Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Reply to Our (Sometimes Insulting) Critics

Since Save OBU appeared on the scene late last year, some people have taken to defending OBU's descent into fundamentalism.  For many, it is a matter of conviction -- the more fundamentalist the better, they say.  For others, it is simply their job (an unenviable one if you ask me) to assure people that the recent devastating changes are nothing to worry about -- Keep sending us your children and your money.  Never mind that we use hiring and tenure decisions to keep moderates out and fundamentalists in, never mind that we turned our bookstore into a Christian kitch emporium, never mind that we routinely ignore faculty norms and policies, never mind that the provost has seemingly unchecked authority to intervene in curriculum matters and does not have to undergo any job evaluations, etc.

The criticism typically takes one or more of these forms:

"The new profs are great."
I'm sure they are, literally each and every one of them.  That doesn't mean there aren't serious problems with the hiring process.  The fact remains that recent hires emerged from an unfair and unethical selection process.  They were, in most cases, not the search committee's first (or even second or third) choice.  And the recent changes sent a clear signal to future prospective professors: Unless you're a fundamentalist, don't bother.  You're not going to fit in here.  There is also a troubling dynamic emerging between the senior faculty (who are appalled at the recent changes) and some junior faculty who have to support the administration because they are not tenured yet (not that it matters anymore, apparently) and who owe their positions at least as much to their ideology as to their qualifications.

The kinds of professors who made OBU great are not only not being hired today, they are not even applying.  Sadly, I have heard from several Christian academics who could not recommend OBU to friends and colleagues seeking faculty positions.  Many fine candidates were aghast at how awful the fundamentalist litmus test interview with the provost was.  Unless we repair the damage to our reputation these awful H.R. problems have caused, our faculty will look less and less like a balanced, moderate liberal arts college and more and more like a marginally-accredited fundamentalist Bible academy.  Turnover matters.

Also, just because "the new profs are great," please remember: the old profs were great, too.  Time will tell, but I wouldn't just flippantly assume that the new people will be as great as the legendary teachers who influenced generations of OBU students.  We find it absolutely tragic -- I cannot think of a better word -- that most of the now-retired faculty and a majority of the senior faculty would never even be considered for positions at OBU under the current regime.  That speaks volumes.  And the implication that these devoted and outstanding educators are not Christian, or are not Christian enough, or are not the right kind of Christian is beyond insulting.

The university is committed to "the gospel" and "biblical standards."
OBU has always been committed to these things.  The problem with raising these issues in response to Save OBU's concerns is twofold.  First, it implies that previous generations of administrators, faculty, and students were not committed, or were insufficiently committed, to the gospel and biblical standards.  These changes (which Presidents Raley, Scales, Cothen, Tanner, Hall, Agee, and probably even Brister would have abhorred) are truly unprecedented.  If administrators are undertaking them because the gospel requires it, then I guess that means all our great past presidents failed to meet biblical standards.  OBU must have been a liberal haven for secularists.  Do you really want to say that?  Of course not, because it's a ridiculous thing to say.  OBU faculty nurtured a faith in students that could withstand the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny.  We didn't need "apologetics" classes.  The whole academic experience was both an act of faith and a vigorous defense of it.  The second problem with bringing up "the gospel" and "biblical standards" in the context of defending the recent changes at OBU is that it implies that, somehow, fidelity to Scripture demands that we violate personnel policies and disrupt extremely capable and well-loved professors' careers because we disagree with them.  I'm sorry, but I'm offended that people would try to cloak these changes in righteousness.  They are about ideology and power -- pure and simple.  Some of the bad changes, like the bookstore, might be described as unfortunate mistakes.  But not sins or crimes.  With respect to the faculty dismissals, though, our position is clear and indisputable: those two men were treated absolutely shamefully.  At a minimum, they are owed an apology.  To imply that the treatment they received was somehow derived from adherence to biblical standards is frankly appalling.

OBU was neither unrighteous nor devoid of concern for the gospel before the fundamentalists came in and started ruining things.

A Concern about Facts/Opinions/Speculation
We do a lot of speculating about what is behind the recent changes and what further disasters may await us if no one intervenes.  Naturally, our commentary is filled with opinions.  But with regard to facts, our record is solid.  No one has accused of us of saying anything that is not true.  I hope our opinions are correct and our speculation is well-informed and prescient.  But we are not peddling falsehoods.  And we certainly have no ill will.  Toward anyone.  Again, an example will suffice: I was a little surprised when I began delving into OBU's affairs and realized that President Whitlock is not the villan here.  I hadn't paid a lot of attention to OBU in the late 2000s.  I thought maybe Dr. Whitlock came in with an extremist agenda.  I quickly learned that is not the case.  In fact, I am quite sympathetic to him because I feel the BGCO-OBU relationship has put him in an impossible position where he receiving intense pressure from both sides.  A lot of Save OBU supporters are very angry at him for the fundamentalist-inspired changes and for letting Dr. Norman be the hatchet man, but I have cautioned many people not to blame the leader when the institutional arrangement is the real culprit.  The same goes for Dr. Norman.  There's a perfect position for him somewhere in fundamentalist academia.  It's just obviously not at OBU.

And, of course, those of us within the Save OBU movement have engaged in thoughtful and deliberative discussions with one another about where the problems lie, what solutions may exist, and how to best support the university we all love so dearly.  I'll share a personal example.  I came to this movement very distressed about the unprecedented personnel and policy changes at my alma mater.  I simply could not believe that OBU would cave on so many important issues without outside influence.  In my mind, the only explanation was that the Baptist Building was calling the shots now.  But as I have learned more facts and heard from dozens of faculty, students, etc., I have had to temper my view.  It turns out that not everyone who laments these horrible changes believes they were Baptist Building directives.  In fact, most faculty and concerned students believe the problem begins and ends in the provost's office.  So rather than regarding the BGCO-elected trustees as puppets, we are looking to them as allies and fellow defenders of OBU's great liberal arts tradition.

While most people understand the gravity of these issues, some have asked why we're so upset.  To them I would just submit that the changes we've documented are truly without precedent in OBU's proud history.  We believe they are not only detrimental to OBU's long-term success, but also indicative of a strong and (possibly) coordinated effort to remake OBU into something it has never been and we never want to see.

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