For as long as I’ve known and followed Bethany University (I graduated from there in 1990), it’s had financial troubles. On the whole, Bethany was a warm, loving place, and I’m grateful for the spiritual and intellectual formation I received there. But its financial difficulties were of long standing (well before I matriculated there in 1986), and they finally came to a head this last summer, when Bethany announced that its search for a white knight who could relieve its $15MM debt burden had failed, and that it was closing its doors for good.
This was very sad, of course, and a number of alumni have expressed ongoing grief about the closure of the school that they’ve known and loved. But this was also problematic for the Northern California/Nevada District of the Assemblies of God for a very different reason. The NCN District had counter-signed for something like $8MM of Bethany’s debt, and when Bethany closed and defaulted on that debt, the assumption was that the district would likely have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Among other things, this would have meant the closing and sale of many small churches, and it would have hampered the district’s mission for years to come.
Everyone involved, therefore, breathed a huge sigh of relief when Olivet University, a small,
unaccredited ABHE-accredited Christian school located in San Francisco, agreed to purchase the campus, very roughly by assuming Bethany’s existing $15MM debt. Among other things, this meant that the NCN District would not have to declare bankruptcy; and that the Bethany campus, beloved by so many, would continue to serve as a center for Christian formation and ministry. So far, it’s hard not to see the hand of God at work.
So it’s with some trepidation that I find myself asking, “What exactly is Olivet University?” In a very real sense, I have no business asking the question. My formal affiliation with Bethany ended some 21 years ago; and at any rate, that institution is now defunct. And I should be (and am) grateful for any resolution to the NCN District’s financial difficulties that doesn’t involve outright bankruptcy. But there’s been a twist. Apparently Olivet University has received permission from the NCN District to continue business under Bethany’s name. That’s not too weird (Il Giornale did the same thing when it bought Starbucks); but it means that Olivet is now very closely associated with the institution whose name is on my diploma. That piques my interest. And it gets a little stranger.
For one thing, several months after the deal became public, the Olivet University website still doesn’t mention anything about the purchase. Moreover, the folks from Olivet have now put a new Bethany University website up that (as of 9/9/11) doesn’t mention the transition either. And more than that, they’re explicitly claiming to be Bethany University. The degrees they discuss are the degrees offered by Olivet. The library they describe is Olivet’s library. The academic standards they outline are Olivet’s academic standards. But they also claim that they’ve been around since 1919 (when Bethany was founded). They claim that they used to be Glad Tidings Bible Institute (Bethany’s original name). They claim that they relocated to Scotts Valley in 1950 (when Bethany moved from San Francisco). They claim to be an institution that’s almost 100 years old.
But none of that is true.
When Bethany closed its doors this summer, all the administration, staff and faculty were laid off: and to the best of my knowledge, none of them have been rehired by Olivet. All of Bethany’s students were forced to find other schools: and to the best of my knowledge, none of them will be attending Olivet. When Bethany closed, it immediately and understandably lost its WASC accreditation; and Olivet
is not accredited has no regional accreditation. In other words, there are only two things that the original Bethany University and the new Bethany University have in common: the name, and the physical grounds. Consequently, it seems disingenuous at best, and outright false at worst, to claim, without any acknowledgment of the discontinuity, to be Bethany.
And what’s really strange about this is that they didn’t need to handle it this way. There’s no reason that Olivet shouldn’t acknowledge the transition – from my perspective, the fact that a new institution with the same mission has purchased the Bethany campus is worthy of celebration. It’s a great story. It shows how God is still at work. It’s Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha. It’s a wonderful thing.
So why hide it?
I’m not certain of the answer, but one of the disturbing possibilities that occurs to me is, “Because they’ve gotten into the habit of not speaking the absolute truth.” And another is, “Because they’re trying to whitewash something.”
I need to be up-front and say that I have no first-hand knowledge about any of these things. But as I’ve hunted around for more information about Olivet, what I’ve found hasn’t really allayed my suspicions. I certainly haven’t found any smoking gun. But I’ve found a lot of small things that, when put together, show a consistent pattern that’s just a little odd.
- Olivet University is closely associated with a denomination known as the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches. This is not the same thing as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC is a reasonably small but otherwise well known conservative Presbyterian denomination that is well within the mainstream of evangelical Christianity. Their Wikipedia article has as much information about them as you’d ever want to know. Apart from their own website, however, I can find hardly any direct information about the EAPC. There’s no Wikipedia article. It has no history. I have no idea how many churches it has. In other words, it’s not just small: it’s tiny. There’s nothing wrong with that; but it does raise the question, “Where did they get the $15MM to buy the Bethany campus?”
- From its own website, the EAPC seems to be reasonably orthodox and evangelical. But when you read its position papers, say, on divorce and remarriage, or ordination, you’ll find that they were explicitly lifted straight from other denominations (the EPC and Assemblies of God, respectively, in this case). Again, that’s just a little odd. In other words, these position papers didn’t arise organically through the life of a denomination. It’s more like someone said, “We need some position papers to put up on our website. Bob, go find something.”
- As I said before, Olivet is very closely associated with the EAPC; so much so, that the two seem to almost be the same organization. For instance, the moderator of the EAPC is Dr. Tom Cowley. Apparently this isn’t a full-time job, as he’s also the Dean of the Olivet College of Business. Again, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with this – it just shows that they’re a very tiny and inbred denomination (if denomination is the right word for it).
- Olivet’s Library advertises that they have “150,00 physical and electronic items”. But if you poke around, you find that they’re including things like the (freely available) Christian Classics Ethereal Library in that number, which is disingenuous, to say the least.
Well, whatever. They’re small, they’re trying to appear bigger than they are, they’re getting big money from somewhere. No big deal. But there’s more; and here’s where things start to get a little strange.
- The current Chancellor at Olivet University, and former President, is a man named David Jang. As it turns out, David Jang is a fairly controversial fellow. There’s an entire website – a very strange website, I should add – which is dedicated to convicting him of claiming to be “Second Coming Christ”; and there’s an entirely different website – equally strange – dedicated to clearing him of those charges. Unfortunately, much of the debate seems to take place in various Asian languages, and I don’t trust Google Translate enough to draw any real conclusions from the automatically generated English versions.
- At least some websites allege that David Jang used to be a member of Sun Myung Moon’s “Unification Church” (i.e., a “Moonie”), and that in the 1980’s, he was (peripherally?) involved in the fraudulent takeover by the Unification Church of a Methodist seminary in Korea.
- Apparently David Jang is a fairly busy individual, because he’s also the founder of (or at least closely associated with) several youth mission organizations, including the Young Disciples of Jesus, and Apostolos Campus Ministry, along with some large for-profit websites, like ChristianPost, ChristianToday, Gospel Herald, and International Business Times. Those mission organizations have generated some controversy, as this extended discussion makes clear. (Basically, several people on the forum say, “I was a part of ACM, and yes, I was taught that David Jang was the Messiah”, while other folks say, “I was a part of ACM, and no, I wasn’t taught that David Jang was the Messiah.” And then it degenerates into the sort of extended but endlessly fascinating paranoid name-calling that should be familiar to any participant on Internet forums.) I should note that Olivet University is closely associated with all of those organizations, as their 2009 Student Handbook makes clear. (Basically, it lists a whole bunch of David Jang’s ministries and/or companies, and encourages students to work and/or volunteer with them during their time at Olivet.)
And then there’s other stuff that’s not really weird, except maybe in the larger context.
- Olivet University is a Presbyterian school (sort of), but their current president, William Wagner, once presented himself as a candidate for the head of the Southern Baptist Convention. In this ecumenical age, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it certainly indicates that its leadership isn’t closely associated with any particular denomination.
- Olivet, the EAPC, and the various organizations associated with David Jang repeatedly go out of their way to stress their ties to mainstream evangelical organizations, such as their membership in the NAE and the World Evangelical Alliance. They call their library the “Ralph D. Winter” library, after the famous missiologist, and prominently advertise the fact that he was there at its opening. I get the impression that Olivet was another, pre-existing Bible college in the Bay Area, before the EAPC took it over in 2000 and stamped it with their own identity. The EAPC gave themselves a name that’s confusingly close to a very different denomination; and the same is true of the ChristianToday website. On top of all this, they’re clearly very eager to assume the mantle and even the identity of Bethany University.
On the whole, reading between the lines, the consistent impression I get of Olivet University and its associated institutions is that they’re eager: especially when it comes to giving folks the idea that they’re bigger and more reputable than they are. The various institutions are all clearly a little inbred, and seem to revolve around David Jang in a manner that’s hard to characterize, but feels a little unsettling. For instance, David Jang and his companies are the obvious source for the $15MM Olivet is spending on Bethany’s campus; but nobody seems to be acknowledging it.
Unlike poor D. W. and his now-abandoned website, I don’t think that Olivet and the EAPC are just a front for the Moonies or some other Korean cult. But they do seem to have a culture of slanting the truth, and sometimes stepping over the line into outright falsehoods (such as their claim to still be the Bethany University that was founded in 1919). Perhaps that’s just a cultural difference between Asian and American Christians: but regardless, it seems unhealthy, and not the sort of straightforward adherence to reality that you’d want in any educational institution, let alone a Christian university. Let’s just say that it’s a significant red flag for me. I hope that the folks assuming the name and identity of my alma mater are worthy of her mission and heritage.
[Edit 9/9/11 – After a conversation this evening with the Dean of Administration at Olivet, I adjusted the parts of my post where I said that Olivet was “unaccredited”. That wasn’t quite accurate: Olivet is indeed accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, and the ABHE’s accreditations are recognized by the USDE and CHEA as legitimate for financial aid status. However, it’s worth noting again that Olivet is not accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which is the only accreditation that really matters when trying to get your credits to transfer (see http://www.acswasc.org/faq.htm#11). In other words, if you spend two years at Olivet, and decide to transfer to UCSC, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll need to start from scratch.]
[Edit 9/12/11 – I’ve added a follow-up to this post which explores in some detail – perhaps excessive detail – Olivet’s response, and my ongoing concerns and questions.]
[Note 4/12/12 – Some time after I made this post, some of the websites I linked to changed their domain names. I’ve updated the links to point to the newer versions.]