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La Sierra University won't neglect creation teaching, president, chairman vow

Open letter signals shift in two-year controversy

In an open letter welcomed by many Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders and members across North America, La Sierra University on March 9 acknowledged serious problems in its teaching of origins over the last several years, and apologized for not having adequately communicated Seventh-day Adventist beliefs about creationism to its students.

"We found that only 50 percent of the students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that our Adventist view of creation was presented, and only 40 percent agreed or strongly agreed that our Adventist view was supported," LSU President Randall Wisbey and LSU Board Chairman Ricardo Graham wrote in the open letter.

The letter accompanyed the release of a Board-approved report on the controversy that has focused on the Riverside, California, campus for nearly two years.

"This is not acceptable, and we apologize," the two leaders added.

Dr. Lisa Beardsley, Education director for the Adventist Church world headquarters, called the statement "a step in the right direction."

"My prayer is that Adventist education at La Sierra University will grow and acknowledge its redemptive purposes," Beardsley said.

Larry Blackmer, vice president for Education for the church's North American Division, also saw promise in the university's letter.

"I am so pleased with the board and administration's openness in addressing the issues that have concerned the church for the past few years," Blackmer said. "I found their statements to be sincere, looking to do what is right.

"This issue has been a controversy regarding the university for the past two years, and I hope with strong administrative follow-through, with monitoring by the board of directors and a continued commitment to the core values of the church, that this chapter can be closed and we can focus on the many wonderful things that are happening on the LSU campus," he said.

A team from Adventist Accreditation Association (AAA) -- which recently conducted a site visit at La Sierra -- concluded that, subject to AAA approval, the university "should receive the maximum accreditation possible under AAA guidelines." La Sierra announced the team's findings online on February 8, but has since removed the statement from the university's website.

The full board of AAA will vote next month on a final accrediting recommendation for the school.

In its place, La Sierra has posted "An Open Letter Regarding the Teaching of Creation," in which the school states its apology, adding, "Instruction at the university, while being strong in many areas, has not adequately presented the denomination's position on the subject of creation."

"There is some evidence that students have not always been respected for their belief in the Biblical creation position," the La Sierra statement said.

In 2009, one LaSierra student said he'd felt that lack of respect. Louie Bishop told Adventist Review he was placed on "citizenship probation" by the school for circulating letters opposing the teaching of evolutionary concepts and for posting notes of a professor's classroom lecture online.

Following consultation with its Board of Trustees at a Feburary 10 meeting, the university announced, "The Board adopted, and directed campus administration to implement, the following measures:

* Accept and implement the recommendations from the Adventist Accrediting Association.

* Develop faculty workshops regarding the challenges of teaching controversial topics such as those in biology.

* Continue the work in progress, (as identified [elsewhere in the statement]).

* Conduct regular follow-up surveys of biology students.

* Provide the Board with ongoing candid and prompt reports of both progress and challenges in dealing with this issue."

Moreover, the school said, "The university president and provost identified steps to address this issue that have already been taken or are currently in progress. These include:

* Ensuring that all biology students discuss key documents relating to our Adventist belief regarding origins, including Fundamental Belief #6 [and] the 2004 Annual Council Reaffirmation of Creation, and Genesis 1 and 2.

* Increased participation by the Church's Geoscience Research Institute in planning the General Biology Seminar.

* Ongoing refinement of the General Biology Seminar, based on student exit surveys and other input.

* Attendance of biology faculty members at the Geoscience Research Institute summer workshop.

* Continue the lecture series that presents a range of Adventist views on the integration of faith and science.

* Establish dialogue with biology professors from sister Adventist colleges and universities."

According to the statement, La Sierra's "biology department specifically commits to:

* Faithfully present the Seventh-day Adventist Church's position on creation.

* Respect every student's religious beliefs.

* Help students learn how to grapple with issues of faith and science in faith-affirming ways.

In conclusion, the statement said, "La Sierra University is committed to being an institution that does not just present the Church's view of creation, but fully supports it. We pledge our commitment to work prayerfully and diligently to ensure that our mission to provide a rigorous and faith-affirming Seventh-day Adventist education is carried out on behalf of our students and our Church."

Daniel Jackson, president of the church's North American Division, expressed hope at the news.

"I appreciate the expression of the La Sierra University administration and the Board in terms of their stated determination to promote the teachings of Scripture, in particular creation," Jackson said in a telephone interview.

"My prayer would be that God would give them the commitment and resolve to see this matter through in a way that will be a blessing to students, faculty and the constituency at large," Jackson said. "La Sierra University has had a reputation as an excellent institution."

David Asscherick, the Adventist pastor and evangelist whose open letter to church leaders in 2009 brought attention to the concerns at La Sierra University, also expressed optimism.

"I'm happy to see the university affirm the reality and seriousness of these issues, and I look forward to observing the implementation of their plan," he said during a March 10 visit to the Adventist Church headquarters.