Monday, September 12, 2011

Follow-up on Olivet University

Tonight, Bethany University breathed its last. Bethany had already closed its doors earlier this summer, but just a few hours ago, they held the final memorial service in Craig Chapel. Folks from all over the country came to attend, and hundreds more watched via a live stream. There was much laughter, there were many tears, and I don’t think anybody who saw it was unmoved.

Towards the end of the service, the president of Olivet University, William Wagner, spoke memorably for a few minutes. I enjoyed his stories, and I appreciated and strongly affirm the vision he expressed, of reaching the world for Christ through the wide range of new technologies and media that have revolutionized society over the last two decades. Bethany was a lovely school in many ways, but nobody could have claimed (with a straight face) that it was on the cutting edge of technology or media. There’s no doubt that Olivet is much further down this road than Bethany was or could ever have gone. (And of course, it was very generous of Olivet to donate what is now their chapel for this final memorial service. Folks from Bethany who worked with the staff and students from Olivet in the run-up to the service said that they were invariably helpful, gracious and hard-working.)

Dr. Wagner’s was actually the second Olivet voice I’ve heard recently. A few hours after my last post, the Dean of Administration from Olivet, Nate Tran, gave me a call, to discuss my concerns. I appreciated his attempt to reach out to me, and we talked for nearly an hour. On the whole, the call was productive, though somewhere in the middle it reached a remarkable low point, when Mr. Tran said that his “superiors” had instructed him to warn me that if I didn’t remove or rewrite my post, they would be forced to consider legal action. As you can imagine, that didn’t do much to help the tone of the call, and my response was Christ-like only in the sense that it perhaps faintly resembled the Christ who cleansed the temple. I may have done some shouting. (Take note: if you’re ever responsible for reaching out to thoughtful critics of your organization, it’s very bad form to start by threatening to sue them. All it’s gonna do is make folks even more suspicious.)

That interlude aside, however, our conversation was cordial and helpful, and I found Mr. Tran to be a reasonable interlocutor. I didn’t take notes during the call, but in general, I think it would be fair to say that he expressed three primary concerns about my post.

(1) His first concern was that my post described Olivet as “unaccredited”. He contended that this wasn’t accurate, and indeed, depending on what you mean, he’s right. Accreditation is a reasonably complex topic, but I’ll summarize (inadequately) by saying that there are roughly four different levels of “academic accreditation” in the United States: (1) entirely unaccredited; (2) accredited by an organization that isn’t recognized by CHEA or the USDE; (3) accredited by any of a fairly large number of bodies that are recognized by the CHEA and USDE; and (4) accredited by one of a very small number of “regional accreditation organizations”. In my experience, when folks in academia talk about a school being “accredited”, they usually mean #4, i.e., regionally accredited. They often lump schools from categories 1-3 into roughly the same boat, and use the term “unaccredited” to describe them all (which is why I originally used that term). The reason for this blunt approach is fairly simple: regionally accredited schools will generally only recognize coursework or degrees from other regionally accredited schools. If you go to a school in category #3, you can get financial aid from the US government; but your degree or coursework will typically only transfer to other schools if they come from a school in category #4. There may be exceptions; but they will tend to be exceptions.

With that in mind: Bethany was accredited by WASC, a regional accreditation body, and hence fell into category #4; Olivet is accredited by the “Association for Biblical Higher Education”, and falls into category #3. In other words, technically, yes, Olivet is accredited. However, from a practical perspective, what this means is that Olivet provides some, but by no means all the benefits of what is usually meant by an “accredited” school. Hence, before you decide to go there, you need to think carefully about what you plan to do afterwards.

Because Mr. Tran had a good point on this one, I’ve updated my previous post.

(2) Mr. Tran’s second concern was that my post didn’t accurately characterize the nature of the changes to the Bethany website. His understanding, he said, was that these changes had been purely cosmetic (new colors and pictures, that sort of thing), and that the content hadn’t been touched: and that’s why it still presented the “1919” Bethany history. I expressed some doubts about this while we were still on the phone, and a bit of investigation afterwards showed that he was demonstrably wrong on this point. You can verify this yourself if you visit the last version of the Bethany website on the Wayback Machine, and compare it to the current version. Among numerous other differences, the new website lists a whole bunch of degrees  that Bethany never offered, but which are effectively the same degrees that Olivet offers. It describes a Center for Information Technology that never existed at Bethany, but is featured prominently on Olivet’s website. The "e-Library" it describes is quite clearly the Ralph D. Winter Library at Olivet, not the Wilson Library at Bethany. And so forth.  In other words, the institution it was describing was clearly Olivet – except when it came to Bethany’s history and heritage, which it attempted to appropriate as its own.

Since this was an easily verifiable inaccuracy, my assumption is that Mr. Tran was simply misinformed.

(3) Mr. Tran’s third concern was that my post didn’t do justice to the very fluid situation in which Bethany and Olivet now find themselves. As I’ve said previously, I’m effectively an outsider, and have no first-hand knowledge of the state of the purchase; moreover, I don’t want to reveal anything that Mr. Tran may have wished to remain confidential. Suffice to say, that although Olivet is in fact leasing the campus from the Bethany Corporation, and has made a fairly significant down payment, the transaction is by no means complete. Furthermore, because the Bethany campus is facing imminent foreclosure by the banks who hold its debt, Olivet has been forced to move very quickly. Anybody who is familiar with the traditional pace of academic institutions will know that in a traditional university, it would be impossible to perform the requisite due diligence, raise the necessary funds, close the transaction, move the entire school, and then start classes, in anything less than two or three years. Olivet has had something like three months. Given both the speed and the complexity of the situation, Mr. Tran said, Olivet’s communications have been intentionally sparse: they haven’t wanted to provide premature, incorrect or confusing information. And although he didn’t actually say this, I’ll add on his behalf that, given this situation, it would be quite surprising if some significant mistakes didn’t occur in the communication that was provided.

All this is true. One indication of just how true is that since my conversation with Mr. Tran, Olivet has updated the “About” page on the Bethany website. The previous version of the page that Olivet had created (you’ll have to take my word for this) made no reference to the acquisition by Olivet, or to the fact that Bethany had actually closed its doors in the summer of 2011. Without any caveats, it presented the Bethany advertised by the website as being the Bethany which had opened its doors in 1919.  And that was, to put it graciously, entirely inaccurate.

Currently, however, that page reads:

Bethany University was founded in 1919, originally called Glad Tiding Bible Institute, as a training center for an urban San Francisco ministry. The nearly 100-year-old school is deeply rooted in rich Christian tradition and its long history has set Bethany as a highly respected institution in carrying out Christian mission.

Throughout the years, Bethany has gone through several transitions. The school relocated to its new home in Scotts Valley in 1950 and changed its name to Bethany Bible College 5 years later. In 2005, the Bible College expanded into a university and was named Bethany University.

In 2011, Bethany University had to announce its closure and submitted its teach-out plan.

However, Bethany made an appeal for Olivet University to continue the mission of training ministry-bound men and women in Santa Cruz. Olivet University has since transformed Bethany into an online university to provide greater accessibility to educational resources for churches in the global mission field.

Bethany has re-emerged under the management of Olivet University. Both institutions continue to provide world-class theological education together.

There’s no doubt that this is more accurate. But it’s still not very accurate.

To start with a minor point, it’s laughable that either of two tiny denominational schools (of which one has never achieved regional accreditation, and the other was perpetually on the verge of losing it) could provide a “world-class theological education”. I loved Bethany, I loved my professors, and they gave me a fine theological education, but none of them would have claimed that it was world-class. Still, I’ll forgive that as standard marketing-speak (we all expect marketers to lie, don’t we?), though I do wish Christian institutions had more respect for reality.

But it’s worth highlighting the rest of the paragraph in which that claim is found:

Bethany has re-emerged under the management of Olivet University. Both institutions continue to provide world-class theological education together.

These sentences strongly imply that Bethany is still around, that it has merged in some sense with Olivet, and that under new management, basically the same institution is carrying on. But that is highly misleading, to say the least. I honestly don't know what legal ground Olivet is on: from everything I’ve heard, Olivet is merely purchasing some of Bethany’s assets, not the actual entity itself. Still, it’s possible that I’ve been misinformed, and that Olivet is actually buying the actual Bethany corporation. So legally, technically, it’s possible that they may have the right to say that the Bethany which started in 1919 is still around and under new management. But even so: I’ve been asking around, and I’m only aware of one former staff member from Bethany (the groundskeeper) who will be making the transition to Olivet. Bethany’s WASC accreditation no longer exists, and wouldn’t transfer in any event. None of Bethany’s degree programs are being offered. I’m not aware of any former students who are attending. To the best of my knowledge, none of the former faculty will be teaching at Olivet. To take just one example of just how closed Bethany is: if you’re a Bethany alumni and need a transcript, you’ll need to order it from a different AG school, Vanguard University, which is taking over Bethany’s records: because there isn’t anybody left from Bethany who can fulfill those requests. You won’t be ordering that transcript from Olivet, or from whatever this new institution that might be named Bethany is. As I said before, this new school will share with my alma mater nothing more than a name and a campus.

Given that the Bethany I graduated from has shut its doors, fired all its employees, sent its students to other schools, is no longer in operation, and has for all intents and purposes come to a grinding and painful halt, I don’t see how it's possible to say, "Bethany has re-emerged under the management of Olivet University. Both institutions continue to provide world-class theological education together."

In other words, I appreciate the fact that Olivet, after getting caught in a blatant misrepresentation, has attempted to correct that misrepresentation. I remain concerned, however, that even this correction is still badly misleading.

So what does all this mean?

Well, I’m honestly not sure. As I said previously, the hypothesis implied by the Davidian Watcher blog, that Olivet and its associated institutions are just a front for a dangerous cult, simply doesn’t hold water. You don’t get a life-long Southern Baptist missionary to be president of your school unless you’re reasonably orthodox. But that doesn’t mean Olivet might not have other significant cultural and institutional problems. Having precious little first-hand information about Olivet, I need to reiterate that I’m not qualified to offer anything more than questions. But what I’ve learned since my first post has left me with more of those, including:

  1. Why was Olivet so fast to threaten legal action over such an innocuous post? Does it say something significant about their culture, or even about whether they have something to hide? (For what it’s worth, a lawsuit is one of the tactics that the Davidian Watcher blog says they used on him.)
  2. Why was Mr. Tran misinformed about the nature of the changes to the Bethany website? Was it just normal and innocent communication SNAFU’s? Or was someone intentionally trying to mischaracterize those changes (and hadn’t realized it was possible to check them via the Wayback Machine)? Or somewhere in-between?
  3. Why does the “corrected” version of the website still present a highly misleading picture of the relationship of Bethany to Olivet? It was already clear that people were paying attention, and cared about what was being communicated. If I’d been in their shoes, I would have gone out of my way to make sure that this page left no inaccurate impressions. They clearly don’t want folks throwing stones: why give critics another opportunity?
  4. Most speculatively, does all of this imply that Olivet has a culture of disregarding the truth, of treating perception as more important than reality? I’ve worked with folks in the past who possessed a remarkable “reality distortion field” that was very effective in-person, and within the organizations they led – but who were, for precisely that reason, entirely unprepared and unable to deal constructively with critical perspectives from outside the organization. That’s what this reminds me of.

Like I said, no answers, just questions.

I should add one last note.  Last Friday, after my conversation with Mr. Tran, I sent him an email asking for his answers to a variety of questions. I haven’t yet heard back from him, but if I do, and if this is still interesting to anybody besides myself, I’ll try to post and respond to his reply.

[Note from 2011-09-13: Olivet has since updated the language on the Bethany “About” page to a version that I feel is much more accurate. See this post for more details.]

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