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Ever-Growing Capacity: The Annual Report of the Wilmette Institute, Ridván 2022

May 1, 2022

Image: Cindy Van Kley’s #Fast19Painting from Day 17–“Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious will be unveiled to your eyes.” Read more here: Learner Inspires Others with Art Inspired by Bahá’í Writings

by Robert H. Stockman

Throughout the Bahá’í year, Wilmette Institute reports show snapshots of monthly progress: old extension courses were offered again or revised; new extension courses were added; webinars increased; interactions with colleges and universities were promising; efforts to upgrade service and receive accreditation proceeded. At the end of the Bahá’í year the Wilmette Institute’s annual report allows it to post an annual “photograph” showing how much, in toto, has happened during the year. Its annual report for the Bahá’í year 178 (2021–22) is no different. The Wilmette Institute has achieved several important milestones, especially in the areas of developing courses for credit and moving closer to accreditation.

Collaborating with the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California

The Wilmette Institute has now completed a full year as an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) of Berkeley, California, a consortium of eight private independent American theological schools and eleven centers and affiliates. Affiliation conveys a certain amount of prestige, provides us with important academic experience, strengthens our case for accreditation, allows GTU students to take our courses for credit, and increases the visibility of the Faith among faculty who could write and teach about it in classes. During the last twelve month the Institute has accomplished the following: 

1. Offered four courses for credit to GTU students:

The four courses attracted 11 registrations: 7 from GTU students and 4 from non-GTU students. A Bahá’í has begun studies at GTU in order to take Wilmette Institute courses for credit, and she is helping make contacts with GTU students and faculty.

2. In November, offered a talk through GTU’s Zoom system, and publicized through GTU’s newsletters and emails: Derik Smith’s “Reimagining the Construction of Blackness: Anti-racism and Unity in the US.” It was reasonably well attended and is receiving a steady stream of observers on YouTube: Derik Smith GTU talk on Reimagining the Construction of Racism.

3. Through Derik Smith’s November talk, explored ways to market the Wilmette Institute, its talks, and its courses to GTU and University of California-Berkeley students. Also learned a lot about the limitations of marketing, but the effort may explain the increase in GTU students enrolling in Spring 2022 semester offerings.

4. Offered two more talks in March and April 2022—one by Michael Karlberg on nonviolent change (Michael Karlberg GTU talk on nonviolent change – YouTube) and one by Arthur Dahl, about sustainability (Arthur Dahl GTU talk on Sustainability – YouTube). The talk by Dahl was cosponsored by GTU’s Sustainability 360 program; plans to collaborate further with the Sustainability program are underway.

5. Despite pandemic restrictions that prevented on-site visits, continued to expand the Wilmette Institute’s circle of contacts at GTU and Berkeley. Bahá’í faculty and the Bahá’í club on the Berkeley campus have been very helpful and supportive.

6. Leased Populi software to maintain student records professionally in order to serve the growing number of credit students effectively.

7. Proposed offering three new courses for Fall 2022.

Reaching Out to Other Institutions of Higher Education

  1. The Wilmette Institute has been exploring a relationship with North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, the largest of the publicly-funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country, which could lead to lectures, course modules, or courses that are Bahá’í inspired.
  1. The Institute is continuing its relationship with the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where Bahá’ís are studying in order to take Wilmette Institute courses for credit toward a degree.
  1. The Wilmette Institute has started developing a relationship with McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where a Bahá’í is studying for a Masters degree that will include Wilmette Institute courses.
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Accreditation

The Wilmette Institute staff devoted countless hours during the past Bahá’í year to evaluating its procedures and writing a self-evaluation report. It has now received extensive professional advice about the fourth draft of its 150-page Self Evaluation Report and its 50+ exhibits, which the Institute will submit to the Distance Education Accrediting Commission as soon as it receives operating authority from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. During the drafting process, the staff has created fifteen policy documents and has revised the Institute’s strategic plan. Among the Institute’s improvements are systems, which it has implemented, for approving new courses, assessing student engagement in the course materials and activities, and reviewing courses in order to improve them.

The Institute has received an exemption from licensing for its noncredit extension courses in religion from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Noncredit courses in religion are treated differently from credit courses.

Wilmette Institute representatives at the DEAC’s annual conference in April, 2022. From Left to Right: Justin Scoggin, Chief Academic Officer; Robert Stockman, Director; Jeff Albert, Director, Office of Education and Schools; Niki Daniels, Registrar, and her husband Julian.
Noncredit Extension Courses and Webinars

The Wilmette Institute’s noncredit extension courses have continued to attract significant participation, and their students have continued to contribute significantly to the plans of the Universal House of Justice through meaningful conversation, public discourse, contributions to study circles and classes for children and junior youth, deepenings, talks at firesides and Feasts, and art projects on Bahá’í themes.

In the Gregorian year 2021 the Wilmette Institute offered 70 online courses, 9 of which were new, and served 1,639 learners (a drop from 1,962 learners in 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, but an increase from 1,220 in 2019). The total number of countries and territories where the Wilmette Institute has had learners now exceeds 128; 65 countries were represented in 2021. The course on Agriculture and Food was perhaps the most enthusiastically received; the students and faculty made 950 postings to the course forums in eight weeks.

Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society was by far the Institute’s most important and successful course. It ran 3 times in 2021, reaching nearly 400 students. It has now run 9 times and reached about 750 people. The Regional Council of the Northwestern States continues to sponsor Spiritual Assembly members to take the course, and some Spiritual Assemblies are sponsoring their community members. The Regional Council of the Midwestern States is encouraging participation from its region as well.

In collaboration with the Council for the Northwestern States, the Wilmette Institute offered a version of the Anti-Black Racism course in the Persian language to over 50 students. It had a marked impact on the attitudes of the Persian friends toward race and has also prompted efforts to build bridges with African Americans. The participants demonstrated a thirst for more knowledge about how Persian Americans can contribute to the work toward race unity. The course will be offered again.

Webinars. Last year the Institute offered 20 webinars. Five related to the experience of minority populations in the United States; seven commemorated the centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. It also held a symposium featuring three presentations about the Bahá’í histories of North Carolina, Missouri, and Kansas. The Institute’s YouTube channel now has 5,400 subscribers and has had over half a million views (552,000) of its videos since 2015, an increase of over 100,000 in the last year.

Looking Forward to B.E. 179

Over the next Bahá’í year, the Wilmette Institute plans to achieve accreditation, which will allow it to offer its credit courses to more Bahá’ís and their friends. It hopes to expand further its relationships with other institutions of higher education. It will develop lines of action that will support the Nine Year Plan. It will revise its website, explore new ways to market its courses, expand its staff, and strengthen its financial position through fundraising with the goal of creating an endowment.

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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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