Thresholds and Endings at WAU

Saying goodbye to WAU’s 2014 departees . . .

Washington Adventist Community

There are liminal moments in the history of an institution in which a threshold is crossed.  One such threshold has arrived for WAU: for the first time in recent months we are hearing from people whose judgment we respect worrying out loud about the demise of Washington Adventist University. Years of misguided decisions and instability in academic leadership at the Cabinet level have taken their toll on departments across the campus. Programs have been reduced, suspended or scheduled for closure, departments have been cut and faculty members dismissed. That has inevitably had an effect on student retention.

Just as worrisome is the apparent lack of concern on the part of the board for the direction of the university. A majority of the board are conference presidents, some of whom would be just as happy to see WAU close—and have privately said as much. The fact that there is little, if any, inquiry…

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What is Shared Governance?

As the Washington Adventist University campus prepares for Graduation weekend there remains among faculty, students, and alumni a palpable sense of distrust in the statements released by the university on the loss of accreditation by the Nursing Department, the reasons for the laying off of four full-time faculty, and the financial state of the university.

So it’s interesting to note that Washington Adventist University was the subject of a dissertation, A Qualitative Assessment of the Meaning of Shared Governance at a Parochial University (2012) by Shaton Monique Glover-Alves, a doctoral candidate in education at Northeastern University in Boston. The author gathered data through surveys and interviews with administrators, faculty leaders, and even a student leader, to determine the meaning of shared governance on campus. Not surprisingly, she discovered that it had different meanings to various groups on campus, but that the diversity of perceptions could lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication. While the official statements in the bylaws and regulations defined shared governance, the actual practices in interactions between faculty and administration often diverged widely from the required processes.

When asked to define ‘shared governance’ both administrators and faculty leaders interviewed said ‘it all depends.’ This led the author to coin the term ‘situational shared governance,’ meaning that while there were official descriptions of the role of shared governance on campus, the changing situation often dictated how that was interpreted. In other words, due process was often not followed.

The faculty interviewed all said that the many committees on campus had a ‘voice but not a vote,’ that they functioned merely in an advisory capacity, and that their recommendations were often vetoed by the administration. Committees appeared to make a decision, but the real decisions were made elsewhere at another level. Administrators readily agreed that this was the case and one interviewee, referred to as ‘Shane’ (described as the chairman of the Board of Trustees), took care to reiterate that faculty did not have a vote in major decisions.

Faculty have served on search committees in which they spend countless hours recruiting candidates for positions on campus, vetting them, conducting extensive interviews with them, and then making their recommendations on the best candidate, only to have the President summarily appoint someone else. Their disappointment and frustration suggests that in practice, at least, they have a different perspective on their role as a search committee than does the President. One example of this was the appointment by the President of a person to develop a program in Homeland Security. Neither the program nor the position nor the instructor went through any faculty committee or Academic Council. As it enters into its third year on the budget at an estimated cost of over $100,000 per year, the program still has no students. While it was touted as a full four-year degree it is currently advertised as a six-month certificate training program.

The researcher noted that “When faced with questions and definitions about collegiality, “Paul” [a pseudonym for one of the administrators] reported that the governance structure supported the collegial model, and that faculty, staff and cabinet got together to engage in the strategic planning process to discuss mission, vision, and goals. Both Frank and Holly [pseudonyms for top-level administrators] describe collegiality in terms of faculty power and reported that faculty committees only had advisory power, but the administrator had veto power (71).”

The response given by “Paul” is a non-answer. It is a demonstration of his mastery of the sidestep in which the goal is diversion. However, the researcher was not fooled.

Trust was the second major theme that emerged in the study. There was a strong emotional connotation to the idea of trust among the faculty interviewees. The researcher described an interview in which a faculty leader struggled to control his tears as he talked about the humiliation he experienced in actions taken by administrators. Trust was equated with transparency about financial matters, academic decisions, and the goals and visions for the university. While benevolence, competency, and reliability were highly desired by the faculty interviewed, none of those dimensions mattered without trust.

“Paul” noted that “trust takes a long time.” Other administrators talked of “deferred trust” and “delayed trust.”  While some of the faculty interviewed felt that they were trusted to do their job by the administrators, they still had deep reservations about the consistency of care exhibited by administration. In a carefully nuanced statement the author commented, “Researcher reflection suggested that without the formation of a relationship, and a sensitivity to the corresponding emotions, there would be little basis for the success of situational shared governance.”

So when President Spence insists that he operates from a position of shared governance, he means something quite different from what faculty actually experience. He thinks if committees gather, discuss, and talk about an issue that shared governance has taken place. He is then free to disregard or veto the committee’s recommendations. Thus, faculty and administration operate with decidedly different expectations and goals about shared governance. The result is miscommunication, misunderstanding, and constant inefficiency.

The author offers three recommendations:

1. Campus leaders should assess the level of trust in the leader. “There may be a need to build trust before shared governance can be fully effective.”
2. It is wise to periodically “review all documents that describe shared governance to bring them into greater reality with practices on campus.”
3. Campus leaders should “engage in discussions on shared governance to clarify campus meanings before embarking on project which require shared governance.”

The research was done to discover the meaning of “shared governance” at a religiously-based university. It resulted in more questions about the nature of Seventh-day Adventist higher education. The dissertation concludes with this sentence: “If the institution is academic, then shared governance will flourish; if it is not, then market-driven, corporative, non-input and handed-down decision will be the order of the day.”

The provost and the president have made it clear in videos, written statements, and public forums that their decisions are market-driven, data-based, and handed down. They have consistently resisted input from faculty and alumni and have couched their language in corporative terms. If we take the findings of this research seriously we can only conclude that shared governance, however defined, no longer flourishes at Washington Adventist University.

A Community of Compassion

Where conventional education deals with abstract and impersonal facts and theories, an education shaped by Christian spirituality draws us toward incarnate and personal truth.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known, 14

I have always found the phrase, ‘the real world,’ both perplexing and damnable. It is perplexing because of all the worlds we may think we inhabit there is none more real than the one we all live and move and have our being in. And before the phone lines light up—yes, caller, I am aware of metaphors and analogies and similes. Still, the force with which those three words are usually hurled at someone—“Wait until you have to survive in the real world, then you’ll see!”— suggests the hurler believes the reality of this world transcends figures of speech. 

The phrase is damnable because it cordons off a group of people, usually students, and then condemns them for being isolated from the world. The students I teach are well acquainted with the real world. Many of them hold two jobs, take a full load of classes, and care for a child. Some of them play sports in and out of state, while maintaining their classes and work. All of them know the depths of disappointment in striving oneself to weariness and still falling short of goals and expectations. So it is not a phrase I use on students in particular nor most people in general. 

There’s no question that we are in the world; the real question is how we are to be in the world. For Christian teachers and students this is the central question they must answer every day.

Recently, I’ve had reason to question what the advantages of an Adventist Christian college education might be for a young person over one in a ‘secular’ college or university. This is a recurring question for me, a kind of diagnostic to be run in those times when the church as the body of Christ seems pocked with disease, to say nothing of being blind and lame. 

It’s not in the buildings, the landscaping, the amenities, or the sports fields. Most North American Adventist colleges were built near the turn of the 19th century and cannot keep pace with state or even private college campus facilities. On the other hand, I’ve taught on a campus where some buildings pre-date the war—the First World War—and yet students and faculty cheerfully go about their days working around the charm of an infrastructure that was new not long after Oscar Wilde was released from the Reading Gaol. 

It’s not in the endowments, the gifts outright, or the scholarships. Nor is it in the tuition rates, the sports teams, the residential halls, or the food service. 

It’s not in the research facilities, the government and military contracts that bring in millions, nor in graduate assistantships and grants. Most Adventist college professors are too busy teaching four or five classes each semester, plus working on committees, and engaging in service to the college, the church, and the community, to do any research except that directly related to the teaching of their disciplines. 

And it’s not even in the ‘star’ quality of the faculty, although many of the Adventist college professors I know could walk into any college classroom—from community college to Ivy League—and teach as well, if not better, than current professors. 

Where it differs, sometimes dramatically, is in what Parker Palmer calls “a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.” He goes on to say, “Education of this sort means more than teaching the facts and learning the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends. It means being drawn into personal responsiveness and accountability to each other and the world of which we are a part (To Know as  We Are Known).” 

That kind of community, one that draws in students, faculty, staff, and administration, takes time and nurture and care. It develops when the community weathers financial crises together, when difficult decisions about people, programs, and purposes must be made. It can only develop when there is trust and trustworthiness. And if it is formed in the crucible of hard times, it survives because “truth is not a concept that ‘works’ but an incarnation that lives. The ‘Word’ our knowledge seeks is not a verbal construct but a reality in history and the flesh (Palmer, 14).” 

A community like that will not lack talent and expertise in its teachers. They are guided every day by the overwhelming desire to see their students become ‘thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.’ 

But a community like that is built up over time. It is not the result of data sets, market relevancy, or alignment with fleeting strategies. It comes about when people sacrifice for the purpose, gladly and well, because they know they are in this together. 

If, as a leader, you should find yourself fortunate enough to belong to such a community, walk modestly and listen well. It can all be torn away in a day.