Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Alumni Petition & Response

By now, most of you know that hundreds of alumni registered their disappointment with OBU in a petition that circulated early last fall.  The petition is here.  Rather than discuss it item by item, I want to highlight a few pertinent points and focus on the administration's response.

The Petition
While the alumni petition offered a coherent, over-arching narrative about a once great Christian liberal arts college lapsing into fundamentalism, it did address three separate, but related, areas:

Faculty Retention, Turnover, and Dismissals
The petition alleges an increase in turnover under the current administration.  This may indeed be a sign of trouble.  We have already talked about why turnover matters.  The real problem is that OBU is, almost without exception, replacing aging moderates with young fundamentalists.  What was once an overwhelmingly moderate faculty will soon be a majority fundamentalist faculty.  Then, no one will stand up for academic freedom and the BGCO's long-awaited transformation of OBU will be complete.

Then there is the fact that two faculty members were dismissed without cause.  This sends a strong message to would-be professors who might be considering OBU.  The kind of faculty we should want to be attracting will now avoid OBU.  And the kind of faculty we hire are the kind of people who don't mind seeing insufficiently fundamentalist colleagues forced out.

Stifling Discussion
Unfortunately, most faculty, students, and now alumni feel voiceless when it comes to the interpretation of OBU's mission and direction.  This just raises the question of administrators' ultimate loyalty: Is it to OBU students and faculty, or is it to BGCO elites.  So far, the answer seems pretty clear.

Structural Reorganization of Academic Departments
This concern seemed somewhat less problematic to me, but the petitioners do have a point.  The most audacious part of the reorganization is that the new science and religion departments are named for two people who would be completely at odds with OBU's dramatic swing toward fundamentalism.  I'm frankly shocked that the Hurley and Hobbs families have gone along with this charade.  If my father's legacy and namesake was hijacked by fundamentalists who loathe everything he stood for, I would be irate.  If anyone has more information on the Hobbs and Hurley families' reactions to the new academic divisions, please let me know.

We also noted the subtle swipe at moderates by removing Joe L. Ingram's name from the religion department and downgrading the legendary BGCO leader's namesake school to an extension program for fundamentalist pastors.

The petition summarizes its concerns:
...What the recent administration has failed to do is to build up a university inspired by passion and genuine research.  It has forgotten that the Christian college has a constructive task, far more than a defensive one.  It has overlooked the searching spirit of the Christian in a world that is fallen but also perpetually redeemed.  That redemption comes from ridding ourselves of preconceived notions about what it means to be a believer and what it means to have knowledge.  Arthur Holmes reminds us that, "all truth is God’s truth, wherever it be found."  Finding this truth will not be achieved through a loss of good educators or in a university where honest conversation about the definition of truth does not flow freely.  
The Administration's Response
While the petition did not inspire a change of administrators' hearts, it did get their attention.  In fact, by the end of the day administrators found out about the petition, they began a P.R. offensive that included a lengthy letter to the Board of Trustees.  I have obtained a copy of that letter, but I do not think I will publish it here because I do not know if the correspondence was intended to be in confidence or not.

Unsurprisingly, the administration claims to be very proud of the credentials of professors recently hired at OBU.  You will have to judge for yourself.  I have no basis for judgment except to say that a) the academic job market is flooded, so we should have our pick, b) the interview process is now so ideological and such a fundamentalist litmus test that anyone who actually wants to teach at OBU after enduring it is immediately suspect as far as I'm concerned, and c) given the BGCO's tightening grip and OBU's lurch toward fundamentalism, anyone we should actually want to hire would probably not want to come to Bison Hill.

The administration also announced plans to facilitate meetings with students and faculty.  I am not sure whether any students or faculty were satisfied with the results of these meetings.

Finally, they cited improved enrollment figures as evidence that they are not leading OBU away from its liberal arts heritage and that God is blessing OBU.  To that point, we will need to continue to emphasize the primacy of quality over quantity.  We also may need to work hard to make sure that prospective students and parents know that OBU is a lot more fundamentalist than it lets on.  Based on the dozens of students wo have reached out to us in the past month, it appears that most students come to Bison Hill expecting a balanced, moderate Christian liberal arts education and are very dissatisfied with the ways in which OBU is moving away from those ideals.

So What Does This Have to Do with the BGCO and Where Does the Save OBU Movement Come In?
The argument I have been making from the beginning is that BGCO ownership and control is at the root OBU's drift away from academic freedom and its liberal arts heritage.  The state conventions, like the SBC as a whole, have become so fundamentalist that they cannot tolerate an institution they cannot control.  Since they have the power and no one has stopped them, they have remade OBU in their own image, hiring ever more conservative administrators who, in turn, pursue policy and personnel changes that will make OBU a fundamentalist Bible academy.

We see the trustees as an essentially neutral body in this struggle.  They are devoted men and women who want to build on OBU's proud heritage.  We suspect they may not realize the degree to which they are being asked to engage in ideological/institutional warfare.  They have actually taken some steps that the BGCO did not prefer and that OBU administration would have likely never pursued on its own.

Our primary constituents are the untold numbers of students, parents, faculty (current and former), and alumni who feel powerless to do anything about all these negative changes on our beloved Bison Hill.

Until now, the administration has put out small fires, but has never had to engage a large, growing movement.  Presidents have nudged insufficiently fundamentalist professors into early retirement going back (at least) to the early days of the Brister years.  They have dealt with disgruntled faculty, but have not had to concede much because those professors have significant incentives to make due at OBU.  They have dealt with students protesting the unethical dismissals of quality professors, but again, students have great incentives to stick it out.  Administrators are also dealing with a large group of retired faculty dismayed at the recent changes (p. 4), but ultimately they can and will be easily dismissed.  They dealt with the alumni petition, but that movement quickly lost steam.

The question Save OBU wants to ask is this: What if all disaffected students, parents, alumni, and faculty could join together as one?  Could OBU administration really ignore all of us?  In the coming months, we will be building a growing movement that brings together all the various constituencies.  We know that if the BGCO existed today as it did 50 years ago, none of these problems would have escalated to this extreme degree.  OBU has not become liberal or drifted from the mandate of its founding.  Rather, it is the convention that has drifted -- so far to the fundamentalist side that it no longer even makes sense to operate a true liberal arts university anymore, an argument we are making to Oklahoma Baptists.  Yet the power and prestige of controlling the institution is so great that Baptist Building elites have waited for its own fundamentalist character to trickle down to its institutions and agencies, including OBU.  When they meet with SBC power brokers at the seminaries and in Nashville, a fundamentalist OBU would be the ultimate jewel in their crown.  It is our mission and duty to stop that from happening.


  1. I applaud your effort and wish you well, but I would caution you to not be too optimistic. Look at Southwestern Seminary. It went through the same purge you describe at OBU, and today, it is a shell of what it once was. So, will leadership car if the masses of alumni and donors protest? Not really. They will claim God is on their size whether they shrink or grow. In fact, they'll use the same comment you make, that it's about quality and not quantity if they shrink. Good luck

  2. Interesting to note: FBC OKC was quite happy to have Hobb's name gracing a college of OBU. Obviously one of the only moderate voices with any sway in that region, FBC OKC has tried to build up its relationship with OBU-- I think hoping to be a moderating influence. Perhaps Hurley and Hobb's families feel the same way, that hope is not lost. I'm unsure.


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