May We Introduce...Walla Walla University

We thank you for gathering here today to celebrate an historic moment. Walla Walla College is now Walla Walla University: Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education.

You and I, bright sophisticates that we are, would never have done such a crazy thing. It seems a patently foolish act.

At that point in history there are, after all, only three four-year high schools in the entire state. There’s only one each in the neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho.

And “higher education” is just emerging. Washington University (by an earlier and much longer name) is founded the same year with just 47 students and five faculty members.

Here’s the wild idea:
• Found a college on thin air
• Train God-fearing, people-loving, young adults
• Set them loose to change the world

The sponsoring church group, Seventh-day Adventists, consists of just 1,500 members in the Northwest.

Without the help of a savvy, far-sighted patron, that wild idea would have died, what many might have judged as an early and timely death.
Enter Dr. Nelson Blalock, M.D.

Not a member of that sponsoring church group, he nonetheless buys into the wild idea. He dreams the dream and sees the vision.

He donates 40 acres of his orchard and leads the Citizens’ Committee of Walla Walla to victory in a bidding war with Milton, Ore., and both Pasco and Spokane, Wash.

And so it is that on Dec. 7, 1892, 91 students gather around a small faculty and a few dignitaries in the basement gymnasium of the substantial, new college building.

They seem to have begun with a hymn, a most appropriate one: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

Walla Walla College:
• A wild but visionary idea
• A partnership between Seventh-day Adventists and the citizens of the Walla Walla Valley
• A blessed school, blessed every one of its 115 years

For those 115 years this place has been known as Walla Walla College. That name has rung true. It has resonated with a dedication to excellence in academics and reverberated with generosity in service.

The name has served us so well. Why change it?

You are likely acquainted with a number of excellent responses to that question, including these three:

First, the names of colleges are changing and we need to communicate clearly our identity.

Many community colleges are dropping the word “community.”

And many of our peer institutions have exchanged “college” for “university.” For example, of the 10 member schools of the Independent Colleges of Washington, we are among the last to adopt the label “university.” Of the ten, only Whitman College, right here in Walla Walla, still proudly bears the label “college.”

In the light of these developments, we believe that “Walla Walla University” better communicates our identity.

Second, there is a benefit for prospective international students as well. In many parts of the world, the term “college” means “high school.” Again, our new name provides a clearer sense of our identity.

Third, for over 10 years external organizations and especially the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, have recognized our school as a masters-level, regional university.

In adopting the label university, we update our name to match the reality of this school. We are a teaching university offering a wide variety of academic and professional programs on the undergraduate level, together with a respected, select set of graduate programs.

As we rattle off that litany of reasons, though, we would carefully edit any syllable of self-congratulation.

We would still sing that hymn: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”
Someone, keenly aware of the current state of higher education, might with plaintive voice and good reason ask: “Do you really wish to become a university?”

In 2004, novelist Tom Wolfe published I Am Charlotte Simmons, a raunchy depiction of American university culture based on research at places like Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

While the United States system of higher education is often touted as the best in the world, Wolfe’s novel has cued a fresh critique.

New York Times columnist David Brooks—in a review later applauded by the novelist—writes that Wolfe has “located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, … where it’s not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.”

Do we really wish to become a university?

If Wolfe’s depiction truly represents university culture in our nation, we would respond, “Yes, but in a most counter-cultural sense.”

In 1892, Walla Walla College stated its mission this way:
The school would provide young people with “‘a Christian education, surrounded with influences favorable to the development of Christian character.’”

Today, our mission reads like this:

We are a community of faith and discovery committed to:
• Excellence in Thought
• Beauty in Expression
• Generosity in Service
• Faith in God

I would remind you that the true measure of an institution is not its endowment, its buildings, its accreditations, the size of its student body or the number of its graduates, a prestigious academic reputation, its ratings in US News & World Report, the number of active student organizations, or the qualifications and global recognition of its faculty.

All these are important, but none represents the essential measure of the institution. The real measure of an institution lies in the character and grit of its students and the service of its graduates.

What mark do they make in the world? Is the world a better place because they walk its streets, lead its board rooms, minister in its hospitals, teach in its schools, preach in its churches, argue cases in its courtrooms, perform faithfully the task of social workers in its communities, serve as engineers in its laboratories and, perhaps most important of all, are faithful in the way they live their lives in their home circles? In the midst of their successes and failures, do they live authentic and accountable Christian lives? Is the presence of God made manifest in them? Is the incarnation of Jesus grasped afresh by the way they craft their lives?

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So much has changed.

And now, even that durable label, “Walla Walla College” has been exchanged for “Walla Walla University.”

So much, though, has endured, including our essential partnership with the citizens of the Walla Walla Valley, thousands of whom, now, are alumni of this place.

The wild idea has become wilder still:
• Operate a university on thin air
• Train God-fearing, people-loving students
• Set them loose to change the world

Thank you—friends, students, faculty and staff—for helping this “wild idea” live on:

Walla Walla University

Page maintained by Kim Strobel
Last update on June 18, 2008