A College in Decline

My alma mater, Atlantic Union College, in S. Lancaster, Mass., is one of the oldest Adventist schools, founded in 1882. It’s in a great location, a small town less than an hour outside Boston, quiet and quaint, but accessible to great cultural and historical sites and institutions. It was a wonderful school when I attended, with good teachers who took advantage of the location and took us to concerts, art openings, and lectures–I heard such theologians and philosophers as Langdon Gilkey, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Hartshorne and Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example. My largest class had about eighty students–my smallest, two. My professors were mentors and friends.

The school began to decline some years after I graduated, thanks to poor leadership at the top and lack of support among its constituency. Atlantic Union College, as its name suggests, draws from the Atlantic Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, which includes the Northern New England, Southern New England, Greater New York, New York, Northeastern and Bermuda Conferences. When I attended AUC in the early 1980s, I think white, Hispanic, and black students were equally represented. As the years went by the percentage of black students increased, while white parents in New England and New York increasingly sent their kids to Southern and Andrews. Is this to be attributed to racism among white Adventists of New England, or to the lack of recruitment by admissions staff among the churches of New England, or to the fact that the numbers of white Adventists are dwindling in New England while growth is occurring among Hispanics and blacks in both the cities and the islands? I think this question needs to be looked at honestly and studied carefully.

Last year was the school’s 125th anniversary, and the year of celebration ended with a new president, and an announcement of a new direction, which the latest Atlantic Union Gleaner announces in glowing tones as “blazing new grounds in Adventist education.” The details aren’t mentioned; the announcement merely says that students will be prepared “for community service and contemporary Christian leadership.”

The Worcester Telegram gave the full story on December 19: the college will eliminate majors in music and art and an A.S. degree in nursing (retaining the B.S. program).

The AUC board of trustees voted this month to accept the new focus, out of two models — community service or arts — provided by administrators, faculty, staff, students, board members and consultants. But Mr. Wendth said the board threw a curveball by accepting parts of each model and requesting more emphasis on contemporary Christian leadership.

That plan, he said, calls for encouraging students to go back to their hometown churches and take leadership roles to help revitalize older churches, increase membership and attendance, and get members to work together on community projects.

My Christmas letter had noted that my son plans to study music–a friend’s comment today on that letter drew my attention to this board action. I’m told the board had considered eliminating history and English majors as well (in New England!).

This is a loss to AUC. The music department was once one of the strongest departments, featuring not only Rittenhouse’s New England Youth Ensemble, but also the Thayer Conservatory Orchestra, and outstanding faculty musicians such as Kaestner Robertson and Margarita Merriman.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the school; it’s too early to write the epitaph, but I think when that epitaph is written it will be said that the school died of a prolonged illness.

3 thoughts on “A College in Decline

  1. Have you ever personally contributed money or any effort over the years to help save AUC from its “prolonged illness?” If not, you might think about the effect that a general lack of interest from alumni has had on the college as well.

  2. Is it lack of interest–or a signal of disapproval of the direction being taken? I wonder what kinds of letters the alumni office and the president have received?

    There certainly are signs of apathy. I was there for alumni weekend in 2004–my 20th anniversary. Only two other people from the class of 1984 were there.

  3. [Dr. Londis writes to take exception with my version of the history. He says the “ivy league” saying was not his, but his predecessor’s statement (Larry Geraty). I recall that, and stand corrected. He also notes that personnel actions to which I refer had been begun in his predecessor’s tenure–though he agrees they were necessary.

    Here is a report noting what conditions were like at the time Londis submitted his resignation in 1996; another, from earlier in that school year, reports the resignation of three vice presidents. Both note cultural and theological differences between the administration at that time and the bulk of the constituency.

    Londis notes below there are “as many opinions about what happened to AUC as there are alumni”–and all of us are depending upon rumor, hearsay, and bits and pieces of news. If the various observations of alumni are incorrect (and obviously, they can’t all be true), then perhaps a serious study should be commissioned by outside experts who can look at what happened, including actions by various presidents and boards, lay out some interpretation for the alumni, and propose some solutions. He goes on to say:]

    There are probably as many opinions about what happened to AUC as there are alumni, but if you look at what is happening at CUC and Andrews, especially, you can see similar problems emerging.

    Adventists operate private colleges which function within the church as public colleges; they are subsidized by the church (state) and try to keep tuition as low as possible so that every eligible young person can attend. When government grants (not loans) were plentiful in the 70’s and 80’s, when the cost of higher education had not had several decades of greater increases than the cost of living, when most SDA young people thought only of SDA colleges (we now have as many Adventist young people in non-Adventist colleges as we do in our own), and when the school buildings and infrastructures were new enough not to require treating depreciation as a sacred fund, Adventist colleges could do fairly well.

    Things are very different now.

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