, Atlantic Union College to lose accreditation

'Financial reasons' cited; in interview, college president Wendth responds

Barring appeal, Atlantic Union College to lose accreditation

Atlantic Union College President Norman Wendth in an interview yesterday. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has decided to pull the accreditation of the 128-year-old institution for financial reasons. The school will appeal the decision. [photo: Sandra Blackmer]

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It's a challenging time for Adventist higher education in North America as 15 Adventist colleges and universities attempt to cooperate in building a system that offers thousands of students a high-quality, mission-driven Christian education at reasonable cost.

During the last 10 years, first one, then another of these schools has experienced significant growth or steep decline. Three weeks ago, news reports began circulating that Adventism's oldest college still on its original site -- Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts -- was struggling to retain its accreditation.

In an interview yesterday, AUC president Norman Wendth talked about challenges facing the 128-year old college.

Bill Knott: Many of us have heard news fragments during the last few weeks about difficult times at Atlantic Union College. You have access to the best information about the situation there. What can you tell me about the real situation of the college moving forward?

Norman Wendth: Well, there are always lots of rumors, but two that I'd particularly like to address. The first has to do with our accreditation. We are challenged on that front. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) has decided to pull our accreditation for financial reasons. I want to emphasize that their recommendation is not for academic reasons or for any other reason. The rumor is that this has already happened. In reality, there's a period of time for appeal, so we have the opportunity to change their minds. The truth is that we'll still be operating this upcoming school year. Yes, it's possible that AUC may lose its accreditation, and we are certainly making contingency plans. Most importantly, we're making certain that we can treat our students well. We've been in contact with other Adventist schools whose accreditation can pick up our students' credit: there won't be any danger to any student should the worst-case situation occur. We'll start the school year as an accredited institution, and we're expecting to have a strong appeal. If we're successful, then we'll be removed from this threat and be put back on full and regular accreditation. There's no probation in the wings: it's either full accreditation or termination.

Knott: I've been told that the same committee that has now made this recommendation has actually congratulated the school administration for operating the college in the black the last several years.

Wendth: And that's the other misconception that I want to address. There were many years, including at least three accreditation rounds, when the college was in worse financial shape than it is now, and yet was reaccredited. Atlantic Union College is operationally in the black for the first time since the 1980s. While the college has had other years in the black, they were typically owing to a major gift from a grateful donor, rather than operational economies. It's unusual that we are being challenged on the financial front when we are finally, after many years, operationally in the black again. NEASC's primary concern is the reserve fund, and the accreditors have been very clear about that. We need to build and maintain a several million-dollar reserve fund because all schools need to be protected against emergencies. Secondly, for several decades, AUC's deficit budgets have resulted in a lot of damage to the campus. NEASC wants us to have a fund large enough so we can address some of those long-standing issues.

Knott: Do you mean infrastructure issues?

Wendth: Infrastructure issues make up the primary concern, but there are others. The accreditors have mentioned maintenance. They've cited us for not being equally up-to-date with technology in all portions of the campus. We have some "smart classrooms," with the modern learning technologies, but many are not so equipped. We say that they are still smart classrooms since they have smart people in them, but they aren't technologically smart. NEASC has also noted that our salaries were below grade: they would prefer us to pay Massachusetts market rates. And we agree on all of those things. We've put a lot of money into maintenance. The campus is looking marvelous. We've raised salaries. We are, for the first time in many years, paying our faculty and staff on the North American Division salary scale. But for NEASC, that's not enough. Despite being quite a bit healthier than we have been, AUC is caught at a time when the accreditors are wanting more than we currently have in hand.

Knott: I've heard that your enrollment has experienced some remarkable growth during the last four semesters.

Wendth: The vote to adopt our new curriculum, our new focus on Christian service and leadership, was in December 2007 -- almost three years ago. That new curriculum went into effect in the fall of 2008. The restructuring involved the creation of new programming, but also the discontinuation of popular programs. No matter how popular the program may have been historically, if it didn't fit that new footprint, we discontinued it and put all our resources into that very clear niche. Everything that we are now doing is focused on community engagement and Christian service. Initially, as students in discontinued programs transferred to other schools, we did have a drop in enrollment. But in every semester since then, as our constituents and supporters have come to understand our new footprint, our new focus, students are responding, and our student counts have been climbing every semester. Our projection for this fall, given where we were this time last year, is for another healthy increase. We don't know, of course, what may happen because of this threat to our accreditation. But at least until that was announced, it looked likely that we would have not only an increase, but a healthy increase.

Knott: By what percentage has your overall enrollment grown in the last two years?

Wendth: Just under 40 percent. Barring any loss from this announcement, we would likely enroll a head count over 500 this fall, and FTEs [full-time equivalent] in the mid-to-high 400s -- an FTE increase of over 100 in these two years.

Knott: That kind of enrollment success suggests that your message about your Christian service and leadership curriculum -- what you call the new "footprint" -- has touched a responsive chord in the Adventist constituency.

Wendth: That just thrills me. Sometimes as leaders we bash Adventist young people: "Oh, this new generation! They aren't committed like we were . . . " But let me tell you -- they are great; they are committed; they know what they believe; they know why they believe it; they know what they want. And when they get frustrated it's often because our generation is letting them down, not because they are upset with our message. They are idealists. Our board of trustees made a deliberate decision when we moved to this new curriculum. "There is more than one Adventist Church," I told them. There's an Adventist Church that believes that an [Adventist] college is a protection against the world, that we are to isolate our students from evil influences, and that we ought to live in this bubble until we are ready to be translated. That's a vision for the church and the college that the AUC board deliberately moved away from. If that's what somebody wants in a school, then AUC is not the place to go. We stuck our flag in the ground firmly by saying that we're going out into the world. We want to witness to the communities we live in. We want to wash their feet, we want to serve them. We want to heal them, feed them, clothe them. We want to welcome them into our company. We want to understand what they think; we want them to understand what we think. We want to introduce them to our Lord. And we want every single one of our students to graduate with that experience -- having actually worked serving others -- and go out prepared to lead that kind of a life.

Knott: You have thousands of alumni across North America and around the world. What do you want those alumni to know right now?

Wendth: What Atlantic Union College meant to them, it still means to this generation of young people. Some of our alums have been disenchanted by the recent history of the college. They're concerned because the college has always reflected the [Atlantic] Union, and the union's demographics have changed. It doesn't look familiar to them. But AUC is operating to help the young people in ways that should feel very familiar. During a chapel service I will look out and see young people like my father in the audience. My father was the son of an immigrant, born shortly after his father and mother landed in New York. He had absolutely no interest in school. As soon as he was of legal age, he dropped out of high school. And then my grandmother became a Seventh-day Adventist, and her pastor said, "You have to get Ernie back into school. This is what Adventists do." And so my dad went back to school. And despite serving in World War II and twice dropping out of college as well, my father graduated from Atlantic Union College with a degree in religion and a life's work in the church ahead of him. I've had an extremely different life and he had a different life because that's what Adventists do: they go to school; they go to Seventh-day Adventist colleges. It would have taken four or five generations before I could enjoy the advantages I now do if it hadn't been for the Seventh-day Adventist school system. I look out at AUC's students -- most of whom are the children of immigrants or some of them even immigrants themselves -- I look at them and they are exactly where my father was when he was sitting there.

Knott: You're describing a college that seems to have a unique mission in the North American Church as a place where first- and second-generation immigrants can find a home, and training, and an opportunity to significantly improve their ability to serve their world and their church.

Wendth: Our students come here ready and willing to work, and even more important, to serve. They're not immune to the desire for a good career, but they're not driven by the idea that only cash in the pocket matters. A good career means more than that to them, and it definitely includes service. All Adventist schools help to do that, but after our restructuring, it seems to me that we are serving that kind of student especially well. AUC has been for years producing Seventh-day Adventist leaders far beyond its size. And I believe that this generation is going to continue that trend. Some of these young people with their great devotion and their hard work are going to make good leaders for this church.

Knott: If an alumnus, a reader of the Adventist Review, a member of the church anywhere, wants to engage with the story of AUC right now, how would they go about doing that?

Wendth: There are different levels of engagement. The most simple -- and I mean this sincerely even though I know what it can mean -- is for them to pick up the phone and have a conversation with me. I would love to tell them what is actually going on. They can also visit our website. We would love for students and parents to visit our campus and sit in some classes. A visit to the campus doesn't just mean going to the cafeteria; it means seeing what our campus is doing for our young people. When young adults understand our commitments, when they see the ways in which this college can prepare them for a satisfying life of both leadership and service, we'll have all the success we can handle.

For more information about Atlantic Union College, visit the college website at or contact President Norman Wendth by phone at 978.368.2200, or by e-mail at [email protected]