A Bastion of Mormonism

May 25, 2008 | 20 comments
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Being mildly depressed about blogging at the moment, I decided to go trolling for a “good news” story to post. Here it is, a story about SVU from the SL Trib: “A bastion of Mormonism in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.”

SVU has great leadership and has, in a dozen years, created a successful but unaffiliated small LDS college in Virginia. Congratulations to the leaders, faculty, and students. I’m excited that such a venture — whose impetus and support came from individual Latter-day Saints, not from CES — has done so well. I would not be so bold as to speculate that Elder Ballard’s call for individual Latter-day Saints to actively participate in online forums and sites is linked to the success of independent ventures like SVU. But I think this and similar ventures show that the continued success of the Church will flow from its membership, not its bureaucracy.

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20 Responses to A Bastion of Mormonism

  1. Jonathan Green on May 25, 2008 at 8:38 am

    I don’t quite understand one sentence from the article: “The Virginia campus…hopes to graduate 1,000 students within five years.”

    The most recent graduating class in 129, so does this mean SVU wants to expand by 33% so that 200 students are graduating per year, thus 1000 in 5 years? Perhaps with an overall student body of around 1,000? The other way to read this, with a graduating class of 1,000 in 2013, with a student body 4-5 times that size, seems a bit overambitious to be plausible.

    I wouldn’t rule out a place for official church action, though. One form that success might take for SVU in the future would be for it to become BYU-V. That’s not the only way for it to succeed, but I wouldn’t call it impossible.

  2. Michael on May 25, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Nice school but is still has not solved its accreditation problem enough to allow for full confidence on the transferability of its credits. The accreditation it has is not acceptable for what the school is trying to do. For the money it charges, it needs to solve this problem. Leadership at the school does not seem to take the issue as seriously as it should (in my estimation).

  3. Dave on May 25, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Jonathan, I’m guessing that’s 1000 grads over 5 years — 1000 per year seem unrealistic at this point.

  4. Jonathan Green on May 25, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Michael, according to the article, “The Virginia campus has gained accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education…” Could you expand a bit on what problems you are referring to? The intricacies of accreditation are fairly opaque.

  5. Tony on May 25, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Egad! $65k for a degree from school that’s not even properly accredited? LDS or not, no thanks.

  6. gilgamesh on May 25, 2008 at 11:31 am

    According to the USDOE website, the AALE is recognized by the Department of Education as an accrediting body for Liberal Arts Education. The AALE may not be as big as the the bigger national associations, but they are meeting DOE standards to qualify for student loans, etc. It looks like it is a fairly new organization, but may grow over time.

  7. Julie M. Smith on May 25, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Dave, I wish you would have given SVU the nod it deserves without taking swipes at CES and church bureaucracy in the process. Which isn’t to say that I think CES and the army of middle managers are perfect, but is to say that the footsoldiers deserve, I think, a little more consideration.

  8. Tony on May 25, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Generally speaking, American universities are considered to be “properly” accredited when accredited by one of the regional accrediting bodies. In the case of SVU, they should be seeking accreditation from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. The AALE strikes me as minor league.

  9. Bookslinger on May 25, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Julie, I think you read something into Dave Banack’s remarks that wasn’t there. He did not “swipe,” but merely pointed out the distinctivness, and lack of ties between SVU and the organizational church.

    Nor did I take his reference to separateness from church “bureaucracy” to mean solely the middle managers or full-time employees of the church, but also from the ecclesiastical side. Either way, to take his use of the word “bureaucracy” as a swipe seems a bit uncharitable.

    I believe Banack’s analysis in his last sentence is noteworthy, as SVU may be an example of how engagement between saints and the outside world is shifting from a paradigm of programs that are entirely controled or guided through official church channels to that of a more free-form interaction at the member level.

  10. Julie M. Smith on May 25, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Bookslinger, I may have read swiping where none was intended. I do think the final line is problematic, though: that “bureaucracy” isn’t just some bloated middling layer, but part of the priesthood line of authority on earth, under direction of a prophet of God. Admittedly running a university isn’t their primary mission, but I would think it is safe to think that the “continued success of the church” will involve its General Authorities and Area Authorities and those who work under them and not just private individuals. (Which isn’t to say that SVU isn’t a great thing.)

  11. Ardis Parshall on May 25, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    There was some talk about SVU at the dinner table one evening during MHA, with several of us asking questions of one who had been a professor there for two or three years. The professor gave high marks to the current president for turning SVU’s financial situation around in a single year. Said they had a grand vision for the future, although this early in their program they are struggling, as is only to be expected, with ways to implement the vision and to live up to the promises made to students and families and employees. The professor was the only one of us to have any direct experience with SVU; it was pretty clear, though, that SVU enjoyed a high reputation, or at least high hopes and sympathies, from everybody involved in the conversation. The kind of general good will has to be valuable to any institution.

  12. Bookslinger on May 25, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Julie: I now see the dichotomy that you were observing. Perhaps Dave’s last sentence should have ended “not solely its bureaucracy.” Earlier, I didn’t see how his wording implied an exclusive either-or condition.

    I would concur with Dave that there does exist a degree of bureaucracy in the ecclesiastical side of things. However, ecclesiastical leadership has more or less “freed” (or given/encouraged a greater degree of freedom to) the grass-roots of the church for more direct action in the principles taught in “Preach My Gospel.” Full-time missionaries and members seem to be given (or encouraged with) more lattitude for independent action in that document than I have seen before. Or, maybe it’s just that members more or less assumed they weren’t supposed to communicate gospel matters with non-members outside of established programs and guidelines. Mormons can tend to have a mentality such that nothing is done without a program or system in place. In the past, member missionary work seemed to me to be reduced too much to a recipe or flow-chart that came from the missionary department or through the WML.

    I still occasionally suffer guilt that I may be “doing something wrong” or “giving a bad impression.” If it weren’t for the occasional spiritual prompting to do/say something, I would have long ago gone to the mission president and stake president for approval, and prepared myself to be told “uh… you’re crazy, don’t do that.”

    Elder Ballard’s three separate speeches offering encouragement for engaging in church/gospel discussions on an individual, local, and web-centered levels goes a long way towards this concept Dave is pointing out. One of the beauties of it is that if an individual does screw up and brings any discredit, the church has really good plausible deniability, because that individual was not operating under an ecclesiastical or priesthood “program”, but rather on their own, and merely got carried away or whatever with the general admonition to talk to people.

    An instance of bureaucracy was my inability to get a couple things approved by the local Public Affairs committee. It’s not a priesthood committee, but of course it comes under priesthood oversight from the stake high council (or else directly from the stake presidency, I’m not sure.) I never even got a response. I sent out the contact 6 weeks in advance, and never heard back. So I did a few things just under my own name as an individual, exercising my own freedom of speech as a citizen. Fortunately, they worked out okay. On a couple I took along full-time missionaries to get their feedback, and things turned out copasetic.

    Another example, locally, we have no proselyting material that lists the mission office number, or gives the addresses of the chapels in the metro area. All printed material that has any phone number, just has the national 800/888 numbers. So I just made up my own flyer which I include when I give out books or videos. (I still include one of the national 888 numbers on it.) I’ve sent copies to local stake and mission leaders saying “let me know if you have any corrections/suggestions/additions/deletions” for this, and only heard back from one, who just said “okay.” Therefore, since no one said I couldn’t, I just printed them up and used them on my own.

    I like that flyer because it has:
    1) local mission office number.
    2) national 888 toll free number. (the one for free Bible)
    3) church’s web site, http://www.mormon.org
    4) local chapel addresses with meeting times.
    5) local Family History Centers.

  13. Julie M. Smith on May 25, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    “I still occasionally suffer guilt that I may be “doing something wrong” or “giving a bad impression.” If it weren’t for the occasional spiritual prompting to do/say something, I would have long ago gone to the mission president and stake president for approval, and prepared myself to be told “uh… you’re crazy, don’t do that.””

    Hey, Bookslinger, if a member of the Quorum of the Twelve publically mentions your blog as an example to others . . . you can quit worrying about this. :)

  14. Ray on May 25, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Bookslinger,

    The Public Affairs Committee is organized under the leadership of the Stake President, generally with a member of the High Council as the Rep for the SP. Honestly, nearly all of the effectiveness is dependent on the Director of Public Affairs – and it generally runs most effectively if that Director serves in only that calling and is called with the understanding that it will last for an extended period of time. We intend ours to serve for at least 5 years.

    It also works best, imo, if the Director has a broad vision and definition of public affairs and is able to function independently – using the High Council Rep as an adviser, as that position is intended to be. Some work wonderfully; some barely function. Fwiw, I am planning on talking with ours about ways to use blogs in our effort.

    Back to SVU.

  15. Dave on May 26, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Julie, I was applauding the success of SVU and noting that it was a private LDS venture, not a CES venture. It’s good for LDS bureaucrats to be reminded that people are more important than their various programs and that individual LDS can act for good ends independently of correlated channels. It is the nature of all bureaucracies that their own agendas gradually displace the goals that caused them to be founded — that’s a reality senior LDS leaders need to keep in mind as they manage the various departments of the LDS bureaucracy. Elder Ballard’s support for autonomous action by individual LDS helps keep the proper balance. Just a few years ago the Church wanted every LDS website except LDS.org shut down. So Elder Ballard’s initiative is a 180 degree turnaround.

  16. Jonathan Green on May 26, 2008 at 1:49 am

    Julie, now I think you’re overstating your case just a bit. CES and public affairs and other parts of the church administration are decidedly not part of the priesthood line of authority. Stake presidents can and regularly do tell people in those positions to go jump in a lake. I understand your disagreement with Dave’s last line, but I don’t assume he’s thinking about general authorities.

  17. Jeremiah J. on May 26, 2008 at 1:55 am

    “Perhaps with an overall student body of around 1,000?”

    Yes, that’s approximately the goal. The line in the article is almost surely a mistake.

    “In the case of SVU, they should be seeking accreditation from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. The AALE strikes me as minor league.”

    They are seeking SACS accreditation. The leadership seems, from my view about 100 yards away, to be fairly consumed with SACS accreditation and all that it entails and requires. So I’d be interested to hear what evidence Michael has that they aren’t taking it very seriously. Yes, AALE isn’t satisfactory by itself (minor league? I wouldn’t say that). But it is good enough to get all the federal and state aid you’d get at any other VA liberal arts college, and for its students to get accepted at great graduate and professional schools around the country. The difficultly with the price tag for most LDS families who think about SVU comes in comparing it to what they would pay at the inexepensive church schools, and adding up the cost for all their children, not in the quality of education or in SACS accreditation.

    “But I think this and similar ventures show that the continued success of the Church will flow from its membership, not its bureaucracy.”

    The CES program currently allows thousands of LDS college students around the country to have many of the social, spiritual and educational benefits of being at a church school without actually being at one. In Virginia itself the Northern Virginia and Virginia Tech institutes are pretty large–in VA alone there will probably always be many more LDS college students in non-SVU institute programs than there are at SVU. That’s a pretty impressive example of continued sucess in education, coming directly from the church, and responding to current, pressing needs.

  18. Hayes on May 26, 2008 at 10:55 am

    JJ is right. I can’t imagine that SVU wants to have 1000 graduates in one academic year; it is not suited to handle that high volume. I think the more realistic goal is to solve the attrition problem at SVU; many students come for the first year, but then don’t stick around until graduation. If that number improves, I think it is safe to expect (out of a student body of 1000) that a 1/4 of them would be seniors about to graduate. If so, 1000 graduates over a five year period COULD happen.

    SVU has come a long way since 1996. I visited it last semester, and the growth is phenomenal. From my informal conversations with the administration, SACS accreditation was THE goal, and all seemed committed to making it happen. Having a ledger in the black is the first big step, and the current administration has been doing that quite well.

  19. K. Beringer on May 26, 2008 at 11:00 am

    AALE has been in trouble with the ED since 2001 & is on a one year probationary period with the agency. Better get that SACS!

    http://chronicle.com/daily/2007/12/1036n.htm

  20. John Armstrong on June 2, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    I thank Dave Banack for citing Southern Virginia as a bit of good news in the world. I think it is just that. I found reading some of the above speculations and opinions about Southern Virginia to be, well, informative. I\’ve been here for 10 years as a faculty member teaching philosophy and ancient Greek. I\’ve also worked on accreditation matters several times with both the AALE and SACS. Here are my two cents on some of the things that have come up in this discussion. I do not write as an official representative of the university but in my own voice.

    1. SVU\’s leadership is the best it has ever been. Both President Rodney Smith and Provost Paul Edwards are committed Latter-day Saints and seasoned administrators who value highly the rigors of a good liberal education — one that emphasizes critical thinking, careful writing, and classrooms animated by student questions about major thinkers, texts, theories, and works of art. President Smith has been here for four years, Provost Edwards for three, and it appears that we will continue to enjoy their leadership for years to come.

    2. For a private college, SVU\’s tuition is low, not high. Some folks are used to heavily-subsidized tuition rates and high student/faculty ratios (which often translate into large class sizes). SVU is not subsidized by Church tithes as the BYU campuses are. That subsidy will keep BYU-Provo\’s tuition at $4,080 for LDS students in 2008–09. That\’s 23 percent below even the in-state rate at the University of Utah for next year, which will be $5,284.68 for those taking 15 credits per semester as freshmen. At the University of Virginia, by comparison, in-state tuition will be $9,490 for next year and $29,790 for non-residents. But what people also don\’t seem to realize is that SVU offers generous academic scholarships that cut the actual tuition bill to much less than the $16,500 sticker price for most students. We also graduate our students in an average of 3.9 years, which is something else to consider for those who like to calculate opportunity costs. (I myself took 5.5 years to graduate from BYU.)

    3. Southern Virginia\’s administration is deadly serious about obtaining accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Anyone who suggests otherwise does not know what he or she is talking about. We have submitted an application to SACS and are in the middle of the long process of having that application reviewed.

    4. The situation with the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) is not as dire as suggested above. The AALE did get into some trouble with the feds for not meeting some expectations regarding the reporting of student learning outcomes, but things are on the mend, not least because of the efforts of member institutions such as SVU. The December 2007 meeting to which K. Beringer refers was generally positive for the AALE and would have been even more positive if one of the DOE\’s lawyers had not objected on merely procedural grounds to lifting the sanction (not enough time had passed since the sanction\’s imposition). You might wish to check out the AALE\’s website for more news on this front (http://www.aale.org).

    5. Gaining regional accreditation through SACS would help with the transfer of SVU credits to other institutions, but it would by no means be a magic bullet. Individual colleges and universities have had the right for decades to decide which credits they will allow in transfer, whether or not the credits were earned at a regionally-accredited college or university. As things are, it is my impression that SVU\’s credits transfer to most places, especially when course syllabi are presented along with transcript. We have had a course-transfer agreement with BYU-Provo for about nine years now which allows for the transfer of several dozen SVU courses.

    6. For the information of those who care about the practice of accrediting colleges and universities in the United States, it might be helpful to know that the country is divided up into six regions, each with an accrediting agency that holds a monopoly on the power to accredit colleges and universities in that region (unless you are a liberal arts college, in which case you have the option of going with the AALE). BYU is in the region covered by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. SVU is in the region covered by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). SACS reaches from Virginia to Texas, Kentucky to Florida — a huge area. It reviews everything from two-year community colleges to private research universities. One of the challenges of accrediting such a wide range of institutions is developing a common set of curriculum standards for all of them. In general education, SACS requires \”for baccalaureate programs, a minimum of 30 semester hours or the equivalent [in general education]. These credit hours are to be drawn from and include at least one course from each of the following areas: humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and natural science/mathematics.\” In other words, a college accredited by SACS need not require any courses in foreign language or mathematics, for example. One course in drawing, one course in psychology, and one course in geology would suffice for distribution in general education for SACS. To satisfy the AALE, on the other hand, a college must require \”basic knowledge of mathematics and the physical and biological sciences, including laboratory experience, intermediate knowledge of at least one foreign language, the study of literature and literary classics, the political, philosophical and cultural history of Western civilization, and the foundations and principles of American society.\” SVU satisfies the AALE\’s general education criteria handily but most colleges and universities in the U.S. do not. One might think that accreditation should be about the substance of the education that a college provides. What one finds, however, is that the regional agencies, because of the diversity of their member institutions, cannot adopt a substantive standard for the undergraduate curriculum which details what an educated person should know. This is not to say that I think the AALE\’s standards are in all respects better than those of SACS. For instance, I think that SACS\’ standards for faculty credentials are more rigorous and appropriate for institutions of higher learning than those enforced by the AALE, and SVU has for as long as I have been here hired full-time faculty that satisfy SACS\’ standards. The result is that about 80 percent or more of SVU\’s full-time faculty have Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees appropriate to their fields. (SACS requires at least a master\’s degree.)

    7. I would say that Southern Virginia aims to enroll 1,000 students in five years, not graduate 1,000 students in five years. We now have about 700.

    8. Last, let me say that I find it tremendously rewarding to be a part of an independent liberal arts college that is faithful both to the Church and to the highest standards for undergraduate education in the liberal arts. I feel no tension between these goals and deeply appreciate the occasional discussions I have with students about how the ideas of major philosophers relate to aspects of the gospel. I will also note that our physical plant continues to improve. The student union is being renovated and a new 200-bed residence hall is being completed this summer, for example. Just below the new residence hall and in an area central to the overall campus, the Church is building a new meetinghouse where the five student wards will meet and the CES Institute of Religion will have offices and classrooms. (They just finished pouring the cement pad for the church this morning.) It is an exciting time to be at Southern Virginia. If you haven\’t visited, I hope you will consider doing so soon.

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