Now concluding her first school year as president of Union College, Dr. Vinita Sauder has been able to get to know the school and the people who help shape the college’s future. We recently asked her about the school year and where she believes Union College is headed.
CORD: Dr. Sauder, thanks for taking a moment out of your busy schedule to chat. You’ve been at Union for an entire school year. What is the most important thing you’ve learned that you didn’t know when you first arrived?
Sauder: I’ve learned that the leadership team at Union is extraordinarily nimble and collaborative. As a team we are very eager to work together to take Union to the next level of excellence and implement our strategic initiatives. I’ve also seen firsthand how our students are empowered for leadership and service. Union College creates an authentic environment allowing everyone to find their calling and reach their potential.
CORD: In our last conversation, you said you felt that people are Union’s greatest resource. Do you still feel that way?
Sauder: Now more than ever. I had always heard references to the “Midwestern work ethic.” But now I have experienced it for myself. Union’s team of faculty and staff go out of their way to achieve the best results and they really believe in this school. That’s why Union survived through tough times back in the late 1980s and early 90s and is now doing well. Our students see this special work ethic modeled during their time on campus.
Union’s people also create the family-like, personal environment that gives students, faculty and staff a real sense of belonging. This community spirit is so strong, one faculty member told me recently “it was in the air” when she came to interview for her teaching position. Visiting families and guests tell me the same thing—you can feel the warm welcome. This sense of caring and community runs so deep that I’m now calling it the “Union DNA.” It’s something you have to experience, hence our tagline: “Experience the Spirit.”
CORD: Union College has undergone tremendous growth in the physical plant over the past three years. The construction of the Krueger Center, renovation of a facility for the physician assistant and international rescue and relief programs, a new building for AdventSource, renovations in the Everett Dick Administration Building—all these projects have taken a tremendous amount of energy and drastically changed the face of the campus. What’s next for Union College?
Sauder: The Board of Trustees voted on the goals for Union’s strategic plan in May, and we are implementing three top priorities—enrollment growth, new academic programs, and a new facilities master plan. Setting a vision and direction for an organization like Union College is never a one-person job. Thankfully, Union’s Strategic Planning Committee has worked diligently for some time to set goals for the future of our school.
CORD: It seems that everything follows enrollment numbers. While our enrollment has held fairly steady over the past five years, it is down a little from historic highs of eight or ten years ago. How important is growing enrollment to reaching the other goals?
Sauder: I want to reframe the discussion about enrollment growth. It is very easy to think only about numbers, but that’s not what Union College is about. We are about expanding access and opportunity to the students who are already applying and being accepted to Union, and making it possible for more of these interested students to attend.
If we truly believe we have an amazing environment here at Union, one in which students not only gain knowledge, but also mature spiritually and socially in order to lead, minister and fulfill God’s calling for their lives when they graduate. then we ought to help as many as possible become a part of our community. I believe we have the potential here at Union to grow and provide the opportunity for a life-changing experience to even more students.
This past school year Union enrolled 886 students, which translated to 833 full-time equivalent (FTE) students. Union’s enrollment has held steady around this same mark for the past five years. One of our strategic goals is to provide greater access through increasing scholarships and streamlining processes. If students and families desire a top-quality
Adventist education and didn’t think they could afford it or do it, it’s time to check us out and take another look. We believe an Adventist education is the best available and we want to give more young people the opportunity to take advantage of what Union offers.
CORD: So is giving access to a Union education to more students part of the school’s mission?
Sauder: It’s really a stewardship issue, so yes, this idea aligns with our mission. We believe our job includes doing everything possible to expand access to this special living-learning environment. My latest research project, completed with four other researchers and soon to be published by the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities, clearly shows the Adventist college experience is superior to that of a public university in a majority of key areas. If we have 200 openings on campus, then 200 students are missing out on the Union experience.
CORD: How will Union accomplish these goals?
Sauder: We have already taken the first step. Starting next school year, freshmen will qualify for new four-year 100 percent-renewable scholarships ranging from $6,500 to free tuition each year. These scholarships make an Adventist education more affordable than ever.
CORD: That’s really exciting. Readers can learn more about the new scholarships on page 5. How else will Union seek to reach enrollment goals?
Sauder: I’m a big believer in making data-driven decisions. My previous experience showed me strategic growth is not based on gut feelings, but on real research. We are working hard to improve our data collection so we can look closely at trends across campus and make more informed decisions about programs and processes that will improve our college. Data analysis has already revealed areas we need to focus on, and we’re starting to tackle these opportunities and challenges.
CORD: Over the past 15 years, Union College added two new cutting-edge programs that now account for nearly 25 percent of our enrollment—the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program and International Rescue and Relief. As job markets and technology landscapes continue to shift, will Union look for new programs that will help the school meet the needs of the future?
Sauder: Absolutely. Union’s strategic plan calls for Union to add at least two new graduate or undergraduate programs over the next five years. We are currently in the process of exploring many options—including entering into agreements that will lead to new programs in cooperation with other colleges and universities.
We are also re-evaluating our current degrees and programs and adjusting and realigning as necessary to make sure we offer degrees that help students achieve their career and life goals. Union’s new international relations degree is a great example. With the expertise of new professor Christopher Banks, the degree is a transformation of international studies and history degrees into a new program that will prepare students for high demand careers in international business, law and government foreign service.
CORD: All of this sounds like a lot of work. Who will lead out in making these new programs a reality?
Sauder: In order to identify and implement new academic programs, we’ve hired Michelle Velasquez Mesnard as Union’s new associate vice president for academic initiatives. Our financial team found a creative way to fund this new position, and thanks to cost savings and some unrestricted gifts, we were able to make this important position a reality [see page 8]. Michelle has been a communications professor at Union for 12 years and more recently chaired the Division of Humanities. We couldn’t be more delighted to have her expertise and abilities focused on this new and important task.
CORD: Nearly three years ago, the presidents of Union, Southern Adventist University in Tennessee and Southwestern Adventist University in Texas pledged to seek ways to work together to strengthen each of the schools in what has become known as the Adventist Educational Alliance. How will that agreement play a role in developing new initiatives at Union College?
Sauder: Colleagues from all three campuses are actively working on collaborative approaches to faculty development and teaching classes via distance education. Just recently groups of professors from all three campuses met to discuss how to provide an excellent classroom experience for the online classes we are offering jointly. We hope to expand the collaborative course offerings so fewer courses have to be offered in alternate years. By working together, each school can offer more upper division and honors classes by drawing on the expertise of professors from all three campuses.
Last year the three schools aligned academic calendars and simultaneously launched the first four courses offered on all three campuses through distance-learning technology [see page 7].
We are also working on the possibility of back-end sharing, such as computer software, purchasing, etc. This fall the presidents and academic deans will meet for an all-day planning session regarding the collaboration. It’s exciting work, filled with potential we hope will benefit future students.
CORD: As we mentioned earlier, Union’s campus looks quite different thanks to building and renovation projects over the past three years. What is next for the campus.
Sauder: We have hired a campus planning firm to help us create a new facility master plan, which will include a prioritized list of campus renovations as well as provide information about new building projects that will serve Union for the long term. We want to make sure we make wise decisions about facility planning based on thorough and thoughtful analysis.
The facilities master plan, which was envisioned a decade ago, has culminated in the Krueger Center for Science and Mathematics. While many of the pieces from that plan have now been put in place, it is important to re-evaluate the campus facilities in light of academic plans for the future.
We expect the planning firm to give us a report at the end of the summer and then the leadership team and the board can begin looking toward the next building projects—maybe residence hall renovations, a health science building or student recreation facilities. We thank those alumni, parents, and friends of the college who participated in online surveys to help us explore facilities ideas for the coming decade.
CORD: Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the plans for Union’s future.
Sauder: I deeply appreciate each faculty, staff and student who makes Union College a vibrant place of learning and spiritual growth for all of us. I also appreciate the supportive alumni and those who are so generous with their talents and gifts on our behalf. Please continue to pray for Union College and the students who come here to discover their calling and become productive citizens and servants for Jesus.