Columbia Union

County’s only four-year college an enclave from modern world

By Alex Daniels

The Montgomery Business Gazette, May 1, 1998

We’d like to become more entrepreneurial. We are aware and very determined to exploit the fact that we are in a high-technology center.” – Charles Scriven, President, Columbia Union College

Driving by Takoma Park’s Columbia Union College, one gets the idea that this secluded school, with its quiet tree-dotted campus and ties to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is in a world of its own. It is a suburban religious enclave sheltered, both geographically and ideologically, from the hustle of the modern world.

The way the college’s president, Charles Scriven, describes it, the college’s pleasant, low-key atmosphere is by design. He says his goal for the college is to form a “community of resistance against the status quo.” Scriven doesn’t want Columbia Union to offer a “cafeteria” type of education to undergraduates seeking to find themselves. Instead, he wants it to be a place where Seventh Day Adventist undergraduate can come to learn about traditional Christian values and dedicate themselves to a life of service. But he also wants his graduates to be able to find a job.

To this end, the college is attempting to raise its visibility throughout the area, hoping to spread the word throughout the business community that Columbia Union prepares its students well in basic skills key to the life science and information technology sectors.

Columbia Union has been laying a bit too low over the years,” Scriven says. “We’d like to become more entrepreneurial. We are aware and very determined to exploit the fact that we are in a high-technology center ”

And indeed, the college is reaching out to the larger community. It is placing special emphasis on its adult and evening program which mostly attracts students without a Seventh Day Adventist background. About 80 percent of the college’s regular day students are members of the church.

This year, just more than 600 students were enrolled in the adult program, compared to 425 three years ago The program is geared toward working students and offers degrees in business, health care, information systems and organizational management.

Scriven says he would like to continue to promote these offerings as well develop the daytime program’s computer and bio-science departments. These changes will be modest, according to Scriven, and rather than provide students with an in depth immersion in a particular discipline, they will teach general skills sought by companies.

For example, Scriven says that biotech firms aren’t always looking for legions of graduates armed with chemistry or molecular science degrees. To succeed, he says it is better to acquire basic teamwork skills.

“You’ve got to have that business mindset and fundamental literacy in the life sciences, ” he says.

Last year, the college dropped its clinical lab sciences program, bringing its number of majors to 32.

“When you’re small you can’t do everything, ” Scriven says. ” you have to limit yourself.”

Students at the college choose from four academic divisions: religion and social sciences, business and math sciences, communications and arts, and health and life sciences. The health and life sciences, particularly the nursing program, attracts the most students. Columbia Union has just more than 1,200 students and an annual budget of $15 million—$2.5 million of it supplied by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Its endowment is less than $4 million and 34 of 38 members of its board members are required to be members of the church The school’s library has just under 130,000 volumes.

The school has been in existence since 1904 under a variety of names It has been called the Columbia Union College since 1961 and has been accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools for more than 50 years. Columbia Union is one of a dozen or so Adventist schools in the country.

One company that has taken notice of Columbia Union is the county’s largest private employer, Adventist Health Care Inc. this isn’t particularly surprising. Robert Jepsen says, given the two institutions affiliations with the Adventist church and the fact AHC’s Washington Adventist Hospital is adjacent to the campus.

Throughout the years, the college has benefited by having the hospital nearby. Nursing students use the facility as a training ground. Jepsen says AHC is talking to the college about strengthening the informal exchange between the two institutions.

“Given the need at any healthcare facility for quality personnel, it makes sense for us to strengthen their programs,” he says. “I’m not sure everyone in the country realizes what an asset the college is for the community,” Jepson says.

Another company that has developed a relationship with the school is Silver Spring’s Technical Services Group, an outfit that develops software and is involved in systems integration, mostly for federal government clients.

During the past two years, TSG has hired two Columbia Union graduates. While that may not seem lie much, the company thinks it is a promising start and is hoping to open a branch office on campus to make it easier for students to gain work experience. Negotiations for an on-campus site are ongoing, and TSG president Gerald McGlurg is hopeful the program will be running next fall.

“We’ve been very delighted with the quality of the students coming out of the computer sciences department, ” he says. “We see it as an excellent source of full-time and part-time workers.”

While boosting the college’s profile in the mainstream community is a priority for Scriven, the Maryland Higher Education Commission still views Columbia Union as a parochial institution. For that reason in 1990 and again in 1996, it voted to deny the college’s application for more than $800,000 a year in Sellinger funds- money set aside by the state to help boost private, and in some cases religious, schools.

The school filed suit and a district court agreed with the commission’s refusal to include the school in the Sellinger program, stating the school was “pervasively sectarian.”

Scriven argues that Columbia Union is not different than the three Catholic schools that receive Sellinger funds (Loyola College, the College of Notre Dame and Mount Saint Mary’s College), and that the Sellinger program is “well-crafted to avoid the funneling of tax money into core religious activities like buying communion bread or paying the chaplain.”

Scriven says the only difference between Columbia Union and the three Catholic schools is one of religious substance, but not structure.

“If we are excluded the playing field is tilted against us, and that tilt is unconstitutional.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., will hear the case in early June.