Leland V. Eliason

Leland V. Eliason is executive vice president of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary. Both the seminary and the larger university are affiliated with the Baptist General Conference. Almost 30 years ago, Bethel became a pioneer in extension education by opening a branch in San Diego. Today, in addition to the San Diego campus, Bethel's extension program includes a virtual campus and the Seminary of the East, with sites in Auburn, Massachusetts; Dresher, Pennsylvania; and Landover, Maryland. Approval of a new site in New York City is expected soon.

In Trust asked Leland V. Eliason about the particular challenges of accrediting extension sites.

What happened when you first wanted to get your extension campuses accredited? Was ATS ready for this?

ELIASON: When Bethel Seminary of San Diego was first accredited 30 years ago, it was the first entirely off-campus extension site that ATS had experienced in quite this way. So that was a new experience, but that is ancient history now. Today there's a whole set of standards for extension sites.

When we had our 2001 comprehensive, 10-year accreditation visit, the ATS team sent a subgroup to San Diego to conduct an evaluation there. A year before that, we had an ATS visit focused on Bethel Seminary of the East.

At this time, because of the standards that have been set up, ATS and a regional accrediting body do a joint visit, which has happened for San Diego and is now happening for all four of our sites in the Seminary of the East.

When the standards were changed 10 years ago, were there changes in the rules for extension campuses?

ELIASON: I think there's been a maturing of the ATS standards. A function of all accrediting agencies is to keep updating and improving their standards so that they actually assess what the educational process is about. ATS keeps upgrading their standards as well. The last go-around on extension sites and distance education made some modifications that made it easier for extension sites to be identified and thereby assessed appropriately.

Did that actually affect Bethel?

ELIASON: I think it affected us in the sense that these are improved standards. The whole issue of accreditation is about schools voluntarily agreeing together to use peer evaluation as a way of helping all of us do what we say we're doing more effectively and to measure whether or not we are doing what we say we're doing with clarity. So, in that sense, although accreditation processes are very demanding and a whole lot of work, the overall impact of accreditation is to improve the quality of schools. So I'm firmly committed to the accreditation process.

Did you have any particular kind of challenges that you had to be prepared for before your last visit?

ELIASON: I think accreditation picks up on the current dynamics that are going on within any school. We had made a major overhaul of how we do theological education at Bethel and had structured our educational resources around three centers. So the big issue for us in the 2001 accreditation process was whether or not we were far enough along on that reorganization process so that it would be understood properly and evaluated adequately to hear the response of the accreditors. We worked really hard to get ourselves prepared for that, and, to our delight, we were praised for the new model that we had put together.

The new model had to do with general education?

ELIASON: It was shifting the focus of seminary education from a primarily academic orientation to a whole-person orientation. We created a three-fold emphasis that retained and enhanced the classical disciplines: the Bible, history, theology. We created a center for spiritual formation, for character development, and we created a center for leadership effectiveness and leadership capacity building.

So we structured our whole curriculum around those three emphases, with a director or a dean at the head of each of those centers. That is a model that we still operate from, but it was a major shift from where we had been.

Are other schools are moving in that direction as well?

ELIASON: I think all schools are doing more on character formation and spiritual formation than previously. It's a recurring theme. It's a central part of the Association of Theological Schools standards, that the formation of the person doing ministry be addressed within the seminary educational experience. What we did was to make a pretty dramatic statement about how we were going to do that by restructuring our curriculum.

What are the challenges of accrediting extension sites?

ELIASON: The key to every extension site is whether it is an expression of the mission, the vision, and the strategic planning of the primary thrust of the institution.

What that necessarily means is that there should be strong communication between the extension site and the main campus. And one of the most important parts of all of that is, are the faculty of the schools on the same page? That is, do they communicate with each other well enough so that the faculty at an extension site consider themselves to be an authentic entity of the school?

In order for that to happen, we bring all the faculty of our extension sites to our campus twice a year for a weekend retreat. In the fall it's a workshop including staff, and in the winter it's the faculty themselves. In between those two major face-to-face events, we have several compressed-video, real-time conference calls, and every new faculty hired at any of our locations is examined by the faculty of all six sites.

So, when we hire a new faculty member here in Minnesota, that person sits in a room in St. Paul, and on television screens are the faculty in San Diego and on two other screens are the faculty of Seminary of the East, and the candidates interacts with all of us.

What kinds of decisions have to be made by everyone?

ELIASON: All curriculum changes must have the approval of all faculty of all sites. And all new faculty hires must have input from all regions. Then there are some issues that are not necessarily required for vote, but for which it's essential that we have dialogue. For example, right now we are working on a comprehensive portfolio for every student in every degree program. And the process of developing a senior integrative experience for every student in every degree program, in all three of our regions or in all six of our teaching sites, requires several conversations with the faculty in which all of them are included. There may not be a vote at every meeting, but everybody needs to be involved in every meeting.

These two times a year when you all meet face-to-face, what goes on at those?

ELIASON: This fall, for example, we're planning a case study presentation for the faculty and staff from all three centers, and we have a guest coming in to lead us in understanding how to use cases effectively. The winter retreats are planned by a faculty subcommittee, and the faculty subcommittees are made up of people from all three regions.

Let me tell you one other piece. The faculty from all of the schools need to be united. The San Diego and Seminary of the East deans meet with the dean of St. Paul and myself on what we call the provost's strategy team, the administrative clearinghouse for making decisions on all these matters that have to do with the future direction of the school. It is the strategic planning hub for the seminary. Then, in addition to that, there are affinity groups. So the librarians from each of the regions work together very closely. We have an enrollment management team that includes the registrar and the director of admissions for each of the three regions; they meet together on a regular basis. That team meets on site, sometimes at Seminary of the East, sometimes in San Diego, sometimes in St. Paul.

The biggest challenge of extension sites is this systemic integration of the extension site into the life of the main campus. That sentence probably captures the issues best.

How well do you feel like you're doing with this?

ELIASON: Well, I think that the accreditors have given us high scores on this, and I think we're succeeding.

Let me say a word about communication. Communication is an ongoing, fluid experience, and in any given six-week period, somebody on one of the campuses might say that communication with this outfit isn't working very well. But that's the nature of communication. You keep working at it. So I work really hard. I keep asking our deans, "Is there anything we haven't talked about that's surfacing out there that we need to pay attention to?"

So, please don't hear this as sounding like I think we've arrived. That's nonsense. You never arrive; you always are in process, but we are working really intentionally to make it a good experience.

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