Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday School: Furman University

Happy Sunday!  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 Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

The Story
Furman's predecessor institution dates to 1826, but was renamed for Richard Furman of Charleston, S.C., the president of the first Baptist convention in the U.S., in 1850.  The current campus, built in the late 1950s in Greenvile, S.C., is widely cited as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the U.S.  Furman is a beneficiary of the Duke Endowment, having received more than $100 million since the 1920s.  Of course, Furman was also affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, which contributed a $1.6 million annual subsidy until 1991.

In the 1980s, Furman administrators and trustees became concerned about fundamentalists taking over the Southern Baptist Convention's boards and seminaries.  As the fundamentalist takeover moved to state conventions and the SCBC started electing fundamentalist activists to the Furman Board of Trustees, administrators and trustees knew they had to act.  Fortunately, they got an early start.  By 1990, only six of the 25 board members were fundamentalists.  In 1990, Furman trustees amended the schools charter, giving itself the sole right to elect trustees.  Previously, they had been elected by the SCBC.  Over the next 18 months, an ugly battle ensued.  You should read this brief summary.  Furman trustees and administrators offered many concessions, but fundamentalist pastors and state convention leaders fought hard, even preparing to take legal action.  In early 1992, a special committee of the SCBC decided it would not use convention funds to sue Furman, and in May 1992 SCBC messengers ended the convention's financial and legal relationship to Furman in a vote by a show of hands.

The Aftermath
As is always the case after Baptist colleges and state conventions part ways, both entities are far better off now.  Furman 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.  In fact, in recent years more Furman alumni have gone on to Ph.D. studies than students from any other college in the South.  By every conceivable measure, Furman is significantly better off without the fundamentalist South Carolina Baptist Convention attempting to do continual and irreparable harm to its academic programs.

The SCBC, likewise, is free of a significant administrative and institutional burden.  It still controls three fundamentalist colleges in the state: Charleston Southern, Anderson, and North Greenville.  In the aftermath of the Furman split, the SCBC had somewhat more financial leeway to support its three remaining fundamentalist colleges, as well as bolster collegiate ministries at several dozen other colleges and universities in South Carolina.  (However, in 2010, the SCBC reduced its funding to the three colleges in order to send more SCBC money to the International Mission Board.

Each entity is happier and better positioned to reach its goals, as both Furman and the SCBC readily acknowledge.  Far from becoming a liberal, secular university, Furman remains proud of its Baptist heritage:
Furman's heritage is rooted in the non-creedal, free church Baptist tradition which has always valued particular religious commitments while insisting not only on the freedom of the individual to believe as he or she sees fit but also on respect for a diversity of religious perspectives, including the perspective of the non-religious person. This heritage has always maintained that the religious journey has both a private and public dimension and is a lifelong undertaking that cannot be tied to doctrinal propositions.

Furman recognizes its responsibility both in and out of the classroom to encourage students and faculty to confront the problems of contemporary society and to exercise moral judgment in the use of knowledge. To this end, Furman fosters a sense of social justice and encourages civic responsibility in creating a fair and equitable order. The Latin motto of the university, Christo et Doctrinae (For Christ and Learning), underlines the interrelationship of faith and learning. The university is committed to the education of the whole person. 
And, unsurprisingly, Baptist life is still surprisingly vibrant at Furman.  The Baptist Collegiate Ministry is the largest student group on campus.

Lessons Learned
Furman was lucky to have leaders in the 1980s who saw the fundamentalist takeover for what it was: a political power grab designed to handicap, then control, then subject once proud institutions.  Determined not to let that happen, Furman trustees saw the writing on the wall and made the first move.

For many years at OBU, trustees probably did not have to worry much about the fundamentalist takeover because we had administrators who stood up for academic freedom.  That dynamic has dramatically eroded in the past 10-15 years, obviously.  While we still have a good faculty that does what it can, we seem to have administrators that have a higher loyalty to BGCO elites.  If this is indeed the case, we desperately need trustees to take notice and realize that they may be our last, best vanguards for academic freedom, free inquiry, and OBU's proud liberal arts tradition.

Hopefully, we can begin to strategize in the coming months with trustees who do not want to be complicit in OBU's implosion.  They should be encouraged to study the cases of these other Baptist schools and determine what actions they might take.  At a minimum, they need to take a more active role in trustee succession.  If the BGCO is left completely to its own devices, the fundamentalist takeover of OBU will continue apace.

Yet again, we see a split between a moderate school and a fundamentalist state convention that did not cost presidents and administrators their jobs.  We stand ready to lend extraordinary support to President Whitlock if he can provide leadership for OBU as it charts its own course apart from the BGCO's fundamentalist designs.  He could be a towering figure in OBU history -- and in Baptist higher education more broadly.  Or he could be just one more in a series of BGCO puppet presidents who accede to the BGCO's apparent desire to destroy everything great about OBU.  It's his choice, really.  Furman President John E. Johns, who had been at Stetson previously, capably and admirably led Furman through the split.  He died in 2007.

Furman is a great example for OBU in many ways.  OBU's insulation from the fundamentalist takeover of Southern Baptist life is over.  We are going to change -- one way or the other.  The South Carolina Baptist Convention case is illustrative of our choices.  We can either become more like the fundamentalist and increasingly irrelevant schools the SCBC still controls, or we can become more like Furman.

(This is the third in a series of articles about Baptist colleges that have altered or ended their relationships with state conventions.  See the previous articles on William Jewell College and Stetson University.)

1 comment:

  1. It is important to remember that Furman had support in its struggle to remain moderate. FBC Greenville was one of the charter members of the SBC but has since left and led the movement in South Carolina towards the CBF. OBU would do well to affiliate with similar baptist churches like UBC shawnee and FBC OKC who are likewise avoiding fundamentalism in order to remain true to the historic baptist values.


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