Monday, March 26, 2012

Save OBU Outreach: Shawnee Community

After 3+ months of almost daily blogging, Save OBU decided to join OBU students, faculty, and staff in taking Spring Break off last week.  We're back with gusto and have a packed schedule for the rest of March and beyond.

We have talked at length about how the dramatic and unprecedented changes at OBU in recent years have impacted students and faculty.  We've heard from concerned alumni and friends who oppose the extremism and fundamentalism of today's SBC and BGCO.  We've even talked about what prospective students and parents are doing in light of OBU's alarming new direction.

Save OBU will spend a few days focusing on some other stakeholders we want to invite into our coalition.

Town and Gown: A Delicate Dance
It's in everyone's best interests when the relationship between a university and its wider community is mutually reinforcing.  This is especially true in small towns where the university (or universities) is a significant driver of economic and cultural activity.  Fortunately, Shawnee and OBU have enjoyed a very good relationship over the years, all things considered.  Not everyone in town stays current on OBU news and happenings, of course.  Most people drive up and down Kickapoo Street, see a construction project every few years, and assume all is well.  A lot of townies, aware of the university's conservative and traditional ethos, think of OBU as a throwback to an earlier time.  But in general, the community supports the university and OBU's presence has a positive impact on the community.

Could it be that OBU administrators' dramatic and unprecedented turn away from a liberal arts college and toward a Bible academy ethos might ultimately change the town-gown dynamic and harm the community?  I think so, and I invite Shawnee residents to learn about the negative changes over the past two years and join our growing coalition.

When Colleges Fail, College Towns Decline
OBU is a long way from failing, of course.  We've already studied other colleges that are a lot further down the ugly path toward irrelevance, financial problems, and losing accreditation.  But the seeds have already been planted, and if the current leaders continue to nurture them and have a deleterious effect on OBU's reputation, curriculum, and overall success, things could get ugly in a few years.  Already, there is reason to fear that our next re-accreditation process will have to address concerns about some of the disastrous personnel and policy changes that have been unilaterally forced on OBU by senior administrators.

Since fundamentalists seized control of Louisiana College, a SBC school in Pineville, LA, in 2005 and began running it into the ground, the community of 13,000 has struggled.  Like OBU, LC has dabbled in adding programs while neglecting its core mission of Christian liberal arts education.  Its results are not promising, and offer a warning for where we may be headed if the president and provost get their way.  Likewise, Shorter University in Rome, GA, is also in the throes of a fundamenatlist purge.  The president has required all staff to sign a fundamentalist "lifestyle statement" and is prepared to fire everyone who doesn't sign it by next month.  Shorter may offer a better parallel for OBU because its community is closer to Shawnee's size and it has two colleges.  (The other, Berry College, is a highly-rated non-denominational Christian college that has sustained its commitment to liberal arts education.)  So with one stable college and one very unstable one, the Rome community is dealing with the new reality of what a fundamentalist takeover can do to a once-great college.

Shawnee, America: Help Save OBU!
In addition to the faculty-specific abuses described in this post, here are some specific issues Save OBU is concerned about:
  • While the president, Rev. Dr. David Whitlock, has done a great job of getting involved in the community (an area where President Agee had great success and President Brister struggled), he certainly has made decisions aimed at pleasing the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma rather than protecting the interests of students and faculty.
  • The current provost, Rev. Dr. Stan Norman (who luckily avoided being thrust into the Louisiana College disaster in 2005), was passed over for the religion/ministry department deanship in favor of one of BGCO Executive Director Anthony Jordan's friends.  Soon after, President Whitlock created the provost position for Norman (thereby issuing a de facto demotion of the woman who had served very capably as chief academic officer) and turned him loose to begin undermining academic freedom, interfering in curriculum decisions, and making OBU look more like a fundamentalist Bible academy than a respected Christian liberal arts university.  Though many of our supporters would like to see both leaders leave OBU and the senior faculty very nearly held a no confidence vote last fall, Save OBU has not called for anyone's ouster.  We hold fast to the hope that the provost, realizing he is a bad fit for OBU, will leave of his own accord and the president will be convinced that it is better to stand for students' and professors' interests than to be a BGCO lackey.
  • Clearly, however, the BGCO enjoys unprecedented influence over OBU affairs even as its financial investment (especially as a percentage of OBU's budget) plummets.
  • Sadly, the 33-member Board of Trustees includes only two Shawnee residents (that we know of).
  • Whereas OBU until very recently welcomed new faculty from a variety of denominational families, senior leadership has now institutionalized a very clear hierarchy of Shawnee-area churches.  Immanuel (where the minister has said that the truth of the gospel "depends on" a literal six day creation) and other fundamentalist Baptist churches stand alone at the top.  Moderate Baptist congregations are tolerable but suspect.  Judging by recent job postings, OBU's message to Christians who worship in mainline Protestant congregations (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran) is, quite simply: Don't bother.  So far, we have not seen anyone fired for being a Presbyterian.  But the provost has suggested that mainline Protestant faculty ought to defend or explain why they have remained in mainline Protestant denominations.  This is a radical departure from precdent at OBU, where professors have for decades enriched the worship lives and leadership of a variety of local Protestant congregations.
  • A few local educators who are aware of OBU's new direction have already reached out to us with concerns that they can no longer recommend OBU to their best students.  This does not bode well for a community that prides itself on having a first-rate university.
We want to thank Shawnee-area residents for taking time to learn about some of the recent, dramatic, and negative changes on Bison Hill.  We invite you to join our growing coalition of facutly, students, parents, and alumni.  We love OBU dearly and are hopeful that through collective action and advocacy, we can prevail over those who would turn OBU into an unaccredited fundamentalist Bible academy.  Since fundamentalists siezed control of the SBC in the 1980s and state conventions in the 1990s, SBC-affiliated colleges like OBU have struggled with the issues we've described.  Nondenominational Christian colleges have plowed ahead with excellence in Christian liberal arts education as Baptist schools have endured tiresome, distracting battles.  Bob Agee and Mark Brister (not to mention Joe Ingram and Bill Tanner at the BGCO) shielded OBU from those battles for many years.  But with the Norman-Whitlock administraion, the battle has come to Bison Hill.  We ask for your prayers and support as we stand together for the proud Christian liberal arts tradition that made OBU great and a centerpiece of the Shawnee community.

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