Friday, January 20, 2012

Faculty Friday: Open Hostility on Bison Hill

This is not going to be pleasant for anyone, but it needs to be said:  Relations between OBU faculty and administrators are at an all-time low.  Let's review some facts:
  • Two professors have been dismissed for ideological reasons.  Luckily for OBU, we have not yet suffered the embarrassing consequences of these politically-motivated firings.  But just as Southwestern Seminary was put on probation in the mid-1990s because of fundamentalist meddling, when OBU applies for continued accreditation in the future, these unethical actions will reflect very negatively on us.  Don't be surprised if administrators try to abandon the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and pursue "accreditation" through some bogus second-rate fundamentalist-friendly entity that won't make them answer for their actions.
  • Many faculty have retired quite a few years sooner than they might have.  They saw the writing on the wall and, understandably, did not want to be become targets of fundamentalist zeal in the waning years of their careers.
  • Faculty Council morale is low because in spite of its best efforts, it could not successfully intervene in the two forced dismissals.
  • Administrators routinely ignore faculty search committee recommendations.  This means that some recent hires were actually our third and fourth choices, but were fast-tracked for hiring because of ideological conformity and not because of their qualifications or promise for future success.  If this embarrassing and dangerous trend continues, the best applicants will be dissuaded from enduring the horrendous interview process at OBU altogether.
  • More than a handful of professors fear for their jobs, and some have conceded that their work is much more joyless than it had been under previous administrations.
  • In light of recent actions, many professors are reluctant to express their anger and disillusionment.
  • While leadership starts at the very top, a lot of people feel that the provost is the real "hatchet man" or "enforcer."  Though Dr. Norman missed an opportunity to be a part of a fundamentalist house-cleaning at Louisiana College, where he applied for the presidency in the throes of a fundamentalist takeover, he seems to be relishing that role at OBU.  But he clearly overestimated the university community's tolerance for such a radical shift away from academic freedom and OBU's great liberal arts heritage.  (In fact, most would argue he misinterpreted the university's mission altogether.)  Many faculty are irate that Dr. Norman, whose position was created especially for him after he was passed over for the School of Christian Service deanship in favor of Anthony Jordan's close friend, has not undergone a traditional evaluation with input from faculty and staff.  His predecessor, a longtime OBU administrator, underwent such evaluations annually and was universally praised.
  • Faculty have almost no recourse.  The university has shown in the past 18 months that it is not afraid to dismiss even the most capable and devoted professors.  As much as it pains them to do so, a surprising number of (mostly tenured) professors have declined to support the capital campaign in order to register their sadness at the university's direction.  Also, for the first time since the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, OBU professors are organizing a chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  Since faculty norms and advice are frequently ignored and they are in constant danger of dismissal in open violation of the Faculty Handbook and basic H.R. ethics, the faculty are at a loss for ways to protect themselves from retaliation and unjust termination.

The solution to this impasse is complicated.  While OBU and the BGCO coexisted tenuously but relatively peacefully for many years, that relationship has outlived its usefulness.  While OBU remained, until recently, a proud, moderate institution offering a balanced Christian liberal arts education, the BGCO has descended headlong into fundamentalism.  It no longer makes sense for it to own and operate a true liberal arts university.  To the extent that the BGCO cheerleads for fundamentalism on Bison Hill, it will meet relentless and increasingly angry resistance.  It has goals for evangelism and missions that OBU does not efficiently advance and it could spend Cooperative Program funds much more effectively elsewhere.  OBU, for its part, has constituencies including students, their families, faculty, and alumni that simply cannot abide the fundamentalist-inspired personnel and policy changes that are eroding at our alma mater's proud reputation, devaluing students' diplomas, risking parents' investments, and dispiriting professors' careers.

Trustees need to, at a minimum, know the whole story behind the actions they are asked to sign off on. Eventually, they will know the full story of the two forced dismissals.  But they also need to ensure, from now on, that the new faculty contracts they approve are actually for the people we want most, not the ones at the bottom of search committees' rankings who are being hand-picked for their fundamentalist views.  Unlike the situation at SBC-controlled institutions, where the trustees were the problem, we have very good trustees.  The problem in our case lies with administrators who are torn between what Anthony Jordan wants OBU to become and what the OBU community wants for itself.  Trustees are in a unique position to be a moderating influence on encroaching fundamentalism.  Hopefully, as they learn more about the history of fundamentalists taking control of state convention-run colleges (stories we are telling nearly every Sunday on the blog), they will  recognize the need to assert their independence from the BGCO.

Faculty are in many ways the heart and soul of a university.  Their time horizon is longer than students' and they typically outlast several presidents.  They are the ones whose day-to-day experience would be most significantly improved by a separation from the BGCO.  Of course, students, alumni, and Oklahoma Baptists all have something to gain.  If you won't do it for anyone else, please support Save OBU for the faculty's sake.  They are badly constrained and have little recourse.  The current situation is not doing any of them any good.  Senior faculty are seeing the institution they love and have served faithfully for years turned into something they would never have chosen to associate with all those years ago.  And the junior faculty are being done a disservice, too.  It's not a good feeling to know that you were not the first or even the second choice and that you got your job primarily because of your opinions and only secondarily because of your qualifications.

In some important ways, these are good times for OBU: growing enrollment, an exciting and promising capital campaign, the resumption of football as a varsity sport after 72 years, etc.  But we have to be most vigilant during apparently good times, because those are the times fundamentalists think they make their disastrous changes without attracting much attention.  Unfortunately for them, we are paying very close attention.

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