La Sierra Constituents Vote
to Reshape Trustees Panel

Pacific Union president may no longer chair university board (Posted May 30, 2013)


Constituents of La Sierra University, owned by the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, voted May 23, 2013, to change key elements of the school’s bylaws, responding at least in part to requests from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC, a regional accrediting agency whose recognition is crucial to obtaining federal student loans and other funding.

Because of the moves, approved by a vote of 69 to 10, the school is “changing the way in which the board chair is selected,” according to a statement released by La Sierra, which is located in Riverside, California. The school’s statement said a two-thirds majority was required to approve the bylaws change.

“Delegates approved bylaws changes that require, in consultation with Pacific Union Conference officers, La Sierra University’s Board chair to be elected by the board itself from one of the four ex officio member Union officers, rather than automatically being the Union president,” the statement said.

The decision means that Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, may no longer be able to serve as chair of the school's trustee board. A further bylaw change specifies “neither the chair or vice chair of La Sierra’s board can serve concurrently as chair or vice chair of another university or college board,” which would eliminate an alleged “conflict of interest.” Graham currently chairs the trustee panels at both La Sierra and Pacific Union College, another liberal arts college operated by the church in Angwin, California.

La Sierra’s statement said the Pacific Union Conference situation – where two colleges are part of the same Seventh-day Adventist union – has meant both LSU and Pacific Union College have “faced questions from the accrediting agency on this issue that are not faced by institutions in the rest of the North American Division.”

Accreditation of La Sierra by WASC, a private agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a regional accreditor of educational institutions, is crucial to allow La Sierra students to qualify for federally backed student loans as well as federal grants. WASC accreditation also means students can more easily transfer their credits to other colleges and universities, as well as more easily gain acceptance into graduate educational programs at those schools.

Starting in 1996, WASC has raised concerns about the La Sierra board, particularly the fact that Pacific Union Conference officials served on the boards of both La Sierra and Adventist Church-owned Pacific Union College in Angwin, California: ““The [WASC] Commission expressed concerns about the need to train the Board of Trustees, the need to more clearly delineate the authority and responsibility of both the Board and the President, and potential conflict between the needs of the church and the capabilities of the University ,” WASC wrote in a 1996 letter to La Sierra. Those complaints were reiterated in 2010 when the school’s WASC accreditation was reaffirmed for eight years, and in 2011, when a WASC team conducted a “special visit” to the school.

According to a 2011 letter from WASC: “Among the concerns raised by the commission’s review of the bylaws are the expansive authority of the board to hire and discharge not only the president but [also] ‘the provost, vice presidents, deans, administrative department directors, academic department chairs, and faculty,’ authority usually reserved to the president. There was also concern over the general lack of clarity about the president’s role, provisions related to the nomination and composition of the governing board, and the fact that the board chair and other members of the governing board hold multiple positions in the church and the University and also serve as chair or members of more than one Church-related educational institutions’ governing board.”

Graham, in a statement released by La Sierra, made a tacit acknowledgement of the WASC situation.

“We all need to appreciate the difficult task that our Articles and Bylaws Committee members have had to complete,” Graham was quoted as saying in the statement. “During their nearly two years of study and review, committee members have listened to constituency delegate feedback, and have used care to ensure the revised bylaws meet current governance needs while reinforcing La Sierra University’s clear and unequivocal connection to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its mission and philosophy.”

According to the La Sierra statement, the voted bylaws task “the Board of Trustees with ensuring that the mission and major policies of the university reflect the goals and objectives of the Adventist Church. Other changes recognize the limitations of expecting a board to manage day-to-day details of a complex institution.”

Instead, that daily management apparently will vest in Randal R. Wisbey, the school’s current president: “The president is identified as the university officer accountable for implementing the board’s broad policies into daily operations,” the statement said

The board, however, “will continue to appoint the president, provost, and vice president for financial administration, and grant tenure to members of the faculty.”

The bylaw change retains the current numerical composition of the board, the school said: “nine ex officio members (the Pacific Union Conference president, secretary, treasurer, vice president; the Pacific Union Conference education director; the presidents of the Arizona, Southeastern California, and Southern California Conferences; and the university president); and 14 members elected by the constituency.” Dropped was a provision which allowed one of the 14 constituency-elected members to come “from outside the [Seventh-day Adventist] Church.”

Still under review is La Sierra’s accreditation by the Adventist Accrediting Association, or AAA, associated with the General Conference’s Education Department. AAA is reviewing its endorsement of La Sierra, an approval that is important within the Seventh-day Adventist community and may be linked to church financial aid to the university

According to the AAA handbook, “Accreditation is concerned principally with the improvement of educational quality in institutions operated by the Seventh-day Adventist church around the world. Accreditation of an institution by AAA signifies that the institution has a purpose appropriate to service the educational needs of those in its constituency and has the resources, programs, and services sufficient to accomplish the institution’s goals.”

Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, a veteran Seventh-day Adventist educator who directs the General Conference’s Education Department, told Adventist Review the AAA review is continuing.

“At its October 9, 2013 meeting, the board of the Adventist Accrediting Association will consider the report of the review team that conducted a Focused Visit to La Sierra University from April 16-18, 2013,” Beardsley-Hardy said. “The AAA board will also consider the by-laws that were voted since that site visit, as well as any other significant matters that may occur prior to the AAA board meeting.  It will take time to know whether the recently voted by-laws will strengthen accomplishment of mission.”

She added that the La Sierra board has substantial responsibilities in keeping the school faithful to its mission: “The board needs to clearly express the goals, means, and primary constituents served, and as a Seventh-day Adventist institution, explain what makes La Sierra University distinctive from … secular and private universities.  The board needs to determine and monitor programs and ensure they are consistent with the mission and purposes of a Seventh-day Adventist university. The board holds administration accountable for carrying out the mission on a day-to-day basis.  Ultimately, the faculty are essential partners in accomplishing mission, not only because of the power they hold based on academic freedom, but because learning, and the integration of faith and knowledge in the various disciplines takes place under the direction of the faculty.  They need to be fully converted, God-fearing mentors and guides who live out the mission every day,” Beardsley-Hardy said.

Founded in 1922 as a Seventh-day Adventist academy, La Sierra grew over the years and became a full-fledged college in 1946. In 1967, it merged with Loma Linda University and became that school’s liberal arts wing, reorganizing as an independent institution in 1990.

-- with information provided by La Sierra University


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