Academic Integrity, Education, and Adventism: Challenges in a Global Context

Fall of a Hero

On Jan. 17, 2013, Lance Armstrong shocked the American people and the sports world by admitting to doping his way to worldwide success. The seven-time Tour de France winner was the poster child of the American dream. He gained further sympathy as a cancer survivor who arose like a phoenix from illness to dominate one of the most grueling and prestigious sporting events.

In retrospect, Armstrong achieved his success not because there weren’t any anti-doping controls or measures, but because he exploited the system. High-level sports executives received Armstrong’s influential and financial support during election cycles and as support for key initiatives. Researchers who raised questions were marginalized and discredited. Teammates were forced to become accomplices, and opposing voices hushed through threats and defamation lawsuits. At the hub of this well-oiled machine Armstrong considered himself to be invincible. Yet he missed one important element: integrity.

Such patterns are not new and have repeated themselves endlessly whether in sports, politics, and at times, unfortunately even in the church. At the heart of these headlines is the endeavor for a specific goal at the expense of morality and integrity; a struggle for status, success, control, and power. Sometimes such attempts are deliberate, whereas at other times they may be mere acts of desperation. Inevitably the method of attainment varies and really is immaterial—it could be copying, doping, or plagiarism. The underlying motivation is always based upon an ethical approach in which the end justifies the means. Thus the revelation of doping, plagiarism, or perjury reveals a rotten trunk, not a broken branch. In other words, individual morality is compromised to achieve a personal goal at the expense of others.

Christian leaders are called upon to uphold a life based upon Christian principles, even in areas beyond finances and sexuality. Within an Adventist institution, it can be as simple as a student who cheats in class. Integrity must be an integral part of Adventist identity. Historically, Adventism has embraced the ideology of the “most honest man in town”—a phrase used to describe the true follower of God’s Word. Joseph Bates led the charge to expand the Adventist message from New England to the west. After arriving in Battle Creek, Michigan, he asked for the “most honest man in town” in order to share the Advent message with him. The community pointed out David Hewitt, who indeed accepted the truth of the seventh-day Sabbath, and became his first Adventist convert after his arrival. Such a model of integrity gave impetus to the later founding of an Adventist educational system, a development that grew into Battle Creek College. Early Adventist pioneers recognized that moral character must be nurtured within an environment of integrity. Thus Adventist education, by its very nature, must remain vitally connected to integrity, particularly academic honesty.

The reason why Adventist education matters is not to show off superior intellect or to raise one’s social standing, but instead to focus on character formation and mission.

Inspired Foundations

The reason why Adventist education matters is not to show off superior intellect or to raise one’s social standing, but instead to focus on character formation and mission. W. W. Prescott queried Ellen White about Adventist education. He remarked that “She said. . . as she has said many times before, that our schools should give a better class of education than the schools of the world, but that it should be of an entirely different character.”[1] For Ellen White the degree, title, and ranking of the college itself was insignificant or superfluous. What made Adventist education distinctive, was its focus upon character development and preparation for service.[2] An essential agreement, if character is so important, is to maintain academic integrity and honesty. Yet an understanding of such academic integrity and honesty must be based upon a biblical foundation.

One does not have to look far in the Bible to see that God cares deeply about our personal integrity. While we are saved by Jesus’ substitutionary death (salvation), how we as Christians then act reflects not only on us, but on God himself (justification). The repeated call to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy” throughout Scripture demonstrates this intertwined relationship.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is clearly an exposition and clarification of this principle of godly behavior. In this treatise on discipleship, Jesus first turns the tables on what the disciples—and we today—consider so important: power, position, authority, and influence. Jesus instead says that the blessed ones are the meek, the oppressed, and the hungry and thirsty—these are the ones not focused upon self-perceived righteousness. They are the bright shining light on a hill that “shines before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to the Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

If that was not enough, Jesus proceeds to define godly behavior by citing some examples. In this case-law approach Jesus is not primarily concerned with the six individual examples, but the underlying principle. Jesus addresses not only the importance of actions of integrity, but righteous motives, and—significant for this discussion—honesty in words. The power of words is illustrated both in the negative (insulting your fellow human as a “moron” [Grk moros] places you in “danger of eternal judgment”[3]) and the positive: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt 5:37). Jesus speaks these words in the context of elaborate swearing formulas and swearing hierarchies that had developed in Jewish circles. These are still available to us in the Mishnaic tractate Shebuoth. For example, swearing on your “head” could be undone by swearing another oath by the “heavens,” which in turn could be reversed by swearing by “God himself.” Jesus eradicates all this and calls for honesty in word and deed.

The specifics of Jesus’ situation might have changed significantly in the past 2,000 years, yet the principle is no less relevant today. “Jesus’ followers should be people whose words are so characterized by integrity that others need no formal assurance of their truthfulness in order to trust them.”[4]

Jesus’ call is a renewed call to the principles embedded in the Old Testament. God’s people are forbidden from using dishonest weights at the market, or rendering partial verdicts in trial, and instead are commanded to love not just their kin, but even the foreigner living among them (Lev. 19). In a similar way Solomon admonishes his readers. The person who lives a life of “integrity walks securely,” but the “crooked” will be found out (Prov. 10:9). He who speaks the truth gives honest evidence (12:17), but lying lips are an abomination to the Lord (Prov. 22). It is much better to be poor and to walk in integrity than the opposite (Prov. 19:1). The Bible, and Jesus in particular, call us to the highest standards of honesty and integrity in actions, motives, and words.

Constructive Suggestions

So how can the Adventist church—and the Adventist educational system in particular—be leaders in integrity in our society and the world today? Primarily, we need to realize that the majority of students and leaders in the church and in our schools are individuals of high moral standards who come with a deep desire to grow in faith and ethics. At the same time, this does not allow us to be complacent or ignore potential areas of improvement. Two areas of interest need examination: first, the continued emphasis on character development that we demand from our leaders and students; second, a holistic view of our denomination and its structural interaction.

First, a single individual of integrity can bring down a bulwark of falsehood. Lance Armstrong met his match with teammate Frankie Andreu, who refused to participate in doping, spouse Betsy Andreu, who dared to speak, and bike mechanic Mike Anderson, who refused to sign a confidentiality agreement after witnessing Armstrong’s use of steroids.[5] Ultimately, Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-doping Agency (USADA) brought them together. Despite personal lawsuits, slander, and death threats, these individuals stuck to the truth and couldn’t be bought or shushed.[6]

If the main purpose of education is Christian character development, how can this be properly reflected in an Adventist educational institution? Grades, diplomas, and degrees reflect the academic assessment of a student and are not necessarily seen as related to character assessment. The grade sheet or report card should be seen as a single aspect—the academic—of a larger holistic view of education that includes the spiritual, the intellectual, and the physical, with character development as its central element. As teacher, instructor, or professor we need to embrace and act upon this larger view of education. The question for us should be how can each class, project, or program instill in students the pursuit of character above the pursuit of knowledge? What constructive ways can be found to affirm positive examples of integrity through encouragement, recognition, and awards? How can each class emphasize life-long learning skills instead of just preparing to pass a test?

As to the second point, Armstrong exploited the structural gaps within the system: between sponsors, independent anti-doping agencies, and the governing body of cycling. As a church the directives have also been clearly divided between training facilities and hiring institutions, or in other words, educational facilities and administration. This is beneficial in many respects, as each entity enjoys necessary freedoms, but it also produces problems: students can get lost because of conflicting pressures. Without sometimes even consciously realizing it some students may take advantage of such structural gaps. Helpful questions that educators and administrators might ask include: What is the reason or motivation behind why the student is enrolled in the program? And has the student developed sufficiently both in terms of character and intellect while enrolled as a student?

The response from various fields around the world to the first question might differ: a frequent reason why students might enroll in school is to advance their economic status. In some areas a conference official’s salary is multiple factors higher than that of a local church pastor. Individuals seek degrees in order to be able to enter a better lifestyle, or in some cases simply to be able to feed their family. In other territories education is seen as an end-of-career reward. A recent group of in-ministry students pleaded: “Please, lower your requirements for the masters-level class. We have never written any paper for a class. We have been selected by the Union based on our seniority, not our grades.”[7] Finally, a last—and probably most perilous—group of students enrolls in order to substantiate their authority and influence, especially with terminal degrees. The admiration of church members is used as a means to climb the hierarchical ladder or to solidify an elected position. The degree is a means to power instead of learning or development. In each instance structural issues within the church organization—regionally or globally—have allowed or may foster an environment in which individual integrity is tested.

After several scandals (2011-2015) involving plagiarized dissertations by high-ranking leaders in the German government, officials reviewed their requirements for public office and concluded that doctoral degrees should be a prerequisite for an academic career, but were not necessary for high-ranking positions in politics. If a government can adapt its system to create a more conducive structure to ensure integrity, then the church should be able to reevaluate its structural weak spots as well. Some possible solutions to the above issues could include:

  • for some territories, a fiscal review of pay-scales and perks;
  • continuous education that is truly continuous, rather than end-of-career rewards: a yearly meeting with pastoral training is more useful over the length of a pastor’s career than a few intensive courses in the last quinquennium of work;
  • a gift-based rather than a hierarchical view of governance in the church: this could include better communication between various branches of church leadership and administration; a reevaluation of the election and reelection process can reduce the power plays for offices that at times occur; fights for positions of power are not new among followers of Jesus (see John and James, Mark 10:35-45) but Jesus is repulsed by this approach; the follower of Jesus does not “lord it over” others like the pagans do, but instead should be the slave as also Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve” (verses 42-45).

Despite the best efforts by church and educational leaders, the reality of human weakness will remain. In all probability, cheating and plagiarism will accompany the educational sector until Jesus returns. Technology, in the form of the internet and the copy and paste function, has made it much easier to plagiarize. At the same time, technology makes possible easy access to theses and dissertations, and this in turn also makes it easier to check work against known material. With the advent of accessibility, it appears inevitable that in the future cases of plagiarism will show up. Instead of having a reactionary approach toward investigations into cheating, it would be much better to develop a proactive approach that fosters an attitude of integrity. Contrary to popular opinion, investigating and exposing cases of academic misconduct gives more, not less, credibility to an institution. A reactionary approach, on the other hand, gives the appearance of harboring possible offenders.

The patriarch Joseph serves as a good example of a life of integrity. The famous incident of Joseph resisting the sexual advances of his employer’s wife is not the only moment of integrity in Joseph’s life. Joseph displays honesty in words by relating the uncomfortable interpretation of dreams to the baker and the Pharaoh himself. At the time it had the potential to cost him dearly. By presenting the Pharaoh with doom he faced potential imprisonment once again, and perhaps even execution. In the end God rewards his integrity by appointing him to a position of power. We and our students may, like him, learn to demonstrate integrity in small things, and leave the business of rewards to God.

[1]W. W. Prescott to E. A. Sutherland, April 29, 1896, in the Spalding-Magan Collection, p. 30.

[2]For an overview of Ellen White’s educational philosophy, see Julian Melgosa, “Philosophy of Education,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013), pp. 796-797.

[3]Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22; ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), p. 107.

[4] Ibid., p. 112.

[5] Laura Collins (16 January 2013). “'Lance Armstrong should be sitting in front of a judge, not telling all to Oprah': Anger of former assistant whose life was 'made hell' by the disgraced champion after he found his drugs stash in the bathroom cabinet.” Daily Mail UK. Retrieved June 30, 2016.

[6] Bob Williams (24 September 2012). "Travis Tygart received three death threats during Lance Armstrong investigation". Telegraph UK (Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012). Retrieved June 30, 2016.

[7] This particular group of ministerial students struggled severely with the requirements of a sermon and a two-page paper. Of the 24 total students 16 plagiarized on the assignments.

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