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.)

Student Saturday: Don't Lose Hope

Just a few scattered thoughts today, but I do hope you'll forward this to as many current OBU students as possible...

Mid-October Q & A with the Administration
A typical page from any crisis management plan goes something like this: Decision makers do something controversial that pleases a powerful few and upsets the majority.  A few people raise their voice in protest.  Decision makers agree to meet with the disaffected constituents.  The meeting happens, a few people air their concerns, but the policy stays the same.  Finally, and most crucially, the decision makers hope that the protesters shut up, go home, and forget the whole thing ever happened.

OBU administrators have been using this tactic a lot lately -- not only with students, but also with current and retired faculty.  They only win if we actually do shut up and go home.

In response to a modest amount of publicly aired dissatisfaction with recent policy and personnel changes, the administration held a forum with students in mid-October.  It was more of a press conference than a conversation: the questions had to be submitted in advance, and certain topics (the unethical and groundless dismissal of two professors) were off the table altogether.

But students did get to hear the administration respond to concerns that no woman had been hired to teach biblical studies or theology in a half century and that soon, students will be required to purchase textbooks from a fundamentalist bookstore.

What's Next?
They only win if you remain quiet and compliant.  The bookstore situation (as I understand it) is so outrageous that you (and your parents) should simply insist that you will not abide by the new policy.  Frankly, too many OBU parents are in the dark about all the recent negative changes at OBU.  And the checks they send OBU every year make the BGCO's contribution seem like pocket change.  Maybe when they start getting bills from a fundamentalist bookstore, they will be more vocal.

Most students perceive administrators have been dismissive of their concerns.  If this is true, I understand it must feel frustrating.  But you have to be relentless.  You can bet that the fundamentalists at the BGCO have been relentless in their goal of devolving OBU into a fundamentalist Bible academy.    It's been their dream since literally before you were born.  We have to patient yet firm in our resolve to stand up for OBU's great liberal arts tradition.

As the weeks and months go on, we will be incorporating more and more students, parents, alumni, and faculty into our movement.  Some of you will be back on Bison Hill in a matter of days.  Others will not return until later in the month.  But don't wait another moment to make your voice heard and spread the word.

YOU are the ones with the greatest stake in OBU's success.  The consequences of OBU's ongoing fundamentalist transformation are unthinkable.  You are the ones who will suffer most if OBU loses its accreditation and your degree becomes worthless.  You are the ones whose graduate school options could be limited to the now-fundamentalist SBC seminaries and law schools like Liberty and Regent.  And you will be repaying student loans regardless of whether OBU returns to its former glory as a beacon of knowledge and inquiry or continues down the road to ruin.

Right now, there are people in the Baptist Building who are elated that moderate professors have been fired and that philosophy is being replaced with "apologetics."  Their decades-long dream of turning OBU into a fundamentalist Bible academy now seems within reach.  What are you going to do to fight back?

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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Week 3 Roundup

Even though the past week has revolved around Christmas celebrations with family and friends, the Save OBU community has been active and vibrant.  As OBU students and alumni spread the word about our mission, the blog traffic continues to increase.  We've had over 1,500 page views so far.  Our friends at Texas Baptists Committed are driving traffic to last week's post on dancing, "OBU Trustees, May I Have This Dance?"

Other highlights from the week include:
  • The story on sexism at OBU became our most-viewed blog post
  • Our inaugural Sunday School post profiled William Jewell College, where President David Sallee (OBU '73) courageously led the school through a break with the fundamentalist Missouri Baptist Convention
  • We lamented that the BGCO has purged all moderates in the mold of Joe Ingram from its leadership and discussed the implications for OBU
This week, we will be reaching out to retired faculty, for whom the recent changes at their beloved OBU must be most heartbreaking.  Upcoming blog posts include "Interim Presidents Don't Pander" as well as a Sunday School post on the story of Stetson University's break from the Florida Baptist Convention in 1991.

What can you do:
  • Spread the word as widely as possible to non-fundamentalist OBU students and alumni
  • Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @SaveOBU_Blog
  • Email us if you want do a guest blog post or tell us your OBU story
  • Email us if you have particular knowledge of any of the following: the Q&A in October when the administration answered pre-selected questions from students; the circumstances of and chapel service commemorating Anthony Jordan's honorary doctorate in 2010; the new bookstore and the upcoming policy requiring students to buy books from it
2012 will not be the year that OBU breaks free from BGCO control.  But it will be the first year that we make significant progress toward that goal.  In any case, we wish you much happiness, love, and success.  God bless OBU!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Joe Ingram: Forgotten BGCO Hero

Earlier this month, we profiled former OBU President Grady C. Cothen, to whom we will return for wisdom about the fundamentalist takeover of Baptist institutions again and again in this effort.  Mr. Cothen became president of the Sunday School Board but retired in the mid-1980s in the midst of fundamentalist SBC leaders meddling with the board's governance.

Here at Save OBU, we have spoken out against the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma for the ways it imposes fundamentalism on OBU.  This imposition has greatly accelerated under the current executive director-treasurer's tenure.  But it was not always that way.  In fact, previous BGCO executives felt little need to intervene in policy and personnel decisions on Bison Hill.

Anyone who has been around Oklahoma Baptist life for any length of time will know the name Joe L. Ingram.  Ingram was universally admired during his long tenure as executive director-treasurer of the BGCO.

After the SBC at the national level was under fundamentalist control, the political campaign to eradicate moderates from positions of power in Baptist life moved to the state conventions.  This history, provided by Dr. Dan Hobbs of the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, details the fundamentalist takeover of the BGCO.

In response, a number of Oklahoma Baptist clergy and laypeople organized the CBFO organization.  Joe Ingram was among the nationally-known and respected pastors and church musicians on the program at the first CBFO assembly in October 1992.  The new fundamentalist elites who had by then taken control of the BGCO were irate:
In retribution for Joe Ingram’s transgression of "consorting with moderates," the BGCO selected a small committee to meet with their former leader—who was revered throughout his long tenure—to express the Convention’s disappointment and displeasure at the exercise of his Baptist freedom and priesthood. A man of impeccable taste and unimpeachable integrity, Joe Ingram refused to meet with the designated committee.
King Henry IV of Germany, who a year earlier had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church, went to Canossa in Northern Italy in 1077 during the cold of winter to kiss the ring of Pope Gregory VII and beg for the Pope’s forgiveness. Unlike King Henry, Joe Ingram chose integrity over submission. Impressed and grateful for his courage and grace in the face of ecclesiastical persecution, the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma voted unanimously to present Joe Ingram its highest award. Unfortunately, Ingram died shortly after his censure by the BGCO, and the award was presented posthumously to his wife, Jacque Ingram, who subsequently joined the CBFO as a member of its Coordinating Council.
I do not know precisely when OBU renamed its religion department the Joe L. Ingram School of Christian Service.  But I, for one, am proud to have attended a school named for such a courageous leader.  Presumably this honor occurred near the end of Ingram's life or shortly after his death.  This means that the OBU trustees cast a vote in the face of some amount of fundamentalist opposition -- for none of these new Baptist Building elites would have wanted OBU's religion department named after a CBFO supporter.  If anyone has any insight on this era of BGCO-OBU history, please let me know.

As you probably know, the religion department has been reorganized and renamed the Herschel H. Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry.  The recent alumni petition  (which has more than 300 signatories) lists some potentially very serious problems with this move, though I want to emphasize something slightly different.

Eventually Save OBU will talk at length about how absolutely audacious it is for today's fundamentalist leaders to so egregiously misuse the name of a revered Baptist like Hershel Hobbs.  But the main point I want to make today is that finally the BGCO got Joe Ingram's name off the OBU religion department.  Sure, a small extension program (probably of questionable academic rigor) remains under the name Joe L. Ingram School of Christian Studies.  But the fundamentalists who run the Baptist Building today are no doubt thrilled that Ingram -- the courageous leader who dared to defy them -- is no longer the department's namesake.

My final point is a personal one.  When I was a student at OBU from 1999-2002, I never heard anyone talk about these issues.  Are people at OBU afraid to tell the truth about the many negative consequences of the BGCO's stranglehold on Bison Hill?  I hope not.  But it seems to me that the OBU I knew, especially academically, was much more in line with moderate Baptists than the fundamentalists who had by then come to dominate Southern Baptist institutions at both the state and national levels.  We need to face the fact that the vision current BGCO elites have for OBU is not something any of us -- faculty, students, or alumni -- want to be associated with.  Unfortunately, there are no more Joe Ingrams in the Baptist Building.  But today I salute him and urge all of us to stand up for soul competency, liberty of the conscience, academic freedom, the priesthood of the believer, and all the great Baptist distinctives that Ingram and his generation of moderate Baptist leaders espoused.

If we don't, the next departmental organization at OBU will result in the Anthony Jordan College of Literalism and Inerrancy.

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.

Student Saturday: "The Norm"

The scores (soon to be hundreds) of current OBU students who read this blog will know this story much better than I do. So please, correct me where necessary.

Since the transformation of an institution takes decades and happens in fits and spurts, OBU's devolution into a fundamentalist Bible academy has not been linear. Some years are fairly stable, while other years feature one or more significant events that greatly accelerate the transformation.

Students who are freshmen now will know nothing of professors being unethically terminated (though there may yet be more). They will think taking courses in "apologetics" is normal in an academic religion department. They will think that buying textbooks from a fundamentalist Christian bookstore is a normal part of university life. (But hey, at least they can dance...)

On the other hand, students who are seniors today, or who graduated in the past year or two, will have seen a lot of unfortunate changes on Bison Hill: unethical faculty dismissals, curriculum areas being gutted, an ever more authoritarian ethos on campus, etc.

Anyway, last April then again in June (I believe), a individual student or a group of students produced a short newsletter called "The Norm." To my knowledge, they used the document to (anonymously) question the wisdom of some recent personnel and/or policy changes.  You can view the first edition here and the second edition here.

Questioning authority is actually a normal part of coming of age. But being at OBU (and being a very conservative Christian, in general) greatly retards this part of human development. When you are in a heavily authoritarian environment (as most fundamentalist churches, colleges, and families are) that rewards conformity and ostracizes dissenters, it is a lot easier to just stay quiet. When you live in an environment where being different or thinking differently is not only considered unusual, but also morally wrong, it takes a lot of courage to speak out.

So, in general, I have to commend "The Norm" writer(s) for speaking their minds in spite of significant environmental conditioning not to.  Given how shamefully some faculty have been treated for no reason other than the opinions they held, it is no surprise that students would feel the need to air their grievances anonymously.  However, there is strength in numbers, and they actually can't do anything to you for speaking out publicly.  You might be surprised to know just how many people feel the same way you do.  I've already heard from dozens of students and alumni.  The alumni petition got 300+ signatures in a matter of weeks, and I bet fewer than 5% of alumni even knew about it.

The only point I want to make today is that all the problems "The Norm" highlights arise from OBU's relationship with the BGCO.  If OBU were free from BGCO control, we would not have to see professors dismissed without cause, fundamentalist bookstores institutionalized on campus, curriculum areas like philosophy and theater completely gutted, or a fundamentalist interpretation of "Christian worldview" being used as a justification for all these horrible changes that break faith with our liberal arts heritage and devalue our hard-earned diplomas.

My only word of caution is this: For now, I think we should give the current administration the benefit of the doubt.  Some of you will disagree, and you may be right.  David Whitlock may be the villan here, and maybe he gets Stan Norman to do his dirty work for him.  But I'm not convinced.  I really just don't have any reason to believe that President Whitlock woke up one day and decided that we need to replace philosophy, a core discipline in the liberal arts, with "apologetics."  At the next Q&A session, someone needs to ask which of these policy changes were mandated by the BGCO and which of them originated with the administrators themselves.  I have a feeling someone else may be calling the shots when it comes to OBU's slide toward fundamentalism.  Not that this makes the administrators' actions okay, but it does prove the point that the BGCO is the problem.

Therefore I urge all students and alumni to join our effort.  Spread the word.  Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@SaveOBU_Blog).  There needs to be more activism, more speaking out, more demanding answers to fair and reasonable questions about disastrous personnel and policy decisions.  The BGCO elites are counting on you remaining silent.  They are counting on you not joining this movement.  So will you go along with their dream of turning OBU into a barely-accredited Bible college?  Or will you spread the word and fight for the vision of Christian liberal arts education that propelled OBU to greatness before fundamentalists took over the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Faculty Friday: Why Turnover Matters

I'm not sure whether "Faculty Friday" will become a weekly feature on the blog like Sunday School, Money Monday, and Student Saturday.  But it is clearly the case that some of the most disconcerting and disappointing recent changes at OBU involve the faculty: unethical dismissals, invasive and irrelevant job interview questions, intolerance toward non-Southern Baptists, hiring new professors as though we're a fundamentalist Bible academy rather than a proud liberal arts college, etc.  We'll touch on all these issues and more in the coming months.

The recent alumni petition raised some concerns about turnover.  In order to add my one small voice to the vast chorus of disappointed constituents (including mostly alumni, but also students, current faculty, and former faculty), I happily signed the petition (#216).  But my concerns about faculty turnover are quite different.

There have long been elements within the BGCO that believe OBU is too liberal.  Fundamentalist pastors are afraid students will go to OBU and "lose their faith."  BGCO elites wait patiently for moderate professors to retire, so that ever more conservative administrators will fill the faculty openings with ever more conservative new hires.  Eventually, there will literally be no moderates left at OBU.  Obviously, this prospect thrills the Baptist Building power brokers.  For the most part, the BGCO has been content to remake the faculty in its own fundamentalist image through regular attrition.  Though we all know some professors were forced out along the way.

(For what its worth, until I have compelling reasons to believe otherwise [and please correct me if I'm wrong], I have no choice but to assume the administration received BGCO pressure to oust the two esteemed professors who were forced out in July 2010 and July 2011.  There is absolutely nothing about the current administrators that gives any indication that they would, of their own accord, dismiss those two gentlemen for the reasons given.  I seriously doubt they are unscrupulous enough to treat faculty so shamefully without having their hand forced.)

The problem with turnover is that OBU's faculty is being dramatically remade in the image of the increasingly fundamentalist BGCO.  With the turnover we have seen in the past decade alone, OBU is no longer the moderate Christian liberal arts college it used to be.  Almost without exception, each aging moderate has been replaced by a young conservative.  The "center" has moved so far to the right that students can no longer count on a balanced education anymore.  I can only imagine the fear and frustration the remaining moderates must feel every day, knowing that colleagues have been dismissed utterly without cause just for being ideologically or theologically centrist relative to the BGCO's radically more conservative/fundamentalist ideal.

One retiring moderate said it best: "I doubt I would be hired today."  What's startling is that very few of the faculty hired in recent years would have even been considered for positions at OBU 30 years ago.  They would have almost without exception been too fundamentalist to be a good match for the institution.  Even more alarmingly, the kind of Christian faculty we would have hired 30 years ago are not even looking at OBU because they don't to teach for an institution run by a fundamentalist convention.  And they certainly don't want to work at a school where they might be fired just for holding the "wrong" views.

Turnover is a normal part of the life of any institution.  It's how you turn a good faculty into a great one.  But because of the BGCO's radical departure from the principles of academic freedom, open inquiry, and diversity of thought that made OBU great in the late 20th century, OBU is obviously no longer living up to the highest ideals of its liberal arts tradition.

In keeping with the unifying theme of this blog and the entire Save OBU effort, I must point out that -- as with all these other negative dynamics -- the chief culprit is the BGCO.  Without BGCO fundamentalists breathing down OBU administrators' necks, we would still be hiring impeccably qualified, ideologically moderate Christian faculty from an array of Protestant denominational backgrounds.  Instead, we are replacing aging moderates with only individuals drawn a narrow subset of the most conservative evangelicals who represent the increasingly fundamentalist BGCO's theological and ideological ideal.  Even worse, we have obviously elevated the importance of doctrine and ideology at the expense of rigorous academic qualifications and demonstrated excellence in research, teaching, and scholarship.

At the rate we're going, eventually the faculty will be as fundamentalist as this, this, or this.  Is this really the future we want for OBU?  I don't think it's what any of us want.  But it seems to be what the BGCO is ultimately aiming for.  That's why we need to end our relationship with the convention -- it is truly standing in the way of OBU and excellence in Christian liberal arts education.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

OBU Trustees, May I Have This Dance?

In October, the OBU Board of Trustees voted to end the reactionary ban on dancing. When I read that news, I was filled with hope. Not because I care about dancing -- I don't. Rather, it made me realize that OBU trustees are reasonable people. They are trying their best to serve an institution they care about. They are not self-consciously part of a reactionary, fundamentalist crusade.

The trustees recognized that the ban on dancing had long outlived its usefulness. While dancing may have been a flashpoint for Baptist morality in an earlier era, it is no longer relevant today. And besides, OBU students have been dancing at "functions" for decades. They simply aligned policy with reality.

For the first time in a long time, the trustees completed an action that, even in a small way, made OBU less fundamentalist, not more.  And, significantly, the trustees and administration did something that might not have been in line with BGCO elites' preferences.  So I really must commend both the trustees and the administration for their courageous policy change.  As other personnel and policy changes clearly reflect, it's often impossible to defy the BGCO's wishes to make OBU into a more fundamentalist institution.  So any time the trustees and administration can act strategically together, all the while providing cover for one another, to move OBU forward rather than backward, we absolutely must applaud them.

Whereas I had once assumed that the trustees must be Anthony Jordan's hand-picked foot soldiers in the battle to make OBU a fundamentalist Bible academy, after I read about the dancing policy, I decided that I am going to give the trustees the benefit of the doubt.

The power arrangement, as best I understand it, is that the trustees technically hold the power, but they are essentially the BGCO's rubber stamp, since the BGCO elects them. The BGCO would never put more than a few, if any, moderates on any board. Unfortunately, the trustees do not elect their own successors, as is the case at many of the Baptist schools that have broken free from their state conventions. Rather, the state convention elects a new class of trustees each year.  I am going to do some research to determine whether the trustees' action on the dancing policy ruffled any feathers at this fall's BGCO annual meeting.  If anyone has specific knowledge on this issue, please let me know.

As long as the convention wants to control OBU, it can and will. Once the Save OBU movement gains traction, the BGCO will just begin taking even greater care to elect OBU trustees who are fundamentalists and who envision a fundamentalist future for OBU. With or without the Save OBU movement, things are going to get worse before they get better (if they ever do).  But the trustees' recent action is both noteworthy and praiseworthy, and inspires great confidence that the trustees are independent actors who, when they are at their best, are not beholden to BGCO reactionaries, but rather to OBU and its future.

At the end of the day, OBU trustees are individuals of autonomy and conscience. If they are true Baptists, they know this and they know that their conscience is not bound by any convention or individual. Their only loyalty is to the betterment of OBU. The idea of a split will probably strike some of them as strange at first. But they above all people will be in a position to see just how bad the OBU-BGCO relationship really is for all involved. I believe that one day, that plain truth will inspire them to let each entity flourish on its own, without the burdensome constraints each presently imposes on the other.

Until then, thanks to the trustees, at least there will be dancing!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Women at OBU

Obviously, I am probably not the most qualified person to talk about women at OBU. I graciously welcome any students, faculty, or alumni who would like to use this forum to tell your OBU story.

I grew up in a denomination (United Methodist) that has been ordaining women since 1956. When I was 7, a very capable and talented woman came to serve our church as pastor. I was raised in a very traditional family. My mom did not work outside our home after I was born, and we followed a very traditional division of labor with regard to gender roles. But until I arrived on Bison Hill at age 18, it had never occurred to me that Protestant churches should be sexist. How quickly I learned.  Men telling women what to do and how to think is a twisted dynamic that pervades a lot of religions, and evangelicalism is one of the worst offenders.

At OBU, I was surrounded by young men who had grown up believing a lot of things about gender that I was simply never taught. It was just one of the many areas where I thought I was conservative, then I came to OBU...
The first thing that struck me was the lack of women teaching in the religion department. It took some time before I realized just how few opportunities there are for women in Baptist academia, such as it is. The next glaring disparity I noticed was the intentional exclusion of women from the pulpit in Raley Chapel. Once a year, we had a "Women's Day" chapel. Usually it was a seminary president's wife gushing about how she met her husband the first week of college and couldn't be more giddy and elated to support him in his ministry. It really made me sick. Once in a great while, there might have been a woman who spoke on a non-compulsory Friday chapel service. But when it came to women in Raley Chapel, they were always "speaking," never "preaching."  I even learned that the Holy Spirit, which I always assumed was an "it" is actually a "Him."

Once a year, we men were encouraged to participate in "OBU Day in the Churches."  We wrote sermons that made some use of our newfound biblical scholarship, but mostly we were supposed to thank Oklahoma Baptists for contributing their hard-earned offering plate dollars to OBU through the Cooperative Program.  What did female students contribute on OBU Day?  Usually they sang a solo or taught Sunday school.  I don't remember them being welcome to preach on OBU Day.  Maybe I'm wrong and things have changed, but I doubt it.

What made all this sexism so ironic is that women were (generally) so much more advanced in scholarship than we men. Women routinely outpaced their male classmates in Bible and theology classes. They earned higher scores on Greek and Hebrew exams. They won departmental honors and served as assistants to the faculty. Yet where were these bright young women supposed to go? Options in Southern Baptist academic and clergy life are almost literally nonexistent.

(In later years I learned that the SBC seminaries make a ton of money off women who enroll in "Christian counseling" degree programs. It's a total win-win for fundamentalists. They can boost enrollment in the seminaries, have a stock of young ladies on hand to marry the yet unhitched seminarians, rake in revenue, give women a place in a more typically nurturing kind of field, and populate church counseling centers with people who practice the quack science of "Biblical counseling." But I digress...)

At first, I thought "ring by spring" was just a bad joke. But then I realized it pretty much represents the ideal embodiment of what fundamentalist Baptist elites want for women. OBU sells itself to parents as a safe place for their daughters to go. (Though, from the stories I heard, way more girls were deflowered at Falls Creek than at OBU.) But at the end of the day, there is simply no place for women in church leadership. "Gracious submission" to a husband is the stated ideal.

This sexist dynamic has become worse over time.  We were all told about the legendary Rowena Strickland, a great woman of God who taught Bible at OBU from the 1950s to the 1970s (I think).  She even left an endowed professorship in her will.  So far, two men have held the Strickland Chair, but under the current leadership, no woman ever will.  It wasn't until 2000 that the fundamentalist SBC finally added deliberately sexist language about "submission" to the Baptist Faith and Message.  By then, Baptists had already clarified their opposition to women in church leadership "because men were first in creation and women were first in the Edenic fall" (1984).  And what if a woman believes she is called by God to be a Southern Baptist minister?  According to W.A. Criswell, it's simple: "She is mistaken.  God never called her."

Personally, I believe all these sexist men are mistaken.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Week 2 Update

The Save OBU blog had another strong week.  Here are some highlights:
  • Later today, we'll have our 1000th page view
  • We're on Twitter (follow us @SaveOBU_Blog) -- Your retweets are a great way to spread the word
  • We have almost 30 friends on our Facebook page, including students, alumni, Shawnee-area residents, and friends.
  • I'm continuing to network with moderate Baptist leaders throughout the U.S. as we develop a strategy for moving forward
  • We have ads on Google and Facebook to increase our visibility and reach (email if you can contribute $30 to this effort)
  • This week, we'll discuss women at OBU, the recently lifted dancing ban (and the hope it represents that we have a reasonable Board of Trustees), students' recent underground newsletter, "The Norm," as well as the story of how William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, broke free from its fundamentalist Baptist state convention.
Here's what you can do:
  1. Retweet our blog posts
  2. Like us on Facebook
  3. Share the site with all your non-fundamentalist friends and classmates
  4. And most importantly, email me at  I want to hear your stories.  We all love OBU, but we all know it is going through a hard time as administrators crack down in personnel and policy decisions to appease an increasingly fundamentalist state convention.
Yesterday, we raised an issue that truly helps make our point about just how bad the OBU-BGCO relationship is for all involved: The BGCO spends more to control OBU than it does on all Baptist Collegiate Ministries in the entire rest of the state combined.  As BCM leaders and supporters begin to consider this disparity, it will be just one of many ways Oklahoma Baptists will come to realize that OBU is draining valuable Cooperative Program resources, and that they are getting precious little for their investment.

Things are quiet on Bison Hill for the next couple weeks.  But let's keep making noise about this issue.  It's going to be a long and difficult journey.  But the more each of us do to raise awareness and spread the word, the quicker we'll be able to move forward.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Money Monday: BGCO's OBU Subsidy Dwarfs All Oklahoma BCM Budgets Combined

This is a theme to which we'll return again and again on this blog, but it must be repeated: The BGCO spends more money on OBU than on collegiate ministries at all the other Oklahoma colleges combined.  The 2011 BGCO financial plan allotted more than $2.5 million to OBU (a whopping 17.6% of its Oklahoma Cooperative Program allocation).  In contrast, the BGCO spends barely $2 million on collegiate ministries at 32 other colleges in the state.

What does this mean?  If the BGCO relinquished its control of OBU and spent its CP dollars more efficiently, it could more than double the amount it spends on collegiate ministries in Oklahoma.  And it could still expand the size of its OBU BCM.  Even after all that, there would still be hundreds of thousands of CP dollars left to allocate to vital ministry areas.

There are 207,000 students enrolled in Oklahoma colleges and universities, 205,000 of whom are not at OBU.  Yet BGCO elites so value owning and controlling OBU that they are willing to spend more money on fewer than 1% of Oklahoma college students than on the remaining 99% combined.  What does that tell us about ministry and mission priorities?  It tells us a few things:
  • BGCO spending on OBU is clearly about controlling an institution, not about ministry
  • Oklahoma Baptist messengers, laypeople, clergy, and BCM directors/staff/supporters should question this shocking disparity
  • The BGCO could easily double its investment in more than 200,000 young, mostly unsaved people from whom tomorrow's clergy, lay leaders, and missionaries will emerge.  Instead, it spends lavishly on an institution populated almost exclusively by people who are already saved and baptized, many of whom will go on to non-SBC seminaries, make their homes and careers in other states, and bring the BGCO little return on its investment.
  • Baptist state conventions that have relinquished control over Baptist colleges have been able to dramatically expand the scope of their collegiate ministries.
  • We already know that Baptist youth who go to state schools actually emerge more doctrinally orthodox than Baptist youth who attend Baptist colleges.  So, clearly BCM programs are better at keeping Baptists within the fold than OBU (see Table 5.2).
So, Oklahoma Baptists and BCM leaders, do you value your ministry enough to fight for the funds you could so obviously use to better effect than the BGCO's $2.5 million institutional welfare check to OBU?  Or are you satisfied with the BGCO's explanation -- that the prestige of controlling an institution is more important than expanding your ministry?  Please consider joining the Oklahoma Baptists who have already joined our effort.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Schools

Our first weekly feature on the blog was "Money Mondays."  Every Monday, we take a look at the financial implications of the OBU-BGCO relationship and reveal what a raw deal it is for all involved.

The newest weekly feature will be "Sunday Schools."  Beginning next week, we will look at other Baptist colleges and universities that have severed ties with their increasingly fundamentalist state conventions.  From big name schools like Baylor, all the way to relatively more obscure schools like Stetson (in my native Florida, and my grandfather's alma mater), we will look at the how these Baptist institutions have altered the terms of their relationships with their state conventions.

Just last week, I first heard the story of how William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri gained independence from the Missouri Baptist state convention.  It's a pretty inspiring tale, and so I might begin with William Jewell next week.  This will require a lot of research on my part, and it's a near certainty that some of our readers know these stories intimately from their own experience.  So if you are particularly knowledgeable in the institutional history of a Baptist school that split from its state convention, please let me know.  I would love for you to write a guest post for this blog.

Until next week, just bear in mind that many Baptist colleges have been where we are: handicapped by an ever more fundamentalist state convention and beholden to the convention's finances.  Even though some of the splits were very contentious and all were painful in some way, without exception the schools and the Baptist state conventions are much better off without each other today.  So it will be with OBU and the BGCO.  But we have to spread the word.  Please share this blog with all your non-fundamentalist friends, classmates, and fellow alumni.  Beginning next spring, we will make our voices heard.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Grady Cothen -- Forgotten OBU Hero

In the pantheon of OBU presidents, it always bothered me that Grady Cothen never seems to get his due.  John Wesley Raley's long tenure alone propels him to the top of the heap.  (Little known fact: President Raley spent several years seeking out F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, who finally agreed to deliver the commencement address in 1938.)  James Ralph Scales gets mentioned because he went on to become president of Wake Forest University, back when Baptists would have considered such a thing an honor rather than an apostasy.  The current president, David Whitlock, brings not only considerable business acumen, but also years of experience in higher education administration.  Leading a university is a difficult job, and we have been blessed with some very capable leaders over the years.

Grady Cothen arrived on Bison Hill at a momentous time.  He was Executive Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention of California at the time of his election to the OBU Presidency in 1966.  Cothen was succeeding perhaps the two most prominent presidents in OBU history.  Church institutions and denominationalism were at their height, but cultural changes were right around the corner.  In 1970, President Cothen left OBU to head New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  He finished his career at the Baptist Sunday School Board, leaving in the throes of the fundamentalist takeover in 1984.

Throughout his career and after, Cothen has for decades been a Baptist statesman of the highest order.  His vast service includes so many items that today's Southern Baptist leaders would scoff at:
  • Executive Committee of the American Association of Theological Schools
  • Member of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (which the SBC de-funded in the early 1990s)
  • Executive Committee of the Baptist World Alliance (which the SBC abandoned in 2004), including service on the body's Theological Education Committee
Sadly, if Grady Cothen applied for an administrative position at OBU today, he would be laughed out of the room.  In spite of his unparalleled and distinguished service, Grady Cothen has long since been blacklisted by today's Baptist power brokers.  To his great credit, he did not sit idly by while fundamentalist elites orchestrated and executed a political campaign to take over the Southern Baptist Convention and its boards, agencies, and schools.

In fact, Cothen wrote two books about the Fundamentalist Takeover.  As far as I know, there are no monuments on the OBU campus in his honor.  No lecture series, no professorships, nothing.  Obviously today's fundamentalist-controlled BGCO would never abide it.  I doubt Grady Cothen would be allowed to preach in Raley Chapel, even if he wanted to.  We would do well to consider Grady Cothen's position on what Baptist higher education is all about.  We've fallen a long way since his very fine stewardship of our cherished institutions.

I will share more insights from and about Grady Cothen, who is now 91, when I read his books.  Right now, however, I am filled with sadness about how Cothen and a whole generation of moderate Baptists were cast aside by the ascendant fundamentalists.  Maybe there was once a time when OBU and the BGCO could both affirm freedom of thought, liberty of the conscience, academic freedom, and other timeless Baptist principles.  But that day has long passed.  Unfortunately, standing up for academic freedom and Baptist principles today means standing up to the BGCO.  Since that will be difficult, if not impossible, we are advocating an end to this bad institutional arrangement.

One day, we will again welcome men (and women) like Grady Cothen on Bison Hill.  Until then, President Cothen, we salute you!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Time's Person of the Year: The Protester

As it does every December, Time Magazine just announced its Person of the Year.  In honoring The Protester, Time acknowledges that protests, once a crucial part of social movements, had become passe.  The essay argues that, whereas a culture of protest shaped the Sixties, by the time the next generation had come of age, a general consensus had emerged on the primacy of market capitalism and Western-style liberal democracy.  It was not until the past few years, when the excesses and shortcomings of these frameworks became evident, that protest re-emerged as an important instrument of change.

Obviously, our effort has little to do with liberalization in the Arab world or political protests here at home. Yet it does require us to affirm and take on the identity of protesters.  This can be scary and uncomfortable. It is always much easier to side with the status quo; "Go along to get along," as the saying goes.  Protesters are seen as troublemakers and mocked as idealistic and naive.

But let us not forget that the protest tradition is a noble one.  Even our broadest Christian category, "Protestant," hearkens to this tradition: pro testa, "For the Word."  Baptists have long protested in support of the values they hold most dear: soul competency, liberty of the conscience, the separation of church and state, etc.  Yet as the culture of (yes, mostly white) suburban evangelicalism has become so uniform, monolithic, and conformist, we have moved away from our noblest protest traditions.

I say it's time to reclaim them.  Our cause is just and our argument is simple: rather than complaining about various turns of events (unfavorable personnel turnover, curriculum decisions, gender issues, etc.), we are challenging the institutional arrangement that is at the root of all these problems (BGCO ownership and control of OBU).  This is no panacea.  Even after BGCO control is ended, there will still be thorny issues to work out.  We may not have to endure the dreadful consequences of fundamentalism, but there will always be challenges.

But let's be honest.  If we fail, all this is a moot point.  OBU will go the way of the fundamentalist Bible academies.  It won't happen overnight, but we'd get there eventually.  In some ways, the wheels already appear to be in motion.  We forget just how much Southern Baptist institutional and academic life has changed in the past 30 years.  Without intentional intervention, the slide into all-out fundamentalism will happen on its own through regular attrition of the faculty, administration, and trustees.

We're here to make sure that does not happen.  We're protesting against an institutional arrangement that no longer serves its constituents very well.  Don't be ashamed that you are going against powerful people's wishes.  Be proud!  You're engaging in an essential aspect of Baptist, and Protestant, life.  You were Time's Person of the Year in 2006 just for being you.  But to claim that title for 2011, join the protest!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Week 1 Update

Only 7 days after launching, Save OBU is already going strong.  Here are some highlights:
  • We've had >360 page views
  • We're on Twitter (follow us @SaveOBU_Blog)
  • We have 15 "likes" on our Facebook page, including students, alumni, Shawnee-area residents, and friends (I'd love to double that number by the time students leave for Christmas Break)
  • I've strategized with moderate Baptist leaders, and look forward to making contact with many more
  • I've planned a month's worth of blog posts to get us into the new year
  • We have ads on Google and Facebook to increase our visibility and reach (email if you can contribute $30 to this effort)
Here's what you can do:
  1. Retweet our blog posts
  2. Like us on Facebook
  3. Share the site with all your non-fundamentalist friends and classmates
  4. And most importantly, email me at  I want to hear your stories.  We all love OBU, but we all know it is going through a hard time as administrators crack down in personnel and policy decisions to appease an increasingly fundamentalist state convention.
For some reason, I have a completely irrational amount of passion about this one issue.  BGCO control is the root of so many problems at OBU.  It was bad enough when I was there from 1999-2002: moderate professors favoring early retirement over fights with administration, censorship of student journalism, a prevailing authoritarian ethos, etc.  But at least I got a good education and was encouraged to think for myself.  Today's students are having those opportunities restricted.  We owe it to them and to future generations to stand up for OBU's proud liberal arts tradition.

So far, leading this effort has been exhilarating rather than exhausting.  But I am looking to recruit leaders for this effort among students, alumni, retired faculty, and, eventually, BGCO messengers and major OBU donors.  Please be in touch.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Money Monday

Most of the time, tensions between institutions are about some combination of power, ideology, control, and politics.  But all the time, they are about money.  The OBU-BGCO relationship is no different.  On Mondays, this blog will examine the financial implications of the BGCO's $2.5 million annual subsidy for OBU.

Frankly, I am most intrigued and upset by the non-financial parts of this arrangement: the cheapening of OBU's great liberal arts tradition, the shameful treatment of insufficiently fundamentalist faculty, the authoritarian culture, etc.  But in many ways, the heart of the matter is financial.  I am open to suggestions about where my logic and rhetoric on this issue could be improved.  The argument I want to make is two-fold.  First, the BGCO could be a lot more efficient, effective, and smart if it spent the $2.5 million in other ways.  And second, OBU could find ways to get by without the annual cash infusion from the BGCO.

According to BGCO financial projections, the Cooperative Program sends 40% of receipts to the SBC to fund missionaries, the six SBC seminaries, and the religious right Richard Land's office.  Sixty percent of CP receipts stay in Oklahoma.  Of that amount, 17% goes to OBU.  OBU receives 3.5 times more than both the Baptist Village Communities and the Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children.  It receives more than the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at every other Oklahoma university combined.  It receives nearly three times the total church planting budget.  OBU represents a huge financial strain on the BGCO and cripples its ability to fund vital missions and ministries.  Every year, students don't get evangelized, churches don't get planted, and orphans and seniors aren't adequately housed because OBU's subsidy eats up such a huge portion of the Cooperative Program's budget.

Maybe this would be okay if OBU desperately needed the funds.  But it doesn't.  OBU has an endowment of $80 million.  It raises $40 million a year on its own.  Whereas other CP ministries would have to shut down without CP funds, OBU would go right on operating.  Sure, it would have to restructure its finances, but OBU is not nearly as dependent on CP funds as the BGCO's other mission and ministry areas.

How could OBU operate without the BGCO's millions?  Well, since enrollment allegedly now exceeds 1,850, a tuition increase in the neighborhood of $1,300 would close the gap all by itself.  (And OBU would still be a "best value" college by the national magazines that rate such things.)  Short of that, OBU could temporarily dip into its endowment during the transition period.  It could seek funding from other Baptist bodies that are not so blatantly at odds with liberal arts education.  Sure, I concede that replacing 6% of any institution's revenue stream is a challenge.  But in the present economic climate, public and private universities all over the nation are doing it every day.

Baptist Building elites love controlling OBU.  But unless messengers really care more about maintaing power over an institution than doing actual ministry, they will easily find ways to spend the $2.5 million.  Our challenge will be to figure out how OBU can make up this lost revenue, especially since the BGCO owns the buildings and grounds.  Over time, we'll study what other institutions have done and we'll develop creative solutions of our own.  Until then, we'll have to cash that annual BGCO check... and sell our soul in the process.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shorter University's "Lifestyle Statement" - Coming soon to OBU?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  --Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)

Shorter University in Rome, GA is a good example of what OBU is likely to become if we continue to be controlled by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.  Unlike Mercer University in Macon, GA, which split from the Georgia Baptist Convention in 2005 and enjoys an increasing profile, an improving academic reputation, and an expanding mission, Shorter's leaders continue to do the bidding of the ever more fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention.  OBU is arguably a better university than Shorter.  (The GBC has done its best to run Shorter into the ground and U.S. News now considers it a "2nd Tier National Liberal Arts College.")  But Shorter and Mercer represent two directions OBU can go.  I'm afraid we're well along the path to becoming Oklahoma's version of Shorter College -- declining in academic quality, barely accredited, and increasingly irrelevant.

This fall, Shorter's Board of Trustees made headlines by instituting a "personal lifestyle statement" that all faculty must sign, among other fundamentalist-inspired policy documents.  Its president, Don Dowless, correctly notes that Shorter's action, however reactionary and discriminatory, is perfectly legal and does not jeopardize its pending accreditation.  Employees have until April 2012 to either sign the statement or be fired.

When people pointed out that a) this will invariably compromise its academic quality and b) it discriminates against specific groups, President Dowless sent out a defensive mass letter claiming that Shorter is within its right as a "Christ-centered institution" and that while he hopes people will sign, the institution is prepared to go on without them if they do not.  The statement's signers must affirm that they are not gay and that they will not consume alcohol outside their homes.

(Remind me again what Jesus said about homosexuality.... oh yeah, nothing!  Too bad Christ himself could not get a job teaching at Shorter, since he drank wine in public and associated with all kinds of outcasts.  Unbelievably, in addition to firing Jesus from its faculty, Shorter wants to send the message that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) is nice if you manage to get around to it, but what you do in bed is the main way you express your Christian faith in the world.  Talk about neglecting the weightier matters of the law!)

If you ask OBU President David Whitlock if that would ever happen here, he will say, "No, never!"  But don't be fooled.  If BGCO Executive Director-Treasurer Anthony Jordan wakes up one morning and decides OBU employees need to sign a "personal lifestyle statement," President Whitlock will have no choice but to comply.  He knows where his bread is buttered.  Such a radical act may not be necessary, though, because OBU seems to be doing a good job of remaking the faculty through regular attrition, with occasional unjust firings and forced retirements thrown in for good measure.

But if a few Baptist elites decide they want to accelerate OBU's transformation into a fundamentalist Bible college, what happened at Shorter could absolutely happen at OBU.

In the Shorter case, a few people protested, as this Facebook page indicates.  But in the end, the entrenched Baptist elites got their way, as they always do when they own the property, elect the trustees, and enforce their will on their institutions.  Until OBU is free from BGCO control, the exact same thing (or worse) could happen on Bison Hill.  In fact, I'd say it's not a question of "if," but "when."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Student Saturday: Why You Should Care

Over the past few months, I've interacted with a number of OBU students and recent alumni/ae who are angry and sad about OBU's decline as an academic community.  It comes as no surprise that students are upset when the university they love experiences unfortunate changes: popular faulty members have been treated most shamefully and dismissed; other professors have opted for early retirement rather than endure an increasingly anti-intellectual mandate from the administration; legitimate student concerns have been dismissed out of hand.

Still, life goes on and students are busy people.  Furthermore, OBU is about the last place on earth I would expect a culture of protest to emerge.  (I found it to be one of the most conformist, authoritarian institutions I have ever been a part of, and that was ten years ago, before this most recent crackdown...)

So I want to take a moment and help connect the dots.  Your beloved professors are disappearing.  They are being replaced by more conservative and less academically qualified successors.  You ask why no women teach biblical studies and theology, and your questions are rebuffed.  You were taught to believe that religious worship was something you are supposed to do voluntarily, yet you are forced to attend chapel services.  You know there is a body of knowledge about science and about the history of biblical studies and Christian theology.  But all you get is material from the conservative end of the spectrum.  You want to take courses in philosophy, the core discipline in the liberal arts, but instead end up sitting in an "apologetics" class.  You are forced to buy books from a company that uses censorship, rather than market principles, to decide what books to stock.

These issues (and many others) have one thing in common (besides the fact that each is completely outrageous):  All these problems exist because OBU is owned and controlled by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.  If OBU was free from BGCO control, none of these problems would exist.

In contrast, your relatively more moderate professors would enjoy long, productive careers teaching you a balanced curriculum in the liberal arts.  You would actually have voices besides middle-aged white Southern Baptist men (not that there's anything wrong with them!) teaching Bible and theology classes.  Faculty hiring would be based on merit, not on adherence to fundamentalist doctrines.  Religious worship would be voluntary, not compulsory.  You would actually have a real bookstore on campus.  The list goes on and on.  OBU would be free to dramatically expand its scope and mission.

There is, of course, one thing you do get from the BGCO.  Because of its annual subsidy to OBU, you pay about $1,500 less in tuition each year.  But you have to decide if the modest savings are worth the immense cost in terms of academic freedom and respectability, personal liberty and autonomy, and a degree that is being devalued as OBU's intellectual decline continues.

So, today I am asking you to start a conversation.  Send this blog post to your friends and classmates.  Make sure as many OBU students as possible know about this blog.  The BGCO elites are hell-bent on making sure OBU continues its devolution into a fundamentalist Bible college.  They are well-funded and powerful men.  But they only win if we let them.  So start standing up for what you believe in!  It's your university, your degree, your mind, your life, and your future.

And, of course, please feel free to be in dialogue with me any time.

UPDATE: Thanks for tweeting this post and liking Save OBU on Facebook.  Let's make this go viral on Bison Hill!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Plans and Stragety

So far, I have implied that there are two powerful but not very good reasons why BGCO control endures at OBU.  First, while the current arrangement is a very bad deal all around, it actually works quite nicely for a few key elites.  The Baptist Building executives and the state's powerful conservative megachurch pastors get the satisfaction of knowing that they're winning a monumental ideological struggle that exists below most people's radar screens.  And top OBU administrators know that, so long as they bow to the increasingly conservative BGCO's will, they can expect high salaries, secure employment, generous retirement, and heaps of praise from elites across the SBC.  (But, I would submit that as soon as senior OBU leadership began standing up for academic rigor, gender equality, and the values of education, knowledge, reason, etc., they would quickly be silenced and forced out.)

The second reason why BGCO control continues mostly unchallenged is simply the inertia of the status quo.  Organizations are large and complex.  Change is slow and painful.  As long as faculty paychecks keep cashing, students' degrees continue to be conferred, and parents, alumni, and donors remain quiet, no one has much incentive to seek new and better ways of doing things.  The barriers to collective action tend to be quite overwhelming, especially when change would upset current financial and power arrangements.

I have argued, though, that a split between OBU and the BGCO would be much better for everyone involved, except perhaps senior BCGO executives.  (Though I believe that, in time, even they will come to see that the BGCO is much better off without having to fret with maintaining a university, as Baptist state convention leaders in other states have realized.)

Here are a few ways I hope this blog can help start this conversation and advance this argument.  Please contact me with your assessments about these ideas, or if you have other suggestions.

Telling Other Baptist Schools' Stories
"But this is how we've always done it" is a powerful but utterly stupid reason for doing something.  Starting colleges made sense to Baptists in an earlier era.  Splitting away from colleges makes sense to Baptists today.  There are dozens of other Baptist colleges and conventions that have reassessed their relationships and decided to alter or end them.  The conventions and the schools are much better off after they split.  So it will be with OBU.  But in order to get there, we would be wise to look at evidence from other institutions.

Examining BGCO Financial Commitments
Oklahoma Baptist clergy, laypeople, and convention messengers will have to be convinced (many already are) that OBU is a lost cause, that it is a resource drain, and that the convention and its churches get precious little for their investment.  Here, we can highlight other BGCO mission priorities that are necessarily starved of critical funds because a few ideologically-driven elites want so desperately to "win" at controlling OBU.  If Oklahoma Baptists care about saving souls, they will realize quickly that OBU (which raises more than $40 million a year on its own and sits atop an $80 million endowment) is an inefficient, if not outright counterproductive, use of funds.

Reviewing the History of OBU/BGCO Cooperation... And Hostility
OBU students are taught to revere names like Scales, Hobbs, and Ingram... but whose side were these Baptist leading lights really on?  The long history of mutual suspicion and tension is one certain people would rather forget, but it must be told.

Showing that OBU Makes Students Less Orthodox and Less Conservative
Even a conservative school like OBU pulls many more students away from fundamentalism than toward it.  It's just a fact, folks.  I could use my own intellectual journey as a case in point, but I would rather find other alumni to tell their stories.  No one assigned me any "liberal" books to read in religion classes. Everything we read was right of center in terms of biblical and theological scholarship.  It wasn't the classes, the professors, or the instruction that turned me away from the doctrinal tenets of evangelical Protestantism.  It was the fact that I had the time and space to think for myself.  Once you nurture and encourage critical thought and reflection, fundamentalism loses every time.  So it was, so it is, and so it ever will be.  Now, OBU is taking steps to discourage critical thought and reflection in ways we'll soon discuss.  But even now, with OBU at an intellectual low point, students are on Bison Hill, studying in dorms, libraries, and park benches, realizing that much of what they were taught to believe as children is simply no longer tenable to them.  It happens every day.

Recruiting Supporters and Leaders for Our Effort
As I said in my first post, I considered OBU a lost cause for many years.  However, the alumni petition made me aware that literally hundreds (if not thousands) of people share some version of my concern for OBU.  This blog should provide a forum for various constituents (students, (probably retired) faculty, alumni, donors, and BGCO stakeholders to come together and organize our efforts to effect the kind of change we all know needs to happen.