Dr. John Brock’s goal was for the world to know what he already knew about Maranatha.
“The academic quality was here when I arrived,” Brock recalled. “I knew the reality. I knew the quality of the faculty. I knew the students who came here were getting a top-quality education and were coming out with the right kind of spiritual balance. We just hadn’t done as good a job as we could have communicating that to everyone else.”
That’s why Brock, Maranatha’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, led the charge for regional accreditation in the 1980s. That’s also why Brock sent out an email to faculty and staff members on February 26, 2013, noting “with joy” the marking of 20 years since the College was officially notified it had been granted initial accreditation by the North Central Association.
Maranatha graduates over the last 20 years have been the beneficiaries of the work done by Brock and others. Regional accreditation has cleared the way for them to enter graduate schools and advance professionally. It has allowed graduates in Business, Teacher Education, Accounting, Nursing, and other degree programs to earn credentials that match those of alumni from large state universities. It has cleared the way for alumni to pursue occupations in countries that allow only limited access to traditional missionaries.
Brock’s “bundle of joy” arrived February 26, 1993—but was preceded by seven years of often-difficult labor.
The Beginning: The 3IC Plan
When the accreditation journey began, no independent fundamental Baptist colleges were regionally accredited. Maranatha was not overly excited about being the first to break the mold, but the importance to the college of meeting the needs of its students while being true to its founding principles overcame the natural tendency to “play it safe.”
The first order of business when Brock arrived in 1984 was to pursue an accreditation alternative path that allowed Maranatha students to be eligible for federal financial aid and the acceptance of its degrees. The “Three Institutional Certification” method (3IC) was a rigorous substitute for accreditation used by the U.S. Department of Education until 1987-88. It was a complicated process which required the documentation that three students at three different regionally accredited institutions (nine student in all) successfully transferred Maranatha credits into those institutions on the same basis as they would if they had been students from an accredited institution. But in 1987 the 3IC program was being phased out.
“To lose that would have been an incredible blow,” Brock said. “Maranatha had just begun a financial turnaround, and affordability for students was a key factor.”
So, Maranatha began to formally investigate accreditation.
Weniger: “Rock Solid”
Dr. Arno Weniger, who had worked to lead the College out of considerable debt after taking over as president in 1983, was “absolutely rock solid” in favor of the idea, according to Brock.
“I am hopeful that you can see that what is happening here is for the good of the school and our students,” Weniger wrote to a former board member in 1991, “and be assured that, should there be any effort to compromise or deviate, this preacher will discontinue the effort.”
The idea that accreditation meant compromise was a popular one among fundamentalists. They pointed to Ivy League universities as examples—colleges founded on Christian ideals that eventually embraced theological liberalism, then secularism. While that cause-and- effect argument may not have been completely valid, most fundamentalists were, at best, suspicious.
“We knew the list—you’ll have to hire non-believers, you won’t be able to control student or faculty standards, you’ll be ‘secularized,’ ” Brock said, “but we couldn’t find any support for those presuppositions.”
Doug Jackson, currently chairman of Maranatha’s Board of Trustees, was a young board member when the process began.
“At first, I wasn’t for accreditation because I thought it might infringe upon our stance as independent Baptists,” Jackson said. “It was something we didn’t understand.”
Weniger’s support for the idea was one key to Jackson changing his mind. “I would have to say Dr. Weniger thoroughly investigated it,” Jackson said.
AABC and a False Start
Maranatha first sought membership in the American Association of Bible Colleges (AABC), a national accrediting body since renamed the Association for Biblical Higher Education.
”We thought the religious association might be an easier pill to swallow, plus there was some apprehension that maybe we weren’t ready for the ‘big leagues,’ ” Brock said.
The Board initially voted to go ahead with AABC accreditation—then reversed that decision a year later. The votes were close, and some board members resigned during the process.
Brock said the board was concerned with the broad spectrum of beliefs among AABC members.
“They felt uncomfortable joining a religious organization unless there was like faith and practice,” Brock said. This belief was also shared by members of the administration.
The College then began to investigate the “big leagues”—the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA).
Called Up to the Big Leagues
Brock spent two hours with North Central Association President Dr. Thurston Manning in Chicago. Manning assured Brock that NCA was only interested in determining Maranatha’s definition of its educational mission and how the College was working to accomplish that mission. Jean Mather of the NCA later met with Maranatha board members and confirmed those sentiments.
“They asked (Mather) every question they could think of,” Brock said.
Mather’s answers apparently satisfied them. In May of 1989, the board voted to pursue regional accreditation.
Brock anticipated a six-year process, compiling a self-study every two years, to advance from “candidacy” status to regional accreditation. Two years later, however, that plan was accelerated.
Maranatha had completed its first two-year self-study and was working on another when it received word that students at “candidate” colleges would no longer be eligible for Title IV federal funding. The NCA suggested that Maranatha move immediately into the final, and most difficult, initial accreditation stage.
“The people in our Administrative Cabinet would spend hours every week proofreading documents that were about 200 pages long,” Brock said. “The support I had from the president and the administration was just astounding.”
The College was cautious about presuming accreditation approval. But students were regularly apprised regarding the process, and the site visit itself is a public, campus-wide event that includes interaction between students, faculty, board, administration, and the visiting team. The students were, as always, terrific examples of what Maranatha is.
A Time to Celebrate
Brock said Cindy (Frieling) Estell was the “unsung hero” of the accreditation saga. She was his administrative assistant from 1989-93, spending hundreds of hours proofreading, correcting, and reformatting document drafts. This was no easy task with the primitive word processors and printers of the era.
It was Estell who answered the phone when the news came that Maranatha had been approved.
“Cindy wasn’t an emotional person; she was very strong,” Brock recalled. “But when we got the phone call, she broke down in my office and just wept. We were all emotionally very invested in this thing.”
“I had joked with (Brock) that I would do cartwheels down the hallway,” said Estell, now a mother of five who works as Administrative Assistant for Faculty Affairs at the University of Michigan’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “I just thought it was going to be a great thing when we got it. I don’t think I could have comprehended the benefits it brought to students, and is continuing to bring to them.”
When the formal announcement was made, the students cheered. Brock said the initial response from recent graduates was “overwhelming.”
Two Decades Later
Brock said he still agrees with Weniger’s assessment when considering the future of accreditation at Maranatha.
“We have to be willing to suffer if accreditation is used to lever us into positions or policies that we simply can’t tolerate,” Brock said.
“We always look at it,” Jackson said. “Every year we make sure it’s not infringing upon our biblical standards. Everybody has been pretty satisfied.”
Although two decades have passed, Brock still occasionally hears from graduates thankful for being able to enjoy the benefits of Maranatha’s regional accreditation. Jackson agrees with them.
“I believe a lot of people have benefitted from that decision,” Jackson said. “It hasn’t hurt us. In the big picture, it has actually helped us prepare people for ministry.”