Indiana Wesleyan University has an entrepreneurial bent: the evangelical Christian institution is well-known for having expanded beyond its 3,000-student residential undergraduate campus to develop online programs and a network of 17 regional centers for adult and graduate education throughout Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Now the university is eyeing an expansion Down Under through the planned acquisition of the Wesley Institute, a Christian performing arts-focused college in Sydney that also offers programs in education and counseling.
“We feel like it’s a good marriage, where we can offer help to one another,” said David Wright, Indiana Wesleyan’s president. The Wesley Institute, which is classified as a registered “higher education provider,” has been on the market for a partner to help it grow and ultimately achieve recognition as a full-fledged “Australian university.” Meanwhile, Indiana Wesleyan sees the acquisition as providing a foothold in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We hope it will become a multibranch campus that covers all of the Asia-Pacific," with branches in multiple countries and online programs -- "the full gamut, from traditional to adult education,” said Bridget Aitchison, dean for international programs at Indiana Wesleyan.
That hope is, granted, a long way off from being realized. First up is the acquisition. Pending approval from Indiana Wesleyan's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the university plans to invest about $6 million in the Wesley Institute over five years to help it develop new programs. No final decisions have been made about new programs but the additions will likely include, initially, a range of business programs and a broader bachelor of arts degree with majors in fields such as drama, English, history, music and religious studies. (Currently, the Wesley Institute has discipline-named bachelor's degrees, such as a bachelor of dance, as opposed to a broader-based B.A.)
As it grows, the Institute plans to apply for changes in status under the country’s accreditation  system from “higher education provider” to “Australian university college” to “Australian university.” Unlike in the case of Carnegie Mellon University and University College London, which offer American and British degrees, respectively, and which are licensed to operate in Australia as "overseas universities" under the authority of their home country accreditation, officials at IWU stress that the Wesley Institute will operate as an Australian university with Australian accreditation. The Wesley Institute will be rebranded and renamed, though the new name has not yet been selected.
If a renamed Wesley Institute achieves designation as a university – a term that under Australian regulations can only apply to institutions that offer master’s and doctoral degrees in at least three fields -- it would be the only broad-based Protestant university in all of Australia and New Zealand. Public, secular institutions make up the bulk of universities in the region, though there are two Roman Catholic universities in Australia. There are currently a number of smaller Protestant higher education providers offering theology or ministry programs and even in some cases professional programs like counseling or education, but, as Atchison said, “they don’t have university status and they don’t play on the same playing field as government universities."
The Rev. Richard Waugh, president of the Wesleyan Methodist Church South Pacific Conference, said that a high proportion of Christian young people in Australia and New Zealand are compelled to go to secular universities. “I’ve been very interested in how we can have a high-quality university education that comes from a Christian worldview,” Waugh said. “We believe that there’s a pastoral need as well as a potential market.”
Market research commissioned by Indiana Wesleyan and the Wesley Institute show that there’s been a 140 percent increase in enrollments in independent K-12 schools in Australia since 1985, compared to a 2.8 percent growth in government school enrollments. Not all independent schools are Christian, but many are. The research separated out Roman Catholic schools, which had 26 percent enrollment growth during the same period.
“There’s an unmet need for people to move from Christian secondary school to Christian higher education,” said Gregory J. Rough, Wesley Institute’s managing director.
What exactly Christian higher education will look like in this context is still to be determined. Indiana Wesleyan employees must subscribe to a statement of faith and applicants to the traditional undergraduate campus in Marion must sign a “community values contract,” which asks prospective students to respect the institution’s Christian perspective and to refrain from substance abuse, premarital sex, "homosexual behavior," and other behaviors that “are expressly prohibited by Scripture.” However, adult students enrolled in Indiana Wesleyan programs online and at the regional centers do not have to sign such a contract: in fact, about 50 percent of the university’s adult students are not Christian, according to Aitchison.
Officials at both institutions said the issue of faith commitments for students and staff at a revamped Wesley Institute hasn’t yet been nailed down, but Rough said the institute will likely follow Australian norms for Christian higher education and require a faith commitment for employees but not for students. This is in line with Wesley Institute’s current practices, said Rough, who explained that the employment contract requires respect for the Christian values and ethos of the institute. The Wesley Institute is an affiliate member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, the U.S.-based association for evangelical Christian colleges.
Indiana Wesleyan has announced that Rough will remain in his leadership position during the transition. “They’ve been very clear that they want our management, both administrative and academic management, to stay in place,” Rough said. “Indiana Wesleyan has said they want to build on the current foundations rather than change those dramatically.”