Newsletter

Progress Report: Recent news from the Director

Feb 2, 2022

by Robert H Stockman

The last few months have seen great progress for the Wilmette Institute. Much of it was reported at a meeting of the faculty on Saturday, January 29 and displayed in the form of Google slides: WI Update.

The last three years has seen a steady increase in the number of online noncredit “extension” courses. In 2019 the Institute offered 55, which increased to 61 in 2020 and 70 in 2021. Most likely the number in 2022 will drop closer to 60, in order to free up human resources for the pursuit of accreditation. The number of registrations increased from 1,208 in 2019 to 1,838 in 2020, and some of that increase was because people were stuck at home during the pandemic. The numbers dropped down to 1,639 in 2021, suggesting that the Institute has experienced a permanent increase in learners, in spite of the fact that we raised our base tuition from $75 to $95 on January 1, 2021.

The Wilmette Institute increased its contribution to community building and public discourse significantly in 2021 through its non-credit “Anti-Black Racism” course. Two Regional Councils are now encouraging Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) members in their areas to take the course and are subsidizing their tuition costs. LSAs in other regions have also taken the course together—including in 2021 Gainesville and Miami Dade N, FL, and Irondequoit, NY.  Over 700 people have taken the Anti-Black Racism course, which will be offered three more times in 2022.

The Regional Council of the Northwestern States and the Wilmette Institute have just completed an Anti-Black Racism course wholly offered in the Persian language. The course materials, presentations, and small breakout group exercises assisted participants to study the Writings, understand current knowledge about race/race relations, and explore application of the knowledge with scenarios in small groups. Stories of how the Persian friends have started to apply their learning to their lives are emerging. Before the course was even over, there were small acts of kindness and more elaborate efforts that have attracted participation from the wider community. It is hoped that the Persian-language materials will be of use to the entire Iranian diaspora in the U.S. An Anti-Black Racism course for youth is also in the development stage.

The focus of the staff over the last month has been revision of the self study that is required for accreditation. Previously, over 120 pages of answers had been drafted to hundreds of questions about the Institute’s functioning. Starting January 1st, five staff began to meet via Zoom up to three hours a day, Monday through Friday, every week, to revise the self study and complete all 41 of the exhibits that must be submitted. At the end of January, 60 of the 120 pages had been revised, and the document was substantially improved. Among the changes have been a complete revision of the strategic plan, the creation of an implementation plan for it, and the establishment of committees to approve new courses and review existing ones with an eye for continuous improvement. The Institute has also continued to respond to questions about its application for operating authority from the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Work designing the Wilmette Institute’s two certificate programs is nearly finished. The Universal House of Justice does not want any academic degrees in Bahá’í Studies created at this time, but certificates are not degrees and have no rigid academic definition (a certificate is a series of courses on a subject at either the undergraduate or graduate level; there is no minimum or maximum number of courses required). Our certificate in “Bahá’í History, Texts, and Tenets” will require six courses; the “Social Transformation” certificate will start with four. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission will accredit certificate programs, which will allow us to offer the courses individually for credit as well. Over time, electives can be added, allowing us to offer even more courses for credit, which we hope to market to undergraduates who want to change the world.

We have also started offering our certificate courses for credit through the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) of Berkeley, California, which must review the syllabus of each course and the credentials of its faculty before approving the course and offering it on their Moodle learning management system to their students (and any students the Wilmette Institute adds to the course). Last spring we offered “Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society” and one GTU student took it. An atheist, he greatly enjoyed the course and acquired a changed understanding of the power of religion to make the world a better place. In the fall of 2021 we offered one course, “Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith,” and it had two students.

The spring 2022 semester has just started and the Wilmette Institute is offering three courses for credit: “Introduction to Bahá’í Scripture: The Writings of Bahá’u’lláh” with three students, “Bahá’í Theology” with two students, and “Reconstructing Blackness: Anti-Racism and Unity in the U.S.” with four students. Two students at GTU, one of whom is a Bahá’í, are included in the count. The other students include a Bahá’í completing a master’s degree in religious studies at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, with whom the Wilmette Institute has an agreement; a Bahá’í in a master’s program at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, with which the Wilmette Institute is developing an agreement; a Bahá’í undergraduate at Empire State College in New York, who can get credit from the college via the life experience option; and a Bahá’í who wants to take the “Reconstructing Blackness” course in order to study the subject deeply. The Institute is already planning three more courses for the fall of 2022. By routing Bahá’ís who want credit through the GTU courses, we increase their size, gain experience, and expand the awareness of GTU students of our offerings.

All this work has been possible because the Wilmette Institute has seen an increase in its staffing levels. Its three full time positions—Director, Associate Director, and Registrar—were augmented when Justin Scoggin began to work as a contractor to help raise course quality and improve faculty training. Justin is now half time and has the title of Chief Academic Officer, the very important position in any institute of higher education that maintains and improves course quality. Justin has overseen the creation of a new system for measuring and increasing student engagement in our courses. By activating the “activity completion” tracker in our Moodle learning management platform we can measure whether students have completed certain selected activities in a particular course that are representative of the whole, and use that to award a certificate of completion.

It was also announced at the faculty meeting on January 29 that Candace Hill, who has assisted faculty in setting up their online courses for over ten years, will be retiring later this year. The Institute is in the process of enumerating its various needs in order to create one or more new positions that will involve course setup and tracking accreditation requirements.

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Robert Stockman, ThD

Wilmette Institute Director

I have had a passion for researching and teaching about the Bahá’í Faith for more than half of my life. My fascination with American Bahá’í history and with the first American Bahá’í, Thornton Chase, caused me, in 1980, to switch my academic field from planetary science to history of religion in the United States. As I was finishing my doctorate in that field at Harvard University in 1990, I drew up plans to create a Bahá’í Studies institute that would offer courses, encourage research, and publish. Instead, I was hired by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States to start a research office at our national Bahá’í headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois. Some of the responsibilities of the research office led to the creation of the Wilmette Institute, which ​focuses on most of the tasks of the institute I originally conceived. Meanwhile, I have also remained involved in academia, teaching religious studies part time at DePaul University in Chicago and currently at Indiana University South Bend, just a mile from home. I have also published four books on aspects of Bahá’í history (including a biography of Thornton Chase) and one introductory textbook on the Faith. Listen to Robert’s interview on ‘A Bahá’í Perspective’ podcastSee Faculty Bio

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