Thursday, January 12, 2012

Open Letter to OBU Trustees

Yesterday, we began our outreach to OBU parents, significant but often forgotten stakeholders in OBU's future.  We have already begun receiving their support -- some had no idea that OBU was becoming so fundamentalist so fast!  We certainly look forward to more parents joining the movement in the coming months.

Today, we acknowledge the OBU Board of Trustees (web link is out of date).  The trustees do not have the ability to immediately undo all the damage that recent changes have caused.  However, they certainly can provide political support and cover to administrators who decide to stand up for OBU students and teachers rather than advance a fundamentalist agenda.

One important caveat: Things could get much worse at OBU.  Right now, we have some outstanding trustees.  Some are even from CBFO churches!  But if they exert too much independence or defy Dr. Jordan's preferences, he will simply ensure that next year's convention elects trustees who are fundamentalist loyalists.  In fact, given the amount of unrest and the sheer fact that Save OBU exists, it is a near certainty that the next class of trustees elected in 2012 will unanimously share the BGCO's interest in turning OBU into a fundamentalist Bible academy.  That's why the time for serious deliberation about the OBU-BGCO relationship is now.  In a few years, the transformation will be complete and OBU's fate will be sealed... if we do nothing.

That said, please see our open letter to OBU Trustees below:

Dear Oklahoma Baptist University Trustees,

As you know, Save OBU is a movement of students, parents, faculty, and alumni who advocate changing the terms of the relationship between OBU and the BGCO.  We are people who, like you, love OBU and pray its best years are yet to come.  Even so, we are alarmed by the fact that there is unprecedented discontent among faculty, students, and alumni.

You may have been directed here with warnings that we are unfair, overly critical, misinformed, liberal, ungodly, or worse.  The truth is that we are diverse coalition of OBU stakeholders with a profoundly deep affection for OBU -- an affection that began long before the current crisis and that will continue long after it is over.

The broader context of our concern is the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. After fundamentalists seized control of SBC seminaries, boards, and agencies, they turned their sights on state conventions. Baptist state conventions in Texas and Virginia withstood the onslaught, but in every other state, including Oklahoma, resurgent fundamentalists control the levers of power from megachurch pulpits and state convention offices.

Moderates have been pushed out of BGCO life in many ways, some subtler than others.  OBU has not elected a moderate president in nearly three decades.  The convention censured former executive director-treasurer Joe Ingram in the early 1990s for "consorting with moderates."  You yourselves have been asked to abide the dismissal of two moderate professors from OBU in the past two years, as well as to sign off on the hiring of fundamentalists to replace aging moderates.

OBU largely avoided the effects of the fundamentalist takeover at the national level and remained a strong, moderate institution through many of those tumultuous years. Former OBU Presidents Grady Cothen and Bill Tanner joined the resistance against the fundamentalist takeover. So did Joe Ingram.  Bob Agee advocated a balanced, moderate Christian liberal arts education.  Herschel Hobbs deplored the tactics fundamentalists used to remake the Southern Baptist Convention in their own narrow image.  

In recent years, however, the effects of encroaching fundamentalism at OBU have simply become too obvious to escape notice. Specifically, we are concerned about the following policy and personnel issues:

  • Dismissing faculty members without just cause, but rather for ideological reasons
  • Remaking the faculty by replacing aging moderates almost exclusively with younger conservatives who adhere to the SBC's ever-more fundamentalist party line
  • Disregarding faculty norms, ignoring faculty search committee recommendations, and creating an unsustainably contentious and hostile dynamic between faculty and administrators
  • Gutting curriculum areas like philosophy, a core discipline in the liberal arts which is being replaced by "Christian apologetics"
  • Censoring academic materials by contracting with a fundamentalist bookstore, thus denying the OBU community access to mainstream books in the natural and social sciences, history, literature, the arts, philosophy, and non-fundamentalist theology
OBU administrators and BGCO officials will tell you that they are not cracking down on academic freedom or moving away from OBU's liberal arts tradition. They will instead argue that they are bringing the university's academic program more closely in line with Baptist values and doctrine. They will tell you there's no need to look at how dramatically they are changing the character of OBU. They will downplay the amount of anger and disappointment among students, faculty, and alumni that recent actions have generated.

Indeed, these are exciting times for OBU.  Enrollment is strong, programs and facilities are expanding, and fundraising/development continues at a good pace (on the surface -- the notable lack of senior faculty participation in the current campaign is indicative of their collective dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs).  Even so, OBU's balanced, moderate brand of liberal arts education is being eroded.  Schools that follow this path survive for a while, but eventually experience precipitous declines in academic quality, mass faculty resignations, legal and financial problems, and difficulty maintaining accreditation.

Baptist universities that make the difficult decision to seek independence and autonomy from their state conventions are better off by any objective measure.  If OBU were run from Bison Hill rather than from the Baptist Building, none of the problems cited above would exist.  The BGCO would be in a better position, too, since it would no longer spending nearly 20% of its annual budget to subsidize OBU.  Of course, if the BGCO wants to run a fundamentalist Bible academy, as seems to be the case, it would have the resources to start or acquire one.

We see the Board of Trustees as a neutral party in the BGCO-OBU relationship.  Sometimes you have gone along with actions we oppose.  But other times you have initiated positive changes that the BGCO would frown on and the OBU administration never would have pursued on its own.

We simply want to advance the argument that OBU's future as a leading liberal arts institution is in grave peril and that the OBU-BGCO relationship is bad for both entities.  We have some ideas about how to transition to a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees and about how OBU can survive without the BGCO's $2.5 million annual subsidy.  We hope you have some ideas, too.  We will be in touch with you in a more formal way in the coming months, but for now it is enough to thank you for your service and to invite you to consider these issues for yourselves.

Our Very Best Wishes,
Save OBU

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