Avondale College of Higher Education is the first Australian non-university higher education provider granted self-accrediting authority by the country’s national regulator. The announcement by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is a milestone for Avondale. Adventist Record associate editor Jarrod Stackelroth asked Avondale president Professor Ray Roennfeldt about the significance of the new status.
R: Self-accrediting authority is the primary characteristic of a university. It’s a huge step towards university college status. We’ve started preparing documentation for university college status and we hope to submit an application in 2016.
[Avondale's] not a perfect place because the students and staff members aren’t perfect. But it’s a very good place and affirming of Adventist and Christian values.
J: This journey towards university status has been going for decades.
R: Yes, pretty much.
J: Why is it so important for Avondale to become a university?
R: Several reasons. If we’re going to progress we need all the things a university has—quality teaching and learning, and quality research. We think the research in particular will be a huge advantage for the Church. We also think our students are in every sense university students, doing university courses all the way through to PhDs. So why shouldn’t they have the equity that comes with going to a university?
J: You mentioned research, and I understand universities have to produce a large body of research. Does Avondale have the capacity to do it?
R: Absolutely. Our current research output is tracking very favourably compared to other universities in Australia. We’re well up there.
J: Is there a worry that Avondale, like other universities that started as faith-based institutions, could water down its ethos and mission?
R: No. We’re very focused on being a Seventh-day Adventist higher education provider. If we lose that focus we will actually have nothing because we’ll always be a small university. The thing that makes us unique is our Adventist Christian background. As long as we stay focused on our vision and our mission, there’s no danger. But the Church needs to be focused on our vision and mission as well.
J: What is it that makes Avondale different?
R: Our focus on service and particularly Christian service. Increasing numbers of our students are involved in Christian service in Australia and overseas. Our focus on lifestyle medicine, Christian education, and spirituality and worship are also points of difference. In terms of research and teaching strength, we plan to be world leaders in these areas.
J: How do you think the local community feels about having Avondale here? Do members of the community even know you’re here?
R: I think for many years people didn’t know Avondale was here but now we’re getting increasing numbers of students from the local area—not Adventist, not even Christian—who see this as their local university and they’re very happy to come here. That’s a big change and we’re very happy for that change.
J: When they leave Avondale what are the chances of graduates getting jobs?
R: Most of our graduates get jobs and certainly within a year of finishing. About 80 per cent of our graduates from this past year have got a job at this point. In average years, the majority get a job within six to 12 months.
J: Would you say there has been an issue with theology graduates finding employment over the past few years? Because I’ve heard a few people say, “We can do theology but it’s hard to find a job and people aren’t hiring.”
R: I think there is an issue. Some of that relates back to the Global Financial Crisis when a lot of pastors found they didn’t have the financial resources to retire so they hung in there. That inhibited employment a bit. Some people have the idea that you don’t need to do a theology or ministry degree to get a job as a pastor, and that’s a little bit of an issue we’re facing at the moment. But our theology graduates are better trained than at any time in the past. I was a theology student in the early ’70s and I didn’t get anywhere near the practical training our theology graduates get these days. The moment they come to college, our theology and ministry students are placed in a local church.
J: What have been the ramifications of making worship non-compulsory?
R: Students are much more involved in worship. When students had to go to worship, they’d use their ID card to check in and then walk away. We saw this as not really accomplishing anything. Our students come here as adults. In any other setting they’d have a choice as to whether they attended worship or not. We now have a lot more involvement; a lot more enthusiasm.
J: Andre Hall is no longer being used to accommodate students. Does that reflect a downturn in enrolment?
R: No, although enrolment appears to have plateaued. It reflects a change in the type of student who’s coming to Avondale—we’re getting increasing numbers of non-residential students. That’s a change from when you and I were at Avondale. It’s a bit cyclic as well, where you’ll have students want to come into the residences and then think, I can do this cheaper elsewhere. So six of them will rent a house and share food. Our accommodation package is pretty reasonable though. It’s about $46 a day, and that includes board and meals. My wife and I are probably spending more than that per day on food.
J: What impact will this trend toward more off-campus students have on Avondale?
R: We’re going to have to make sure what we call “the Avondale experience” is transmitted to wherever a student is—on campus, off campus or online. So we’re linking the Avondale experience more closely to the courses and the kind of support we’d be providing for them, no matter what the mode of study.
J: Are you getting a lot of online students?
R: It’s increasing. It’s a direction in which we’ve intentionally chosen to go. Some courses you can do completely online, like early childhood teaching. Within a short period of time students will be able to undertake most of their theology training online and do their practical placement where they are in their home church. That’s a big change.
J: Is Avondale’s viability tied to enrolment? Are there certain numbers you have to meet?
J: Are you meeting those numbers?
R: We’re pretty much breaking even. But we’re constantly squeezing more out of each dollar and at the moment our primary source of income is tuition. And then at the other end, about 85 per cent of our income goes to wages. So there’s not a lot of rubber there. Take for example our PhD program, and it’s a very good program. We’ve already graduated a couple of people with PhDs but that brings us no money because, like all other universities, we offer fee-waiver scholarships.
J: But that obviously adds to Avondale’s research reputation?
R: Absolutely. And it helps the Church because we’re not only training people who can teach at Avondale and other Adventist institutions, but people who can go out and be nurses, pastors, scholars or teachers.
J: Some people have raised concerns about the head of the discipline of science, saying that he supports theistic evolution. Does he?
R: Lynden Rogers is more aware of the problems associated with theistic evolution than anyone else I know. The concern you mention probably relates to an article he published in an Avondale academic journal, examining Christian spirituality and science. Lynden’s argument was that one particular origins position, not that of early Adventism, had some internal inconsistency. In effect he said, “If we’re to adopt this position, these are the issues we’re going to have to deal with.” I wrote the editorial for that particular issue. Most people seem not to have noticed the part where I talked about the importance of keeping the avenues of discussion open in this area of faith and science.
J: So what would you say to people with those questions?
R: Please re-read the article because you’ve misinterpreted what he said. If you doubt that, then re-read Lynden’s conclusion where he talked about what the issues are if the Church retains its view on “old world, young life”. The early Adventist Church actually had a “young world, young life” view. What would the issues be if the Church returned to that position? Now I’m going to answer in a more general sense. Avondale is a higher education provider and as such, it’s a place where people are open to new knowledge, open to thinking about issues, open to asking questions. Our staff members have freedom of inquiry. We’re happy for our staff to have freedom of inquiry but in a context of responsibility. Part of that responsibility is their responsibility as Christian scholars. That’s important to recognise. I’m totally supportive of people like Lynden writing articles like this, which just presented the issues—not his own view. Have a look at previous articles he has written for the same journal where he talked about arguments from design that support Creation.
J: When I was at college there was a party culture amongst a sub-group of students who were drinking alcohol on campus. If it’s still happening, how is Avondale dealing with it? Or do you leave students to make their own choices?
R: Good question; I’m glad you asked it. We don’t just leave students to make their own choices. They know they’re coming to a Christian institution and we make it clear that Avondale is a no-alcohol campus. If students decide that they can’t adhere to this, then they need to go somewhere else to live. Now I’m saying that advisedly because we can’t control the behaviour of off-campus students. But if we find out there are students on campus drinking, we work with them in a redemptive way—we don’t tip them out. In the past if a student was found to be drinking, they’d be tipped out immediately, no questions asked. We don’t do that. We work with students and say, “Look, this is the type of place you’re in, you need to think through this clearly.” We have support for students who have an issue with alcohol and if that support doesn’t help, we tell them, “It would be better to find other accommodation.” We also run programs that support the non-consumption of alcohol. The programs are run by students but sponsored by staff members—they talk about foetal alcohol syndrome and things like that. We deal with alcohol consumption proactively. As you say, there have always been lifestyle issues at Avondale. It’s not a perfect place because the students and staff members aren’t perfect. But it’s a very good place and affirming of Adventist and Christian values.
J: Did you ever think you’d be president of Avondale?
R: Definitely not. It was never on my list of things to do. When I was interviewed for the job I was very relaxed because I didn’t need the job. My qualifications are not in the area of educational administration but in the area of theology. I have a PhD in systematic theology.
J: When you’re not the president of Avondale what do you enjoy doing?
R: I still see myself primarily as a pastor. I enjoy preaching. I preach fairly often in local churches, sometimes at camp meetings. When I’m no longer at Avondale I’ll keep preaching. I enjoy writing; I just don’t get enough time to do that at the moment. I have a large yard that I love looking after and I do some of my sermon preparation while mowing the lawn. And then I play golf—it keeps me humble. I play regularly with my friends. I played this morning—two of us teed off in the dark. I have a really good family and I spend a lot of time with them. I do a lot of reading; that’s my life.