Stirs La Sierra Campus
Adventist school reaffirms church’s teachings; some critics unsatisfied; one is placed on probation
BY MARK A. KELLNER, News Editor, reporting from Riverside, California
o a visitor, the 100-acre campus of La Sierra University, an 88-year-old Seventh-day Adventist tertiary institution, seems a tranquil retreat amidst the gritty hustle of southern California’s “Inland Empire,” a place where local commerce intersects with trucks headed from the ports of Long Beach and San Diego to Las Vegas and beyond. In January 2010, a banner proclaimed “Peace Week” at the school, which serves approximately 1,850 undergraduate and graduate students.
But beneath that calm exterior, contention is brewing over how La Sierra, owned by the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, presents its students with information on how the Earth, and life on the planet, came into existence. The stark question being asked by some alumni, parents, and church leaders: Is the Adventist Church’s fundamental belief—“God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity”—what is being taught, or are some of La Sierra’s biology instructors presenting evolution as the explanation of origins?
In a letter to trustees and the university community last May, La Sierra president Randal Wisbey refuted the charge: “Every one of our science faculty share the goal of students experiencing a vibrant Adventist Christian faith while pursuing their education in the sciences. … At La Sierra University, we take seriously the challenge of how to best integrate science education and faith development. Ultimately, our goal is to help students develop a personal relationship with their Creator.”
That affirmation wasn’t apparently enough for some critics: last year, an Internet Web site called “Educate Truth” posted a collection of articles and documents which its editor, Shane Hilde, a 2005 English graduate of La Sierra, says allow “students and parents to make informed decisions, and also creates awareness in the [Seventh-day Adventist] church.”
On the Web site, Hilde notes, “There are biology professors at La Sierra University who believe and teach evolution as the preferred scientific worldview.”
In an interview with Adventist Review, Hilde said of La Sierra, “we have employees misrepresenting their employer. We have professors who are misrepresenting the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s position on creation.”
Public reaction has come in the form of a widely circulated “open letter” to Adventist Church leadership from David Asscherick, an Adventist pastor and evangelist. Additional reporting appeared in the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise, and Inside Higher Education, a trade journal covering colleges and universities.
In the latter journal, La Sierra biology professor Gary Bradley was quoted as saying, “It’s very, very clear that what I’m skeptical of is the absolute necessity of believing that the only way a creator God could do things is by speaking them into existence a few thousand years ago.” Bradley further noted, “That’s where my skepticism lies. That’s the religious philosophical basis for what I call the lunatic fringe.” (Bradley is “semi-retired” but remains on the biology faculty and is teaching classes, La Sierra’s executive director of university relations Larry Becker told the Review in a March 30, 2010, telephone interview.)
One member of the La Sierra board of trustees, Dr. Carla Lidner-Baum, a dentist in Riverside, California, is concerned about the potential direction an evolutionary view could take the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
"This is a real time of threat to the historically held Adventist beliefs. … Either we are accepting this change or we are not," Dr. Lidner-Baum said in a telephone interview, referring to those supporting a move away from the traditional view of creation.
In November of 2009, La Sierra’s trustees voted a statement in which they affirmed that school leaders have “heard and taken to heart the concern that Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and teachings have not been given appropriate priority in biology curriculum and instruction. Specifically, the Board is committed to assuring that the teaching of the theory of evolution takes place within the context of the Adventist belief regarding creation.”
Trustees also said the school is bound to provide “whole-hearted support for the doctrines and teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” including the belief in creation. At a trustees meeting on February 11, 2010, trustees “reaffirmed their previous action from November 2009 upholding the Adventist Church’s doctrine of creation,” a news release from the school said.
Caught in the crossfire has been Louie Bishop, a La Sierra student who also showed promise as a professional golfer before his commitment to the seventh-day Sabbath intervened (see Adventist Review, Sept. 17, 2009, The Seventh-day Committment). Bishop said 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 lecture online, despite a verbal agreement that Bishop would not do so without consulting the teacher.
In a Jan. 25 interview, Bishop said he “thought a lot about that before I did that and I talked to a lot of people because I was wrestling with certain things and the administration issued me this status of citizenship probation. From U.S. copyright law I understand the university doesn’t have the right to do anything if I am posting a lecture online for academic critique. There is nothing wrong with reproducing that."
Despite Bishop’s individual case, about which the school is reluctant to comment citing federal student privacy laws, La Sierra’s Becker said the school is trying to move beyond the Web-fueled controversy.
Added Ricardo Graham, Pacific Union president, “We believe the Bible is the inspired book and is authoritative. We are in trouble if the first 11 chapters [of Genesis] are not to be considered inspired or factual, then the significant positioning of Christianity is called into question.” Graham is also chairman of the La Sierra trustee board.
“Seventh-day Adventists across North America are appropriately concerned that students at Adventist colleges and universities emerge from higher education with a strong confidence in the Genesis account of origins,” says Larry Blackmer, director of education for the North American Division. “This issue is larger than any one campus in our system, and goes to the heart of what it means to operate an academically-credible and faith-based school. Parents and alumni have the right to expect our schools and educators to teach the standards and philosophies of the Adventist Church. But we must also remember that the discussion itself should be conducted with Christian civility and a respect for fairness in all that’s said or written.”
The next major administrative event for the school is a May 12, 2010 constituency meeting. According to a 2008 “Campus News Feature” from La Sierra, “The constituents elect board trustees, approve changes to university bylaws and conduct other business matters involving the university. La Sierra University’s Board of Trustees consists of 23 members of which 14 are elected to rotating six-year terms. Constituents meet every two years to vote on bylaws, trustee nominations and other matters.”
At the Review’s deadline at the end of March, Becker said he had not seen an agenda, which is expected to be sent to constituency members “some time in April.”
BY BILL KNOTT, Editor of the Adventist Review
For more than 160 years, the Adventist Review has pursued its mission of encouraging and informing Adventists by underlining the Bible truths uniquely proclaimed by God’s endtime remnant. From its first editions, it has proclaimed the importance of God’s seventh-day Sabbath and the reliability of the Genesis account of origins. Through the decades, its pages have carried numerous items that illustrate the challenges the church has faced in fulfilling the Great Commission. Difficulties, setbacks, and even controversies have been reported in the Adventist Review, along with the many stories of God’s leading and guidance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The Adventist Review’s reporting is not designed to meet the public relations needs of any church institution: other entities have been assigned that task. Every attempt is made to ensure that articles and news reports appearing in the Review are carefully researched, factually accurate, balanced, and ultimately supportive of the larger mission of both the magazine and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The news report, “Evolution Controversy Stirs La Sierra Campus,” is an example of the preparation and presentation of important information that the Adventist Review always seeks to achieve. Interviews were conducted with each of the major figures associated with the ongoing debates about the teaching of science classes at La Sierra University, including Dr. Randal Wisbey, La Sierra University president; Dr. Ricardo Graham, Pacific Union Conference president and chairman of the university’s board of trustees; individual trustees; and Dr. Larry Blackmer, director of education for the North American Division. In each case, representative statements by these individuals were included in the published report. Due weight was also given to the remedial actions being taken by the university’s board of trustees, whose November, 2009 statement and February, 2010 reaffirmation were both cited. The university relations office was contacted to verify important factual information included in the article. The news report also noted the activity of those criticizing the university’s science teaching: it neither aligned itself with those criticisms nor endorsed the manner in which they have made their criticisms public. The concerns of those critics have become an unavoidable part of the circumstances surrounding this discussion, and were thus referenced.
Adventist Review readers may expect the same careful and professional presentation of information on other topics as the magazine moves forward in achieving its mission.