Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sunday School: Stetson University

Happy new year, friends!  Thank you for taking a moment to visit the Save OBU blog and read our "Sunday School" feature.  Every Sunday, we tell the story of how a Baptist university attained independence from its fundamentalist state convention.  Today's Sunday School post tells the story of Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.

The Story
Founded in the 1880s, Stetson is one of the oldest private colleges in Florida.  Almost right from the start, Stetson was a case study for Baptists in how not to run a university.  Unlike more stringently-controlled Baptist schools (where the convention elects university trustees), Stetson's board of trustees was set up to be self-perpetuating.

The relationship between Stetson and the Florida Baptist Convention was mostly cordial, but became tense by the 1950s.  Convention leaders expressed concern about the presence of fraternities (of which my own grandfather was a member) and sororities on a Christian campus, accepting federal aid, and the trustee succession arrangement.  The school advocated a "student responsibility based development model" versus the more authoritarian in loco parentis model.  In the early 1960s, the FBC issued a report on Stetson-FBC relations that argued for more accountability to the convention, doctrinally and otherwise.  Also in the 1960s, the university dropped its compulsory chapel attendance policy.

As with other state conventions, the FBC experienced a fundamentalist takeover similar to what the national denomination experienced in the 1980s.  A continuing partnership was narrowly upheld at the 1991 meeting of the Florida Baptist Convention, but ultimately the FBC would not tolerate a true liberal arts university that it could not fully control.  (Meanwhile, the FBC had already established two other colleges in Florida.)

The split, which had been brewing for years, became official in 1995.  Stetson had decided that it would allow students (of legal age) to consume alcohol at some campus functions.  The FBC also had concerns over textbook content and how best to regulate students' sex lives.  The split was amicable, with Stetson returning a half-million dollar endowment to the convention.

The Aftermath
As is always the case after Baptist colleges and state conventions part ways, both entities are far better off than they were during their strained, mutually draining union.  Stetson has expanded its mission and profile while remaining true the highest ideals of liberal arts education.  It has dramatically improved its position in national college rankings.  By every conceivable measure -- objective or otherwise -- Stetson is significantly better off without the fundamentalist Florida Baptist Convention attempting to meddle in its affairs.

The FBC, likewise, is free of a significant administrative and institutional burden.  It has retained control over the fundamentalist Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, an institution much more in line with its mission and worldview, and to which it contributes nearly $2 million in annual support.

Free from its tense and reluctant suport of Stetson, Florida Baptists have expanded their commitment to minister in the mission field represented by Florida's one million college students.

Each entity is happier and better positioned to reach its goals, as both Stetson and the FBC readily acknowledged before, during, and after the split.

Lessons Learned
As always, the biggest problem for OBU is that the BGCO owns the property and elects the trustees.  Our route to independence is going to be more difficult than the Stetson-FBC split.  Stetson had already offended FBC fundamentalists long before the split finally occurred.  It was much less authoritarian with respect to compulsory worship and regulating young adults' lives than OBU is.  Stetson was also much less dependent on convention funds than OBU.  So the story was more about a fundamentalist convention kicking out a "fallen" university than a still-conservative college needing independence from a fundamentalist convention in order to escape its own descent into fundamentalism.

But unlike the case of William Jewell College, where the split was contentious, Stetson offers evidence that it need not be.  Stetson's leaders and Florida Baptists simply acknowledged an obvious fact: Stetson's commitment to liberal arts education, academic freedom, soul competency, and the liberty of the conscience was no longer compatible with the FBC's ever more fundamentalist vision.  Leaders of each entity plainly said, "This is who we are.  This is who they are."  Anyone who looks even an inch between the surface of the OBU-BGCO relationship would have to conclude the same thing.  Whereas Stetson actually did move to the left culturally while the FBC moved dramatically to the right, OBU has moved slightly to the right while the BGCO has moved dramatically.  The distance is not as great, but it is still significant enough that OBU cannot be what it needs to be as long as the BGCO is in control.

Another thing Florida Baptists had that Oklahoma Baptists do not are other institutions.  Florida Baptists have the evangelical Palm Beach Atlantic University as well as the fundamentalist Baptist College of Florida.  So even after "losing" Stetson, they still had the ability to incorporate "higher education" into their mission.  The BGCO only has OBU.  So the stakes may seem higher.  This is why the BGCO might be inclined to consider what other post-secondary institutions it might want to establish, take over, or control before it relinquishes control of OBU.  (This institute might be a good candidate, thought it might be too fundamentalist even for the BGCO, if you can believe that.)

The parallels between Stetson and OBU are not perfect.  But the fact that each is so much happier now should be reason enough for OBU and the BGCO to consider that they, too, would be better off without each other.  Also, even in spite of recent changes on Bison Hill, Oklahoma Baptists still might consider OBU to be too liberal -- just as Florida Baptists felt about Stetson.  Sure, OBU still forces students to attend worship and forbids them from drinking alcohol, but OBU has its fair share of apostates and heretics (at least as far as the BGCO is concerned).  We really need to apply pressure from both sides: OBU thinks the BGCO has become so fundamentalist that it can no longer maintain a liberal arts college with integrity and Oklahoma Baptists need to realize that OBU is invariably too liberal for their fundamentalist tastes.

Happy new year to all!  2012 won't be the year OBU is finally freed from the burden of bowing to Baptist Building elites.   But maybe not too many years down the road we'll have what we so desperately seek: a university free from fundamentalist control.

(This is the second in a series of articles about Baptist colleges that have altered or ended their relationships with state conventions.  See the previous article on William Jewell College.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.