Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday School - Reassessing Institutional Parallels

As many of our readers know, we began with the intention of blogging on Sundays about other Baptist schools that parted company with their increasingly fundamentalist and anti-intellectual state conventions. So far, we've profiled William Jewell College (MO), Stetson University (FL), and Furman University (SC).

Sunday School Blogging - Not as Helpful or Relevant
Last week, we looked at the planned takeover of a struggling, unaccredited college in Montana.  It's too soon to say whether this is a good idea or not.  And while Save OBU is committed to not taking positions on every minute matter in OBU governance and administration, we are at least open to the possibility that this could be a smart, effective partnership.  Our concern, as ever, is that we need to take care to maintain the quality and integrity of OBU's liberal arts education on Bison Hill.  In recent years, that heritage has been deliberately eroded and administrators seem deaf and frankly indifferent to the concerns of students, faculty, retired faculty, alumni, and friends.  So it occurs to us that new graduate programs, athletic teams, and far-flung satellite campuses may be a distraction from the very urgent business of protecting academic freedom, a rigorous curriculum, and maintaining the best possible faculty.  To the hardworking professors and tuition-paying students who see OBU's great liberal arts tradition being threatened by fundamentalist encroachment, focusing so much attention on peripheral matters seems not only offensive, but unwise.  It's like building a new room onto the side of your house while the kitchen is on fire.

Anyway, there are many other schools whose stories we need to hear.  But at the moment, it's not really worth 1/7 of this blog's space.  The amount of research required is substantial, and I frankly don't think it's the best use of my time.  Furthermore, since we usually talk about faculty on Friday, students on Saturday, and money on Monday, it would be better if we could have a day in the midst of those regular features to talk about any pressing issues that arise.

Baptist Hospital: The Key to OBU's Path to Freedom from the BGCO?
Furthermore, OBU's legal entanglement with the BGCO is different from other Baptist schools'.  It will not be nearly as easy for us to escape the BGCO's stranglehold.  We can't just vote the fundamentalists out.  They own us.  They literally own the buildings and grounds.  They can legally do whatever they want.  Whoever controls the BGCO controls OBU -- it's as simple as that.  When Mark Brister complained, "Anthony think he's my boss," he hit on the biggest problem OBU faces.  While it is not technically true, it is practically true.  When we had BGCO leaders like Joe Ingram who believed in academic freedom, the legal arrangement was not problematic.  Revs. Ingram and Tanner and Presidents Hall and Agee wisely kept OBU off the battlefield as fundamentalists waged war on the SBC in the 1980s.  Now, the fundamentalists are having their moment, and it's reflected in every hiring decision, every forced dismissal, and every curricular intervention.

So the uniqueness of our relationship to the state convention makes comparison to other schools mostly irrelevant.  What we need, truly, are experts on institutional disaffiliation.  The best parallel I can think of is the old Baptist hospital system.  My plea is this: if you know anyone who was involved in BGCO politics when it separated from the Baptist hospital system (I think this was in the early or mid 1980s but I truly don't know), please have them contact me.  Our path to freedom will be more like the hospital's and less like Wake Forest's, Stetson's, or Mercer's.  We need to know every little detail of that separation.

Moving Forward
Moving forward, we need to distinguish between short-term and long-term aims.  Our immediate concern is to repair the utterly broken relationship between the OBU faculty (particularly senior faculty) and the administration.  We absolutely must see some evidence -- and soon -- that student protests, Faculty Council resolutions, alumni petitions, and widespread dissatisfaction have any effect whatsoever on administrators, or if they are truly just doing the fundamentalists' bidding.  Fortunately, our persistence and collective pressure finally seem to be paying off.  Now that students, faculty, retired faculty, and alumni are all well aware of each other's positions, experiences, and expectations, it seems a near certainty that OBU will have to, at a minimum, apologize to the faculty and students for its shameful treatment of two excellent professors and find the provost a position elsewhere in fundamentalist higher education for which he is better suited.  Then, the fireworks over who gets to choose his successor can begin in earnest.

This issue will have to be settled soon, because with the president scheduled to be out of the country for six weeks this spring when interviews and decisions regarding new faculty take place, faculty and students are horrified at the prospect that Dr. Norman will get to oversee that process, ignore search committee recommendations again, and bring in a handful of eager young fundamentalist professors to further erode OBU's academic rigor and quality, even over the strident objections of students and faculty.  Such a scenario is unthinkable.

Longer term, we will seek changes to the trustee selection process, on OBU's end and on the BGCO's end as well.  In order to accomplish this, we may have to start a widespread conversation in Oklahoma Baptist life about what OBU and the convention actually offer each other (hint: not much).  BGCO power brokers are happiest when OK Baptists don't think much about the fact that OBU has a strong moderating effect on students' views and that we send a relatively large number of ministry graduates to moderate seminaries and a relatively small number of them to OK Baptist pulpits.  But we'll probably have to have an extended public debate about these and related issues in the months and years to come. So be it, it's long overdue.

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