Friday, February 10, 2012

Faculty Friday: The Long War

On Fridays, we usually look at the recent changes at OBU through the lens of faculty.  Perhaps since a number of faculty support us (quietly, from the sidelines) or perhaps since students and alumni have such great affection for OBU professors, these posts are among our most-read.  I have linked to some previous Faculty Friday posts below.

Today, I just want to make a small point, but it has big implications that outlast our present concerns.  Right now, the pace of negative changes seems to have slowed at OBU.  A lot of the bad changes still have lingering adverse effects, of course, but there seem not to be a lot more of these changes on the immediate horizon.  It was easy for the fundamentalist agenda to advance when protests were small and isolated.  The bookstore stunt was pretty easy for them - it didn't generate a lot of criticism at all.  Certain curriculum area decisions were small and localized enough that they only affected a small number of constituents, and so the protests were also localized.  The actions that generated the most sustained criticism were, of course, the two badly-botched forced dismissals.  But even then, the pushback was disparate enough and short-lived enough that administrators could go on with other parts of their agenda.

If they tried anything right now, however, the protest would be loud, widespread, and very public.  So they have to lay low.  And presumably wait for faculty, students, parents, and alumni to let their guard down.  And when we do, and life goes on, and months or years pass, they can continue acting on other parts of their agenda.  But if you really think that firing two professors and installing a crappy bookstore is the extent of the BGCO's design for OBU, you are badly mistaken.

Be warned: The moment they feel like they can get away with it, the agenda will advance.  Not from President Whitlock, I predict.  The near-unanimous consensus is that he is more interested in leading a great university than abetting the BGCO's wish to turn OBU into a fundamentalist preacher boy camp.  Unfortunately, he probably had to wink-and-nod when BGCO leaders expressed their expectations in that area as a condition of supporting his election to the OBU presidency.  Let's hope he uses his considerable administrative skill, business acumen, and personal warmth to advance OBU's mission.

Given how badly Dr. Norman's enforcer role has gone over and how painfully clear it is that he is just not a good match for OBU, it's obvious that the fundamentalists overreached.  When a university's chief academic officer is afraid to say much in a meeting with faculty for fear that he'll be quoted out of context later (as recently happened), clearly the relationship is so broken that he needs to think about moving on.  It's easier for one person to leave than 25 professors, though I wouldn't put it past some people to push for the latter.  Hopefully he'll realize this of his own volition to avoid undermining Dr. Whitlock's presidency and to preserve his chances at becoming a senior administrator at a Bible college or "seminary" that wants a hatchet man.  If he ever has to undergo any performance evaluation that involves faculty input (from which he has been thus far exempt), the results will be disastrous and might endanger his prospects at any reputable institution in the future.

But even if Dr. Whitlock acknowledges the mistakes that have been made (a little acknowledgement would go a long way) and even if Dr. Norman moves on (as seems increasingly likely because after all that's happened, his presence guarantees a poisonous relationship between the administration and the faculty), we won't be out of the woods -- not by a long shot.  The search for a new chief academic officer will be an epic battle between a newly-emboldened senior faculty and a handful of BGCO elites who still unfortunately wield considerable influence with the president and the trustees.

For all these years, regular attrition was the BGCO's only hope for a fundamentalist faculty at OBU, and that strategy did not work very well for them.  Now that the BGCO knows it can get administrators who are willing to use hiring, tenure, and dismissals as tools (one might say weapons) to create a fundamentalist faculty, they will not easily accept a competent, ethical chief academic officer.  On the other hand, now that the OBU faculty have seen firsthand what one fundamentalist administrator can accomplish, they are not going to accept another hatchet man (or woman).

Thankfully, we have some great trustees who, though they are relatively deferential to the convention leadership that paved the way for their election, can be truly trusted to put OBU's true interests ahead of Baptist Building politics.  This might result in some unpleasant Executive Committee meetings for a while while things get sorted out.

Yet even as Save OBU supporters will cheer if some of these bad changes are reversed, our victory will be small and short-lived.  The trustee selection process is about to become exceedingly doctrinal, political, and against the spirit of all that is good and right (not unlike the OBU faculty hiring process of late...)  After this epic battle and this tumultuous year, do you really think Anthony Jordan is going to allow moderates (or members of CBFO churches, or people wary of hardball tactics) to be elected to the Board of Trustees ever again?!?  Of course not.  We're likely to see Fundamentalist Takeover-style boards of trustees like the ones that destroyed the SBC seminaries in the early 1990s.  That's why we must also strategize in the months to come about how best to protect OBU's interests in the trustee selection process for the next several years as the thornier legal and financial issues of OBU-BGCO separation get worked out.  We need every thoughtful, ethical person of conscience we can get.

As we look past some important coming victories (acknowledgement of mistakes in handling the two dismissals, Dr. Norman's likely departure, etc.), we must also realize that the cards are stacked against us in the long run.  The reason?  Because the BGCO owns and controls OBU.  I hate to bring this up over and over again, but this bad relationship is truly the cause of our problems.  And ending that relationship is the only necessary and sufficient condition to ensure a bright future for OBU.

Those of us who champion academic freedom, open inquiry, and a rigorous liberal arts curriculum have suffered some painful defeats (though none of us has suffered as badly as our two dear professors/colleagues who were forced out of their positions in truly shameful ways).  But the fundamentalists overreached, and we're due a victory or two.

As long as the BGCO controls OBU, we may actually win a battle, but make no mistake: We will lose the war.

Past Faculty Friday Posts:
Why Turnover Matters
Firing Professors a Favored Tactic among SBC Fundamentalists
Open Hostility on Bison Hill
Games Administrators Play

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