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History of the Wilmette Institute

The history of the Wilmette Institute is dominated by its first years (1995 to 2016) during which it offered on-site “extension” or community courses and gradually moved to correspondence-based and finally to an entirely online mode of study. The National Spiritual Assembly of the United States (NSA) saw the need for a nationwide distance learning system and founded the Wilmette Institute in 1995 specifically to learn how such an educational format could provide systematic training and courses open to all Bahá’ís in the United States about the organization and teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, including its scriptures, history, teachings about individual and collective transformation, and its relationship to other religions. Its mission and purpose was to provide a systematic education about the Faith, because the Bahá’í Faith has no clergy or seminaries, and it lacked academic, systematic educational efforts in the United States.

Early Years (1996-2016)

For the first decade (1996 to 2005) Wilmette Institute ran “The Spiritual Foundations for a Global Civilization” program in Wilmette/Evanston, Illinois (where the Faith has its U.S. headquarters), which included intensive study (in-person, 8+ hours of study per day) for several weeks and continued correspondence-based and online study, and conference calls the rest of the year. The Spiritual Foundations curriculum was comprehensive and operated on a four-year cycle.

Wilmette Institute began correspondence-based extension (non-credit-bearing) courses in 1998 and gradually switched to that medium as the software improved and as the number of registrants willing and able to travel to Wilmette declined. That year, 4 online courses were offered to 142 registrants, who had to pay by check or by telephoning in their credit card number. Most readings were photocopied and mailed.

Wilmette Institute gradually experimented with online components (academic resources, registration, payment) of its courses as the technology permitted until it adopted Moodle in 2008 and since then has offered only entirely online courses, the number of which grew from 4 in 1998 to 70 in 2020. In 2015 WI added video conferencing to its courses through GoToWebinar, and then increased use of video conferencing by using Zoom starting in 2019.

This early history is also characterized by a simple administration, headed by a Director, who reported directly to the NSA. WI also received information technology support from the NSA’s IT team and human resources support from the NSA’s HR department. The director also received support from an expanding group of part-time course faculty. A content support specialist joined part-time in 2010, and an executive secretary / registrar joined as part-time staff in 2016. In 2015, the NSA shifted oversight of  Wilmette Institute under the Office of Baha’i Schools, adding a supervisory filter between the WI Director and the National Spiritual Assembly.

"Panelists exploring the role of theatre in contributing to social change." 
Courtesy Baha'i World News Service (September 2023,
Panelists exploring the role of theatre in contributing to social change.
Courtesy Baha’i World News Service
(September 2023,

Moves to develop courses for credit (2017-2022)

Enrollment of several Baha’is in chaplaincy and religious studies programs in seminaries in 2017 opened the possibility of offering these students courses for credit. In response, and in addition to its online extension courses, in 2018 the Wilmette Institute decided to offer credit-bearing courses through articulation agreements with seminaries and universities to Baha’i and non-Baha’i students. The administration began to grow as a result, adding an Associate Director (2019), an Academic Advisory Board (2019), a Chief Academic Officer (2020), a Course Development Specialist (2022), and a Digital Support Associate (2022). In 2020, the Institute chose the DEAC through which to pursue its aspiration to obtain accreditation, and began elaborating its self-evaluation report.

Months of reflection on the direction of the Wilmette Institute, and allocation of its human resources, culminated in a 2022 staff retreat in which the mission statement was significantly modified to its current status, changing the focus and operation of the Institute to be more in line with the guidance received from the Director of Education and Schools as well as from the NSA and the Universal House of Justice. The focus of the Institute’s human resources shifted in that retreat away from the extension courses and towards the work related to offering credit-bearing certificates.

Pilot Certificate Program (2023)

Originally, two potential certificate programs were conceived to be piloted. The Baha’i History and Texts certificate program emerged as a natural evolution from decades of experience offering courses in the field of religious studies on the Baha’i Faith. Some of our best extension courses were modified to be more academically rigorous for this purpose. However, this potential certificate program has since been suspended for the time being. Aligning the program with the current WI mission statement, its pedagogical approach, and its target audience will require reconceptualization. The Social Transformation certificate program emerged from decades of experience in community organizing, and offering extension courses related to social change, racial unity, sustainable development and education. Our current courses have been developed in alignment to our pedagogy, mission, and target audience. They are original, and not modifications of our extension courses. The Social Transformation certificate program, through its program and course learning outcomes, and course content, aligns with not only WI’s mission statement and pedagogical approach, but is also geared to an entirely new target audience.

Last Updated: September, 2023

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