APU as a Model Christian University

by Paul W. Ferguson, PhD, DABT, and Andrew Barton, EdD

Azusa Pacific University: Advancing a Renewed Vision

For more than a century, Azusa Pacific University graduates have earned degrees that bear witness to the remarkable heritage and expansion of the institution since its founding in 1899. The Mission Statement, adopted in 1990 by the APU Board of Trustees, sparked significant growth over the last three decades: “Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical Christian Community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God in the world through academic excellence in liberal arts and professional programs of higher education that encourage students to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life.” While names and locations have changed, the University’s God First motto remains. Today, more than 120 years later, and in the face of significant disruption and unparalleled opportunity for impact, Azusa Pacific University is poised to equip a new generation of increasingly diverse students with an excellent Christ-centered education.

APU makes a distinct mark among the country’s four-year colleges and universities, contributing to the nation’s higher education landscape and underscoring the value and necessity of a premier Christian institution to advance social and Kingdom good. Among the university’s unique attributes and contributions, the following highlights exemplify Azusa Pacific University’s readiness for renewal and impact:

APU serves more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students, as one of the largest Christian universities on the West Coast. APU is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the 389 Doctoral-level National Universities category of America’s Best Colleges 2021, with 5,750 undergraduate and 5,633 graduate students. APU is nationally recognized as a Carnegie Classification R2 Doctoral University with high research activity consistent with outstanding faculty scholarship. APU is 1 of only 135 National Universities in this category and 1 of only 2 colleges and universities of the 180-member Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

APU actively engages the community. APU received the prestigious Carnegie Community Engagement Reclassification in 2020, 1 of only 359 institutions nationwide.

APU attracts a richly diverse community that reflects its choice Southern California location. APU is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, and an Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Students of color comprise 65% of the student body. First-generation students make up 30% of APU’s undergraduate student population.

APU offers a comprehensive and rigorous academic portfolio to meet the intellectual, employment, and market-driven needs and interests of students. APU provides more than 100 outstanding academic programs focused on Christ-centered academic excellence.

For example: The School of Nursing consistently ranks as a top 10 program in the nation (USA Today) and No. 1 in California (College Factual and Niche.com). APU School of Education has graduated more than 20,000 educators, including superintendents, district leaders, principals, and school psychologists and counselors. The APU Honors College was recognized by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in 2019 as 1 of 5 “Hidden Gems” in the nation. The APU College of the Arts’ School of Music ranks No. 7 in California in 2020 (College Factual), the Department of Theater Arts nationally ranked in the top 30% of universities in 2018, and the BFA in Acting for the Stage and Screen program ranked in the top 25 universities nationally in 2018-19 (OnStage Blog).

APU invests in high market-demand programs. The Doctor of Physical Therapy program has a 97% graduation rate, 100% pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Exam, and 100% employment in the field. APU’s Games and Interactive Media major equips students for careers in the $100 billion gaming industry and is the first of its kind in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. APU alumni earn an average of $54,200 10 years after graduating, compared to the national average of $34,300; and 93% are employed within two years of graduation, versus the national average of 83%.

APU delivers a nationally recognized co-curricular student experience. APU’s nationally regarded Student Affairs (SA) program offers engaging, high-impact co-curricular experiences. SA provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to develop a deeper understanding of their faith, academic goals, and vocational pursuits. Students benefit from 50 clubs and organizations with more than 1,185 undergraduate students in active formal on-campus discipleship groups, and a Counseling Center fully accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services.

APU athletics is a top 20 nationally recognized NCAA Division II program (Learfield IMG Directors’ Cup), involving 450 student-athletes in 7 men’s sports and 11 women’s sports. Since its inception, the program has attained 51 national and 138 conference championships, and produced 14 professional athletes and 14 Olympians who garnered 7 Olympic medals. Current Cougar student-athletes maintain a collective 3.36 grade-point average.

The Value of a Christian University Education

As higher education becomes increasingly commodified and competitive, universities must address the changing demographic, economic, and technologic dynamics in the marketplace. APU will utilize contemporary and relevant strategies to prepare the next generations for successful careers, help people retool for new workplace demands, enhance quality of life of all citizens, spur imagination through the arts and humanities, and create new knowledge to fuel innovative technologies and businesses, while working with state and federal partners to enhance economic development for society.

Laurie Schreiner, PhD, chair and professor in APU’s Department of Higher Education, extends this call further by asking, “What good is Christian higher education?” She contends that it must not only support and encourage the individual and public good commonly addressed by secular education, but it must also distinctively prepare graduates for advancing Kingdom Good. The Kingdom Good of Christian higher education “might be conceptualized as inclusive of individual and common good but transcending both.” Schreiner makes five insightful recommendations:

  • Capitalize on the strengths of Christian higher education to focus on being salt and light in the world.
  • Encourage greater campus engagement to meet the needs of the world.
  • Instill a positive perspective at the individual-student and university-systems levels.
  • Expand the co-curriculum beyond individual student growth to common good contribution.
  • Match the energy and intentionality of students’ spiritual development to help them realize a Kingdom role in becoming impactful Christian scholars and leaders.

More than 20 years ago, Fr. Richard Neuhaus suggested that the Christian university is especially suited to provide the transformational education experience that prepares students for careers and life. He wrote of its role in cultivating the life of the mind: “If the life of the mind is not understood as an integral part of Christian discipleship and mission, the term Christian university is indeed, as some claim, an oxymoron.” He continued, “The question that those who lead a Christian university must answer, and answer again every day, is whether the confession that Jesus is Lord limits or illuminates the university’s obligation to seek and serve Veritas—to seek and serve the Truth.”

The challenges facing Christian higher education in the next decade are particularly significant, as the nation wrestles with a health pandemic, race and inequity, and the legislative balance between ensuring the protection of citizen rights in a pluralistic society and the rights of religious liberty expressed by the Church and religious colleges and universities. Policies around admissions, nondiscrimination, financial aid, hiring, and alignment with university mission are but a few of these pressing issues within a culture struggling with moral clarity and purpose.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, reflected on seeking a college education in this culture: “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.” APU is in the best position to offer society a way, as Brooks suggests, of “talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. . . . and have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, courageous mind, and purposeful soul.” APU stands ready to embrace this responsibility.

The Strategic Planning Process: Advancing a Renewed Vision for APU

The consensus-based planning process within the APU Community was guided by the Strategic Plan Leadership Team to encourage active constituent engagement.

This process enabled the APU Community to:

  • Come together in a spirit of hope and renewal after a season of acute fiscal and management challenges.
  • Reflect on the institution’s role as a premier Christian University in a disrupted landscape.
  • Identify areas of excellence that advance Kingdom Good and improve practices that fall short.
  • Implement policies and contemporary processes that produce excellence in our students, staff, and faculty.
  • Position APU as a leader at state and national levels in providing sustainable Christ-centered academic excellence within the competitive higher education sector.

Drawing upon diverse perspectives and skills, the 31-member Leadership Team inspired rich dialog and interaction around APU’s future. Thought leaders and subject-matter experts from different academic disciplines, co-curricular and student support systems, campus locations, and lengths of service gave voice to the university’s present and future challenges, opportunities, and vision. All schools and major divisions were represented, as were faculty, staff, students, alumni, administration, and members of the Board. The Strategic Planning Process fostered open and rigorous engagement between the Leadership Team and various constituencies. The work of these groups quickly coalesced into five Grand Initiatives.

As designed and implemented, Renewal: Strengthening Our Capacity for Cultivating Christ-Centered Scholars and Leaders will advance APU as a University of impactful Christian scholars and leaders characterized by best practices of the highest quality. The plan provides a blueprint for a University-wide commitment to tactical implementation to effectively promote and sustain academic excellence for highly diverse constituencies at all degree levels within a Christ-honoring focus.

A Renewed Vision for Azusa Pacific University

Through Renewal, Azusa Pacific University aspires to be the premier Christian university of choice for our culture and times. This consensus-based vision, which motivates APU to address future higher education trends while committing to intensive self-reflection for improvement, will enhance APU’s academic stature. APU will provide stellar academic and professional opportunities, but more importantly, model how a major national university can continue to be Christian in a “post-Christian” society. With successful implementation of Renewal, the nation could look to Azusa Pacific as a Model Christian University.

As such, APU can extend Christ-centered, inclusive academic excellence, integrating faith and scholarship through research, teaching, and service in undergraduate and graduate programs, and engage society with virtue. This University can be a provider of broad and innovative programs to the next generation of diverse learners and ethical leaders; increase success in student retention, graduation rates, and career preparation programs for diverse learners; become more effective in hiring and retention of employees of color; and employ relevant and contemporary discipleship-based student affairs programming to promote quality of student thriving.

APU as a Model Christian University can cultivate a diverse group of engaged and motivated faculty and staff supported by strong, strategically organized leadership teams and collaborative engagement defined by missional focus, mutual respect, and open communication. In this effort, faculty and staff can be committed to values-based commentary and resolution of society’s most difficult challenges, from science to social and spiritual issues. APU can provide focused faculty and staff professional development programs that support research, community engagement, and recruitment and retention strategies to attract the highest quality employees and bolster morale.

With the strong cadre of University faculty and staff, APU as a Model Christian University can be defined by academic innovation offering relevant and contemporary undergraduate and graduate degree programs designed to meet emerging trends in the workplace as well as traditionally popular vocational and postgraduate opportunities. Academic programs reflect APU’s interdisciplinary commitment to addressing societal needs and influencing culture. As a future-looking and forward-thinking institution, APU as a Model University can make data-informed decisions in academic and operational performance, and optimized strategies for the physical plant, strategically connecting facilities, capital, and technology infrastructure improvements to program growth and significantly improve quality of place at APU.

As an investor in the future, with a vibrant commitment to campus sustainability, student affordability, and opportunity, APU can be characterized by sound fiscal management and growth with balanced budgets and innovative cost savings. Robust philanthropy from generous and engaged donors can increase the University Endowment for new, needed scholarships to attract and support the brightest young scholars from diverse and first-generation backgrounds, and fund Endowed Chairs to enhance faculty development and research programs addressing society’s most pressing needs in such fields as the health and social sciences to promote wellness, the liberal arts and sciences to guide impactful civic engagement, theology to foster Christ-centered spiritual formation in our society, or the visual and performing arts to inspire our communities to thrive.

By cultivating a more innovative institution and promoting the Kingdom and Common Good, Azusa Pacific University strives to become the nation’s premier Christian University with a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff known as engaged citizens of character and virtue. They will be known as thoughtful scholars and leaders in their disciplines, sharing the truth and love of Christ in a society that so desperately needs both.

Learn more about Renewal at apu.edu/renewal/.

Paul W. Ferguson, PhD, DABT, is president and Andrew Barton, EdD, is vice president for strategic planning and mission integration at Azusa Pacific University.

Originally published in the Fall '20 issue of APU Life. View all issues.