Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sunday School: William Jewell College

Merry Christmas, friends!  Thank you for taking a moment to visit the Save OBU blog and read our first "Sunday School" feature.  Every Sunday, we tell the story of how a Baptist university attained independence from its fundamentalist state convention.  Today's inaugural Sunday School post tells the story of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.

The Story
Founded in 1849, William Jewell College is one of the oldest colleges west of the Mississippi.  Jewell was subsidized by and affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention until 2003.  Fundamentalist elements within the Missouri Baptist Convention sought to exercise greater control over the convention's institutions.  Five of the convention's institutions took actions to make their boards self-perpetuating rather than convention controlled in order to escape fundamentalist domination.  The convention challenged these actions in court.  Fortunately, however, William Jewell College had always been governed a self-perpetuating board of trustees.

Jewell's president, David Sallee (OBU '73), stood up to the fundamentalists.  Sallee offered a passionate defense of academic freedom as integral to the project of Christian liberal arts education in his essay, "Academic Freedom at Baptist Colleges and Universities," commissioned by Texas Baptists Committed, an organization of Mainstream Texas Baptists.

When the MBC demanded access to private, personal information about Jewell trustees' and professors' church membership and other affiliations, the college refused.  The convention's executive committee then voted 44-4 to end its relationship with Jewell.  Sallee rightly observed, "The whole thing is about control.  And we're not going to allow the convention to dicate what we do."  Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Professors, lauded OBU alum David Sallee for his courage in standing strong for academic freedom in the face of fundamentalist threats in this 2003 profile:
The case of William Jewell College illustrates the intimate connection between governance and academic freedom. In order to control what might or might not be thought and said on the William Jewell campus, the leadership of the Missouri Baptist Convention launched an attack on the college's independent system of governance. By seizing control of the board of trustees, the convention would have gained the ultimate say over administrative and faculty appointments, over what was taught and by whom, and over the whole tenor of student and community life on campus. But the college stood its ground, refusing to yield to these extortive demands. It cost the college considerable money, but, as Sallee told the Sun-News of the Northland, "In our minds the freedom and standing for the principles that we have stood for in this confrontation are well worth the money."
At the time, the MBC was giving Jewell almost $1 million a year, about 3% of the school's operating budget.

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.  William Jewell College has expanded its mission and profile while remaining true to the highest ideals of Christian liberal arts education.  Its admission rate is down to 50%, indicative of not only a vastly larger applicant pool, but also the luxury of being more selective in admissions.  By every conceivable measure -- objective or otherwise -- Jewell is significantly better off without the fundamentalist Missouri Baptist Convention attempting to meddle in its affairs.

For the MBC's part, its is able to spend its limited Cooperative Program dollars more efficiently.  It can now invest more heavily in campus ministries on other Missouri campuses where over 400,000 students are enrolled.  It is also free to advance its fundamentalist agenda within its churches and institutions without having to expend energy and resources fighting a losing ideological battle with William Jewell College, with which its goals are no longer compatible and have not been for many years.

Each entity is significantly better of without the other.

Lessons Learned
The biggest problem for OBU is that the BGCO elects OBU's trustees.  Our board of trustees is not self perpetuating, like William Jewell College's.  As we will see again and again, Baptist schools with independent, self-perpetuating boards of trustees have a much easier time breaking the oppressive chains that bind them to their fundamentalist state conventions.

What this story does give us, however, is a true hero: Dr. David Sallee.  Sallee is a 1973 OBU graduate and a former point guard for the Bison men's basketball team.  As a student at OBU, he saw firsthand what happens when a true champion of Baptist higher education leaves an institution.  (Grady Cothen left OBU in 1970.)  He also saw the difference between presidents who must, of necessity, pander to the state convention and presidents who don't.  Robert Lynn, who served as interm president before William G. Tanner was elected president, had absolutely no inclination to do the BGCO's bidding at OBU and stood up to the BGCO and fundamentalist pastors during his brief tenure.

Aside from his courageous leadership and unshakable support of academic freedom, Dr. Sallee also provides an excellent example of how a Baptist university can survive and even flourish without state convention funding.  Sallee oversaw the split with the Missouri Baptist Convention, which cost the school nearly $1 million per year.  Subsequently, when the 2008 financial crisis resulted in Jewell's endowment losing a third of its value, Sallee oversaw budget cuts that allowed the institution to continue its vital mission.

In the story of William Jewell College, we see something hopeful: the president who initiated the split not only survived it, but led the university to a brighter future without the fundamentalist convention.  At this point, this is exactly the kind of hope I have for OBU President David Whitlock.  His job does not have to be a casualty of OBU's split from the BGCO.  In fact, if he follows David Sallee's example, Dr. Whitlock can lead OBU into a bright future and cement his place as one of the university's greatest leaders.  Or, he can be just one more in a line of BGCO puppet presidents who help devolve OBU into a fundamentalist Bible academy.  It's his choice, really.

Save OBU stands ready to support him and any trustees, faculty, and administrators who are willing to stand against this bad institutional relationship.  We believe OBU administrators would rather build up a great institution than tear one down.  We believe they would rather stand up for academic freedom than undermine it.  If they are ever inclined to take a stand for the kind of Christian liberal arts education that made OBU great, we are ready to recruit, rally, and mobilize all the support they will ever need and more!

Merry Christmas to all!  Maybe not too many Christmases down the road we'll have the gift we all so desperately seek: a university free from fundamentalist control.


  1. This blog post hits me because I am from Liberty, MO and my dad is a professor at William Jewell. I just graduated from OBU in May so I was around for everything that has changed since I started at OBU in 2007. I am well aware of everything that happened with the MBC. The same time Jewell split from the MBC, so did my church Second Baptist Church, which is the home church for Jewell. I have first hand knowledge of the split and how it truly affected Jewell. I wasn't very much aware of everything that went on at Jewell when they were connected to the MBC because I was under the age of 12 then. Now though as everything has gone on with the split and after I have been able to see how Jewell has overcome all the challenges they have experienced and how they are beginning to regain students and their enrollment is increasing every year which is a good pattern.

  2. As someone also from the Kansas City area, I have many friends and bible study leaders who were at Jewel when this happened. It may be interesting to note that one of the final straws in the breaking relationship between the convention and Jewel was the presence of a student-started gay/straight alliance type group. The convention did not like the presence of this group and when Jewel asked for money to help repair tornado damage, the convention refused unless the group was disbanned. Jewel refused, and thus, the split.

    To me, the greatest amount of hope comes from the fact that the administration of Jewel stood up for their students and supported the students adult decisions to disagree with the conservative convention. This is the purpose of education and the true spirit of creating Christian men and women adults who think critically about their faith.

  3. William Jewell College is a beacon of hope.


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