Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interim Presidents Don't Pander

Any OBU president would have to concede, at least off the record, that part of the job involves pandering to increasingly fundamentalist elements within the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.  It's a difficult balancing act that involves assuring the BGCO that the university is sufficiently conservative, all the while reassuring OBU students and faculty that you are an advocate for academic freedom, liberty of the conscience, and the proud liberal arts tradition that made OBU great.

Frankly, the BGCO has become so thoroughly fundamentalist in the past three decades that the administrators' jobs have become impossible.  They have to pledge their allegiance to one side or the other, for what the BGCO wants for OBU and what the faculty and students want is so far apart now that the two are completely incompatible.

Recent events make it clear which side the administration has taken.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if OBU presidents didn't have to pander to the BGCO at all?  That's why the end game is to break the BGCO's stranglehold on OBU.  But we have had little moments in our history when the pandering ceased, and I look forward to exploring those brief moments more in the months to come.

The theme we're going to explore is the OBU-BGCO dynamic during the tenure of interim presidents.  There is a lot of institutional history we need to learn and share, so please email if you have particular insights.

After President Grady Cothen left Bison Hill to become president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1970, Bob Lynn served as interim president until Bill Tanner was elected president.  Now, I do not know if Lynn had aspirations to become OBU's 11th president, though I assume he did because he went on to the presidency of Louisiana College (which, unfortunately, also became fundamentalist).  But in 1971, a rock band played a concert in Raley Chapel, provoking the ire of some Baptist ministers in Oklahoma City and perhaps elsewhere.  Lynn, to his credit, told the ministers in no uncertain terms that they were not going to dictate what OBU students would or would not be allowed to listen to.

Can you imagine an OBU president today publicly defying the wishes of large church pastors in any issue of university governance or policy?

Among the dozens of students and recent alumni with whom I've interacted, almost all of them have noted the vastly different leadership dynamics of the incumbent president and his interim predecessor.  During the interim year (2007-08), it was inconceivable that professors would be fired for ideological reasons, that core curriculum areas like philosophy would be gutted in favor of "apologetics," or that OBU would have a fundamentalist bookstore on campus.  Yet when a BGCO-approved president emerged, all these things and more have become sad realities of OBU life.

We will be critically investigating three interim periods between OBU presidents (1971, 1982, and 2007-08).

For now, we just want to connect a few dots:

  • Interim presidents do not have to pander to the BGCO
  • Regular trustee-elected presidents, especially those in office since the BGCO became fundamentalist, have to pander so egregiously to fundamentalist wishes that they struggle to maintain the confidence of the faculty and students
  • If the BGCO did not own and control OBU, presidents would not have to pander to fundamentalists at all

The kind of management and leadership we enjoyed in 2007-08 will remain a distant dream until someone stands up to the BGCO.  We are looking to students, alumni, donors, trustees, and faculty (current and former) to join the effort.  If presidents and provosts are ever going to stand strong for academic freedom and liberal arts education again, they need to know that we have their backs.

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