La Sierra University is a comprehensive university in Riverside, California.
The university was founded as “the Academy of the Southeastern California Conference” in 1922. With the addition of teacher-training components to its curricula, it became “La Sierra Academy and Normal School” in 1923. In short order, it acquired the name “Southern California Junior College” (in 1927) and “La Sierra College” (in 1939).1
La Sierra enjoyed an intimate relationship with what is now Loma Linda University from soon after its founding, with many students proceeding from Riverside to Loma Linda for medical school. When accreditors made clear that “Loma Linda University,” as the former College of Medical Evangelists came to be called in 1962, would not be an acceptable name in the absence of an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, LLU leaders—including former La Sierra president Godfrey T. Anderson, who now headed LLU—initially decided to create a small, competitive liberal arts college within the university. Political push-back prompted retreat to a fallback position: LLU, a General Conference institution, would merge with La Sierra, a Pacific Union institution, with La Sierra providing the liberal arts component of the LLU curriculum. Despite some controversy, the merger was completed in 1967.2
The building that now serves as the site of the La Sierra University Church—originally the La Sierra Collegiate Church—opened in 1945. La Sierra Academy continued to operate on what is now the university campus for the first three decades of La Sierra’s operation, moving to a site a block away in 1951.
What had been the Loma Linda University Division of Religion became the School of Religion in 1987. In 2012, the School of Religion became the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School, honoring the southern-California-based evangelist who founded the Voice of Prophecy broadcast.
The university’s first M.B.A. was awarded in 1982; the Department of Business and Economics became the School of Business and Management in 1986. Thanks to a gift, from an entrepreneurial couple committed to Adventist higher education, making possible the construction of its new building, the School became the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business in 2012.
La Sierra separated from Loma Linda University in 1990. What had been La Sierra College and then the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University now became La Sierra University. A culture of intellectual inquiry and excellence had emerged, along with the delivery of graduate programs, on the La Sierra campus before La Sierra’s merger with Loma Linda University. But questions about just what being a university meant continued to preoccupy the university faculty in the years following La Sierra’s renewed independence. The decision to identify the new institution as a university predated even the decision to retain the “La Sierra” name. The adoption of a La-Sierra-specific version of the university policy handbook La Sierra had inherited from Loma Linda University provided an opportunity to underscore the nature of the new university’s identity by emphasizing the importance of scholarship and academic freedom. The handbook, reflective especially of the work of trustee Ted Benedict and faculty member Vernon Howe, helped to establish La Sierra’s identity as an authentic university. And the participatory governance model that had begun to emerge as early as 1980 was reaffirmed: policy would be the responsibility of the faculty, implementation the task of the administration and staff. La Sierra faculty members participated actively in the two-campus University Senate; they also created their own local governance structure—featuring campus-wide faculty meetings and multiple committees. And they played a key role in facilitating the implementation of a comprehensive participatory governance model for the university.
The university occupies a 150-acre campus. The earliest structures were La Sierra Hall—once home to the president’s office and now the site of the Richards Divinity School and the offices of the deans of the Division of General Education and the College of Arts and Sciences—along with South Hall and Gladwyn Hall, both initially dormitories. Today’s buildings include Hole Memorial Auditorium, still the campus’s signature building, all the way to the Thaine B. Price Science Complex (2005)—joining Palmer and Cossentine Halls offering up-to-date research and lab facilities for biology, mathematics, and computer science students—and the new building currently housing the Zapara School of Business (2013). Also particularly noteworthy is the Visual Arts Center, which houses the Brandstater Gallery, site of both campus art exhibitions and chamber music recitals. Plans are underway for a building that will house the campus’s three museums and serve as a university welcome center. The university’s campus is an American-Public-Gardens-Association-registered arboretum.
Land previously owned by the university, and home to, among other things, a dairy farm (with products issued under the La Loma brand) has become a site of residential and commercial developments, with some of the proceeds helping to support the university. The “Riverwalk Project” extended the campus to provide for adequate athletic fields and featured a new campus entrance constructed by the university. The new parkway itself exhibits a water feature, dog parks, a pick-up basketball court, and a walking and jogging path. The “Glory of God’s Grace” sculpture, depicting the return of the prodigal son, has become a central feature for the campus. The university has become the western entrance to the city of Riverside.
La Sierra University has frequently been listed by US News and World Report and the Wall Street Journal as the most or second most-diverse higher educational institution in the nation.
The university has embraced a mission of service to southern California’s Inland Empire. It has welcomed large numbers of students from the region who are the first university-attending members of their families. It has also drawn students from around the world, including significant quantities from the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, along with South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia, in addition to substantial groups from the Caribbean and Brazil (and other South American countries).
The university’s chief executive officer is a president. The president is assisted by the chief academic and chief operating officer, the provost, as well as by vice presidents responsible for various support areas, including finance, student services, recruitment, marketing, and fundraising.
The university’s curricula are delivered by four schools—the College of Arts and Sciences, the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business, the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School, and the School of Education—and the Division of General Education, each headed by a dean. Department chairs responsible for various curricular areas report to the school deans. Significant non-academic organizational units include those responsible for physical plant services, athletics, student finance, campus food service, and the campus residence halls, which provide housing to roughly 40% of students.
The university offers undergraduate degrees in most of the traditional liberal arts and sciences, as well as in professional areas including social work and business. Within the College of Arts and Sciences, programs are offered in areas including biochemistry, biology, chemistry, history, and psychology. There is also an interdisciplinary program in philosophical studies. Among especially noteworthy undergraduate programs are ones concerned with film and music. Music, in particular, has been a high-profile aspect not only of academic life but also of campus culture more generally since at least the 1950s: campus musical programming attracted substantial community interest and music graduates went on to high-profile graduate programs and significant professional achievements.
Because of La Sierra’s relationship with what is now Loma Linda University, large numbers of students have chosen to attend en route to health professional programs in Loma Linda. The need to serve these students has led to the maintenance of consistently strong undergraduate programs in the natural sciences. La Sierra has also trained large numbers of students who went on to become lawyers—at least at one point more than any other Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher education.
Special programming for honors students began as early as 1958.3 Creative general education efforts were reflected in the development of the Interdisciplinary Studies program in the 1970s. The members of each student cohort enrolled in this program completed a cluster of required interdisciplinary courses. The same general structure persisted, even as details changed, when “Interdip” was replaced by the Honors Program. Another interdisciplinary general education program, International Dimensions, focused on global study and experience, continued through the 1980s.
Unlike those enrolled in these interdisciplinary general education curricula, most students completed familiar cafeteria-style general education programs. But efforts began in the 1990s to require all students to complete interdisciplinary general education requirements. A core curriculum very similar in structure to the Honors Program was implemented in the mid-1990s but was modified in 2000 in response to fears on the part of the university trustees that the curriculum as originally implemented had led to a significant enrollment decline. Even as modified, however, La Sierra’s general education program for non-Honors students remains distinctive, with students expected to complete interdisciplinary courses in the social sciences, the humanities and fine arts, religion, and the relationship between religion and science. Service is emphasized in both general education curricula, with Honors students expected to develop community engagement projects and other students to participate in course-linked service learning activities.
The university’s largest undergraduate academic program is in criminal justice, serving current and would-be law-enforcement personnel. Biology and Psychology are both active in undergraduate research with students presenting at academic conferences as far away as Israel! Archaeology leads digs regularly. The SEA-PHAGES program has involved first-year biology students in hands-on research. Lee Grismer has led students on research trips that have found new species in Asia. The English department recently launched a student-edited journal, The Roadrunner Review, that is drawing submissions from major universities across the country and internationally. The Brandstater Gallery provides opportunities for students to interact with artists and to exhibit their own work.
La Sierra undergraduates can take advantage of overseas study opportunities via Adventist Colleges Abroad, prefigured on their own campus. Study abroad efforts began before La Sierra’s merger with LLU, based at Collonges-sous-Saleve and headed by music professor John T. Hamilton. La Sierra students can also learn abroad by working as student missionaries; the first-full-year student missionaries (summer participants in the program had been sent abroad by what was then Columbia Union College) were dispatched from their campus in the 1960s In the 1960s we sent the first full-year student missionaries.
Each of the university’s four schools offers graduate programs. The College of Arts and Sciences delivers a Master of Arts degree in English. Students in the Zapara School of Business can earn the Master of Science in Accountancy (the only degree of its kind in the Adventist higher educational system) or the Master of Business Administration. The Richards Divinity School offers the Master of Divinity, a professional graduate degree intended for pastors, as well as two academic master’s degrees, the Master of Arts and the Master of Theological Studies. Multiple graduate degrees, including the Master of Arts in Teaching, the Doctor of Education, and the Doctor of Philosophy, are available in the School of Education.
The university as a whole was accredited for the first time in 1945 by what is now the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). It has retained WASC accreditation during the intervening period. Loma Linda University (including its two campuses) was placed on probation by the Senior Commission of WASC in 1989. La Sierra inherited Loma Linda University’s probation when it became independent in 1990. WASC lifted La Sierra’s probation in 1992, though it did not reaffirm the university’s accreditation until 1997. WASC questions regarding institutional governance and the role of the Pacific Union and the General Conference in institutional life, prompted special scrutiny from WASC. The university’s constituency voted bylaws changes in 2013 that addressed a number of these matters, and WASC’s questions were addressed to the Association’s satisfaction by 2016.
The graduate division of the Richards Divinity School is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Various programs in the School of Education are accredited by California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The university’s music programs are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. The Council on Social Work Accreditation accredits the Department of Social Work. And the Zapara School of Business is a candidate for accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Campus activities outside the classroom support academic programs in various ways. Given a distinctive institutional emphasis on encouraging student research, the university sponsors a week-long yearly event focused on recognizing and promoting published and presented by students. And La Sierra has served, for instance, as the summer home of the Montecito Music Festival in recent years.
Academic programs have also been supported by a range of centers. The Center for Conflict Resolution aids churches and schools in crafting peaceful responses to internal disputes, and has received particular attention for its work in preventing bullying in schools. The Center for Research on Adventist Education K-12 seeks greater understanding of the impact of the Seventh-day Adventist educational system. The Center for Near Eastern Archaeology provides the resources for the university’s B.A. and M.A. in Near Eastern Archaeology while carrying out ongoing archaeological excavations and research in Jordan.
The TransResearch Consortium, headquartered at La Sierra and including scholars not only from La Sierra but also from Claremont Graduate University and Portland State University, engages in research, scholarly collaboration, and consulting focused on political and economic global trends, with a particular focus on the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region. For the use of present and future scholars, the H. M. S. Richards Library maintains the personal collection of books and other research materials of the late, beloved Adventist pastor-evangelist.
Several currently dormant centers have also played important roles in the university’s service to its various communities. The Women’s Resource Center has fostered the active participation of women in church and society. The Stahl Center for World Service has sought to nourish a commitment to a contemporary understanding of Adventist global mission in light of an awareness of the creative contributions of Adventist missioners past—notably Ana and Fernando Stahl. The John C. Hancock Center has worked to collect resources and organize programming designed to enhance church ministries focused on young people and families. It also helped to oversee the multi-stage Valuegenesis study, designed to study the development and reinforcement of various attitudes and beliefs in Adventist young people.
The Paul J. Landa Lectureship honors an accomplished historian of the Continental Reformation and of church strategic planning by bringing to campus scholars in a variety of disciplines to explore the relationship between faith and learning. The Isaac Backus Lectureship provides members of the university community with opportunities to engage with both Adventist and non-Adventist scholars whose work relates to the vital theme of religious liberty. The Charles Teel Lectureship, recently created in honor of a long-time university faculty member, explores issues linking religion and society.
The Stahl Center’s museum collection includes artifacts amassed by generations of Adventist missioners. The archeology museum collection features a range of items drawn largely from the ancient Near East, with a collection among the largest in the United States. And the natural history museum collection includes, among other things, an outstanding collection of mineral spheres and remarkable taxidermy products. University plans call for integrating all of these museums in a central location.
La Sierra first affiliated with Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) (now Enactus) in 1992. Led by John Thomas, then a junior business faculty member, La Sierra students engaged in a range of creative business development and business education ventures. Only two years later, effective student performance and persuasive documentation of La Sierra SIFE activities enabled the La Sierra team to win SIFE’s national championship. La Sierra has gone on to win six national and two world championships.
A majority of students live off campus. Many of those who live in La Sierra residence halls have families nearby whom they frequently visit. And the university’s location—not far from nearby mountains, deserts, and beaches and culturally rich urban areas—has ensured that, wherever they live, students are likely to find activities at some remove from the university appealing. However, while La Sierra has thus been a commuter campus for decades, campus life continues to be a focus of the institutional investment. The Criterion, La Sierra’s student newspaper, has long attracted capable writers and shared provocative insights, notably during the disputes regarding university governance and related issues that preceded the separation between La Sierra and Loma Linda University. The university Pre-Med Club organizes an annual mission trip to Guatemala. The university’s student government organization—currently the Student Association of La Sierra University (SALSU)—has not only organized student activities but also served as a vital student voice in negotiations with administrators. Under diverse names, student variety shows have attracted substantial attention. Fostering community among its students, the Honors Program maintains a campus residence specifically for Honors students.
La Sierra has consistently invested in its athletic programs over the course of recent decades. Students have participated in an intramural program that has featured a variety of sports. The La Sierra Dolphins swim team has trained in the university’s Olympic-size pool for decades. And, since the development of interscholastic athletics, the La Sierra Golden Eagles have represented the university in sports including basketball and volleyball. The university’s Alumni Pavilion, built as the result of a fundraising campaign spearheaded by the Alumni Association, serves as a primary site for indoor athletic activities as well as various public programs and a campus fitness center. The university was briefly a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (competing in Division 3) and is now a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. La Sierra’s teams have qualified over multiple years as Champions of Character.
Alums and Members of the Faculty
La Sierra’s commitment to supporting church and society is evident through the work of various alums and past and present faculty members. These include, to name a few, academic administrators Niels-Erik Andreasen, Gordon Bietz, and Richard Osborn; archeologist Lawrence T. Geraty; biologists Lee Grismer and Gary Bradley; church administrators Lynn Mallery and Charles Sandefur; historian of American religion Jonathan Butler; corporate lawyer Gail Kendall; entrepreneur and business school dean John Thomas; geologist Jeffrey Cassidy; historian of Latin America and the southwestern United States Delmer Ross; mathematical researcher Jon C. Vanderwerff; mission president and anthropologist John Elick; New Testament scholars John C. Brunt, Madelynn Jones-Haldeman, Warren C. Trenchard, and Kendra Haloviak-Valentine; organist Kimo Smith; pastors Chris Oberg, Louis Venden, and Morris Venden; physician and medical researcher Gary Gilbert; psychologists Leslie Martin and Curtis Hardin; scholar and teacher of spiritual formation Wilbur Alexander; taxidermist and dermatologist Billy Hankins; theologians Edward Heppenstall, Fritz Guy, Richard Rice, Linn Tonstad, and John Webster; violinist Lyndon Johnston Taylor; scholar of religion and society Charles Teel, Jr.; and youth ministry and psychology of religion scholar V. Bailey Gillespie. Among recipients of honorary degrees awarded by the university are novelist Chaim Potok and Nobel laureate and former president of Costa Rica Óscar Arias Sánchez.
“A Tradition of Progress: A Brief History of La Sierra University.” La Sierra Today, Fall 1997.
“Honors at La Sierra: A Tradition of Excellence.” La Sierra University Magazine 1.3 (Fall 2011). https://lasierra.edu/3d/lasierramagazine/lsmfall2011/index.html#.
Moya, Frank. “Senior Thesis” (examining the merger of La Sierra College and Loma Linda University). B.A. thesis, La Sierra University Honors Program, 1993.
See “A Tradition of Progress: A Brief History of La Sierra University,” La Sierra Today, Fall 1997, 6.↩
See Frank Moya, “Senior Thesis” (B.A. thesis, La Sierra University Honors Program, 1993) (examining the merger of La Sierra College and Loma Linda University).↩
See “Honors at La Sierra: A Tradition of Excellence,” La Sierra University Magazine 1.3 (Fall 2011): 18, https://lasierra.edu/3d/lasierramagazine/lsmfall2011/index.html#.↩