Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Accreditation: What Fundamentalism Eventually Costs You

Lots of bad things happen at universities when fundamentalism is pervasive.  Quality faculty members are dismissed.  Core curriculum areas are gutted.  Mainstream books are censored.  All these things and more have happened at OBU just in the past few years.  But take the long view.  Imagine what OBU will look like in 10 or 20 years if these radical changes continue at their current pace.  Since fundamentalists took over Southern Baptist institutional life in the 1980s, more than a few Baptist colleges have struggled to maintain their accreditation.  (Though technically secular in nature, the accrediting bodies are exceedingly tolerant of the religious nature of Christian schools' mission.)

Accrediting bodies exist to establish and uphold some basic threshold of financial integrity, academic quality, managerial competence, and physical plant maintenance and repair.  At good schools, these issues are never problems: there is significant institutional coordination to ensure that all these basic standards are met.  At crumbling institutions, however, these standards are never a given.  And fundamentalists are often so obsessed with making their institutions "pure" that they forget how to make them run smoothly and properly.

Take, for example, Louisiana College.  For decades, Louisiana College was a fine Baptist liberal arts university.  Former OBU Interim President Robert L. Lynn served as president from the mid-70s to the mid-90s.  As recently as a decade ago, it was dreaming of one day building a medical school.  Like so many others, though, it was hijacked by fundamentalists.  I don't presume to know the whole history, but the death knell came in 2005 over a dispute about presidential selection.  A president had recently retired and trustees had enacted fundamentalist policies restricting academic freedom.  The search committee's first choice, an administrator at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, withdrew his name from consideration because the governance situation was so awful.  The committee's second choice, Stan Norman, did not even get a chance because a reconstituted committee usurped the original committee's authority and elected Joe Aguillard, one of the school's most conservative professors, as president.  (But let the record show that as early as 2005, Stan Norman wanted to be the president of a nominally accredited fundamentalist college.)  The faculty voted overwhelmingly to oppose Aguillard's nomination, but he was installed anyway.  Due to the disastrous governance problems, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put Louisiana College on probation.

What has happened at LC in the meantime?  Nothing good.  Dozens of faculty have resigned in protest.  Academic freedom is nonexistent.  One former professor laments, "Education has been replaced by indoctrination.  They've made it clear that you will do nothing but advocate the fundamentalist position, or you're not welcome here."  Even a former president of the stridently conservative Council for Christian Colleges and Universities said, "The state conventions in the Southern Baptist world own the colleges, and there's a sense of wanting them to adhere to the theological positions of the Baptist Church and not always understanding the meaning of liberal education."

Finally, in 2011, one professor courageously spoke out and sued the college over his termination.  (OBU is lucky it has avoided such lawsuits -- not so much for substantive reasons but because of the tremendous amount of bad press it would have generated.)  The wrongfully terminated Louisiana College professor's case is typical: under fundamentalist leadership, speaking out against restrictive academic policies will not be tolerated.  Now, Louisiana College is once again in trouble with its accrediting body, as this letter details.

Their "Save Our LC" movement is a bit more in-your-face than Save OBU, but who can blame them?  Their situation is even more dire.

I don't mean to sound alarmist.  OBU is in no immediate danger of losing its accreditation.  We're on relatively solid ground financially (even without the BGCO's subsidy, I'd argue).  But I hope you can see the parallels with Louisiana College's story, which began with fundamentalists taking control of the Louisiana Baptist Convention and stacking the college's Board of Trustees with loyalists.  If nothing changes, this is the road we're on, friends.  Look around you -- some of the telltale signs are already evident: fundamentalism is now a litmus test in personnel decisions; academic freedom is being squelched; dissent among faculty is not tolerated; state convention elites drive the agenda.  OBU is a long way from a Louisiana College-like implosion.  But make no mistake: it's where we are headed, and it's happening faster than many people realize.

Sometimes when you create master's programs, add athletic teams, and launch capital campaigns, you forget the basics: a solid, balanced, moderate liberal arts education.  From the outside, it looks like progress.  But when appeasing fundamentalist power brokers is a constant duty of administrators, students and faculty suffer.  At least now we have a presumably independent-minded Board of Trustees.  But if they ever started exerting that independence, Anthony Jordan would just replace them with sworn fundamentalist loyalists.  It's a difficult balancing act, but we simply must fight for an OBU free from BGCO governance.  The OBU/BGCO partnership has long outlived its usefulness, and will eventually destroy the former and be a huge financial burden on the latter.

1 comment:

  1. You do know that the entire body of trustees is currently elected by the BGCO, right?


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