Southern Adventist University recently announced an increase in enrollment for the 14th straight year. In a time when everyone else seems to regularly struggle for students, why has Southern grown? The following are a few of my thoughts that I wrote in the comments section on another blog, but decided to share them with y’all on here. These thoughts are not scientific and I did not write this as a blog, but rather as a response to another blog so forgive some of the errors and the style with which it is written.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Tipping Point” speaks of how a series of happenings can “tip” something into a great movement. How often times it is not just one thing, but a series of events, sometimes seemingly unrelated that cause a movement. I believe that is what happened at Southern.
When I arrived at Southern in 1998 it was one of the most cost efficient schools. While I paid around $14,000 for tuition, books, room & board. My sister at Pacific Union College was paying $20,000 just for tuition.
Also my first year at Southern they began to partner with Oakwood College (now university) in a program known as DEEP. 8 African American students from Oakwood attended Southern and 8 Caucasian students from Southern attended Oakwood. My first couple years at Southern there were very few African American students, the DEEP students were recognizable, but within a couple years that program was no longer necessary because the amount of African American & Caribbean Black students at Southern increased rapidly. Southern had already been a fairly mixed population with White kids and Latin kids from Florida, but this added a level of diversity that the school greatly needed considering its segregated history. Yet the great paradox to the fact that “Southern was growing through diversity” was that Southern was also growing as a result of “White Flight.” During the early years of the turn of the century a number of students from Andrews University and Columbia Union College were transferring to Southern, primarily white students. As I got to know many of these students and as I discussed with folk from both CUC & AU in later years many of these individuals were leaving their schools to go to a more “white” school. So Southern grew both from intentionally recruiting from amongst the minority populations & from folk trying to get away from schools that were becoming less & less “white.”
Another example of contradictory reasons for growth. Was in the fact that Southern grew based on both it’s conservative traditionalism and it’s progressive elements. Southern is famous for their mandatory vespers, worships, & most of all the requirement to be out of the dorm on Sabbath mornings by 10 a.m. to attend church (all things I still defend vehemently!) They are known for a stricter dress code & jewelry policy than many of our other schools adhere to. When I first arrived at Southern the policy was still in place that you could not wear hats or shorts to the library or cafeteria. They eased up my second year, hats were allowed in both and shorts were allowed during the dinner hours. Pants still had to be worn at lunch. And yes I saw this policy enforced.
And yet for as strict as Southern was in those areas there was also a very progressive element to Southern. A couple years after I started attending Southern, they opened up Southern Village. This as small as it may seem placed a great deal of trust in students. Southern Village were resident halls set-up like apartments with 4 to 6 students living in them. Here is why it placed so much trust in the students. There was no dean that lived on site, the students were on the honor system when it came to having the opposite sex in your room (guys apartments were next to girls apartments), they were on the honor system regarding curfew, and having residence hall worship. For a school that many saw as being controlling dictators this contradicted that perspective, it placed trust and value in the students.
Southern also while being very “strict” and “conservative” was simultaneously touting their School of Visual Art & Design where we were told you could get internships with Disney, Pixar, & other mainstream media outlets–not aspects I’m thrilled with–but it was another aspect of what was helping the school to grow.
While Southern promoted and maintained strong ties to classical & traditional worship through our music department & our Evensong Sabbath evening worship services they also were very supportive of those musical styles which might have ruffled the feathers of many of the traditional backers of Southern. For example: It will probably never be listed as one of the reasons for momentum and growth at Southern, I still to this day believe it to be so. From January 2000 through May of 2000 Southern Adventist University sponsored the tour of a Christian Rock Band, Catch 77. Catch 77 played at 25 different Academies across the United States, 5 colleges, and several churches. They personally sold several thousand CD’s, but also everywhere they went they touted how great Southern was! They would pull into a school teach Bible classes for a couple days, have a Theology student traveling with them preach a couple nights, and then on the last evening they would have a full blown concert, lights, drums, effects, all the things that made academy faculty uncomfortable:). Upon their return to Southern in subsequent years, the band members would regularly have students approach them on campus at Southern and talk about how they had seen them & how they had chosen Southern because of their visit to their school. It completely went against the clean cut, traditional image of Southern, & yet Southern helped to make it happen! And in turn I believe Catch 77 helped Southern to gain momentum in those early years.
There of course are many other things that have helped Southern to grow. The high standard of excellence. From the expectations placed on the students, the quality programming, the visual look of all the buildings on campus, it all adds to the appeal of Southern.
We could talk about the strong academics I believe at one point they had 10 straight years where every nursing student in the program passed the boards on their first attempt (that streak actually might still be going). The Theology Department continues to have the highest percentage of graduates receive a call and sponsorship to the seminary.
I believe it was also about having the right people in the right place at the right time. Southern has a president, Dr. Bietz, that receives standing ovations from the student body, he is seen as a visionary and his leadership is trusted by faculty, alumni, parents, and students. He in part has the ability to be who he is because he has an amazing team around him. Dr. Wohlers a strict disciplinarian that helps to maintain the high-standard at Southern, he asks the hard questions, and will speak-up when he sees things getting a little out of hand. As much flack as he often got, he I believe helped allow others to take some of the chances they did! There is Marty Hamilton that is a long range planning genius. He has overseen the purchase of property all around campus. Placing Southern in a great financial and long range growth position. He has overseen the construction of many of the new facilities on campus that add to the beauty and fit in with the vision and look of Southern. Our Campus Ministries department continues to lead the colleges in sending student missionaries overseas & providing absolutely tremendous Spiritual Life programming on campus. The list could go on and on!
But above all I think what has helped Southern to continue to grow is that they have maintained a commitment to the fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist church. They are not perfect, but they don’t try and see how far outside of Adventism they can get. They don’t try to downplay who they are as Adventists. They don’t compromise on who they hire as faculty and staff. They are committed to being a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning and I believe because they have honored the Lord in that way, the Lord has honored them! As long as they keep that as their first and primary objective, not for the sake of growth, but b/c they truly want to honor our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ, I believe they will continue to grow.