Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Makes a Good Administrator? (Part 2)

Yesterday, we began a brief series on university administration as a window into why things have gone somewhat poorly for President Whitlock and why the BGCO is a central, if largely unseen, villan in this drama.  If students' interests are ignored, faculty's rights and norms are violated, and alumni's concerns are cast aside in order to kowtow to the BGCO, it's a recipe for -- well, for the situation we currently have.

Today, I want to follow up by revisiting the presidency of Dr. Bob Agee.  We've already talked about Baptist academic legends like James Ralph Scales and Grady Cothen.  But Bob Agee deserves credit for providing exemplary leadership at OBU during a difficult time in Baptist life.  Yesterday, we noted that a university president is like a translator, understanding the language of students, faculty, donors, alumni, and trustees.  Agee spoke all those languages masterfully.

When Agee came to Bison Hill, he immediately took it upon himself to forge relationships with as many Oklahoma Baptist congregations as he could.  He accepted invitations to preach in churches large and small.  Some pastors and congregations were afraid that OBU was too liberal.  Agee, who preached in 40-50 churches a year throughout most of his tenure, skillfully defused the paranoid and baseless fears about theological liberalism at OBU and, in the process, put forward a warm and caring persona for Oklahoma clergy and laypeople to associate with OBU.

The 43-year old president found faculty morale to be low when he arrived in 1983 (though nowhere close to how low it is today).  He forged personal relationships with faculty and made three brilliant appointments to the position of chief academic officer (Shirley Jones, Pat Taylor, and Joe Bob Weaver, respectively).  These gifted leaders each earned and sustained the faculty's trust and confidence.

Significantly, President Agee kept OBU safe from the denomination's Fundamentalist Takeover even as he maintained good relations with the increasingly fundamentalist BGCO.  Though the BGCO's subsidy (as a percentage of OBU's budget) was cut in half over Agee's tenure (a fact we will revisit later), Agee managed the university's relationship to the convention skillfully.  He befriended Rev. Joe L. Ingram, who was BGCO executive director from 1971-1986.  It was Agee who announced with pride that OBU would name the religion department in Ingram's honor.  (Sadly, fundamentalists later formally censured Ingram months before his death for "consorting with moderates.")  Agee also worked well with Ingram's successor, Rev. Dr. Bill Tanner, a former OBU president.  By the time the Rev. Dr. Anthony Jordan took over the BGCO in 1996, it seems the young gun (Jordan) had to defer to the elder statesman (Agee) somewhat.  Obviously, in time Jordan would learn to work behind the scenes to wield power in OBU governance and affairs.

President Whitlock owes his election, in large part, to two traits he possesses (along with Agee) that his predecessor (Rev. Dr. Mark Brister) lacked: a background higher education administration and a natural ease with Oklahoma's Baptist clergy and laypeople.  Yet for all his considerable talents, we must hope that Whitlock will be willing to learn from Agee's example.

  • Faculty are the heart and soul of the institution.  Their judgment and autonomy in academic matters are sacrosanct.  If you lose them, you've already lost.  For better or worse, there was not quite enough faculty support to take the extreme and unprecedented measure of a no-confidence vote in President Whitlock after the botched dismissals.  But the fact that such an option was even on the table last fall shows just how bad things are.
  • Students and alumni must feel valued.  They are the ones who made a hundred thousand dollar investment in OBU.  Their opinions matter, their passion is real, and the consequences of their dissatisfaction on OBU's future growth and development cannot be underestimated.
  • As for the BGCO, well, for now we may be stuck in this bad institutional arrangement.  But let us not forget that without the BGCO, none of these problems would even exist.  Wise presidents know that there is ample political support on Bison Hill and among alumni and trustees.  If you stand strong for academic freedom and a rigorous liberal arts education, we've got your back.  Anthony Jordan is not your boss.  And if a few Oklahoma Baptist clergy and laypeople don't like it, you have two options.  You can, like Agee, summon all your warmth and charm and go town to town assuaging these people's concerns.  Or you can essentially blow them off.  Less than two cents on their offering plate dollar ends up at OBU anyway.  If they kick us out of the convention, all the better: all these problems disappear, you have student/faculty/alumni support, and you go down in history as a true OBU hero.  Either way, OBU presidents have all learned how to deal with the BGCO.  If you're seen as the convention's puppet, you lose.

Tomorrow, we take a look an administrative appointment that has had very negative consequences for OBU and has put the president in quite a bind as he struggles to win back lost confidence while stubbornly refusing to even acknowledge any of the problems this problematic appointment has created.

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