Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Fundamentalists Go Nuclear at Shorter University

In this Downward Spiral series, we're looking closely at other state convention-controlled Baptist colleges that are abandoning their historic legacies as liberal arts colleges and bowing to fundamentalist demands that they prize rigid doctrinal purity above academic freedom, integrity, and respectability.

We began by claiming a victory of sorts, noting that OBU's recent slide may have abated somewhat due to the widespread concern students, faculty, alumni, retired faculty, and the Save OBU movement have expressed over the past 10-12 months.  Then, we looked at Truett-McConnell and Brewton-Parker, both in Georgia, which seem to be in a race to the bottom and a competition to see who can convince the fundamentalists who control the Georgia Baptist Convention that their school has the most ridiculous obsession with total doctrinal conformity and the greatest disdain for actually providing a decent, let alone rigorous, education.  A little closer to home, Louisiana College provides a clear warning about what can happen when Baptist schools unsuccessfully resist fundamentalist takeovers.  Having suffered from financial disasters, divisive battles, horrible leadership, LC is in perilous danger of losing its accreditation. Any OBU constituent who thinks "it could never happen here" needs to take a close look at how convention power brokers interfered in LC trusteeship and administration and ran a once-fine institution into the ground.  LC is not an extreme case.  Rather, it's an ugly picture of what would almost certainly happen to OBU if Provost Norman and Dr Jordan continue to get their way in OBU's governance and affairs.

But let us now turn our attention to a top Baptist college whose supporters have been most gracious and sympathetic to Save OBU -- a favor I would now like for us to return.

Shorter University (Rome, GA)
Whereas Brewton-Parker and Truett-McConnell were never among the top Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges, Shorter University has been a shining example of Christian higher education in the evangelical tradition.  Once the GBC and Mercer University parted ways (a huge boon to both entities and a brilliant idea that I hope will continue to spread throughout post-Takeover Baptist life), Shorter became the GBC's flagship institution.  Like OBU, Shorter specialized in the liberal arts experience.  Graduates went on to success in business, ministry, and other fields.  The school had excellent placement in law, medicine, and other graduate degree programs.  Shorter had first-rate nursing and teacher education programs.  The fine arts department improved not only worship arts in the churches, but also the cultural life of Northwest Georgia.  Of the schools we've studied in this series, Shorter has the most obvious parallels to OBU.  For what its worth, Shorter receives about $2 million per year from the GBC.

What Happened?
We've reported on goings-on at Shorter before.  In fact, I wrote about Shorter in the very first week of Save OBU's existence.  Like some of the other schools we've profiled, Shorter's president started on the authoritarian/fundamentalist warpath almost from the first moment of his election.  I can't speak to the GBC's meddling in Shorter's affairs over the years, though I'm absolutely certain that the fundamentalist takeover of Shorter University has been brewing for years at the GBC and trustee levels.  We'll fill in some of those gaps over time.  President Donald V. Dowless announced soon after taking office that all employees (not just faculty) would have to sign a "lifestyle statement" or be fired.

Whereas such tactics are not really news at already-fundamentalist institutions like Brewton-Parker and Truett-McConnell, this dramatic and unprecedented affront against Baptist freedoms was a big deal at Shorter, which, though thoroughly conservative by any objective measure, has generally respected basic norms of academic and administrative responsibility.

Our friends at Save Our Shorter have kindly answered some questions we asked about the situation:
a) Did this directive from from the GBC or Dowless himself? 
We're not clear on that. We suspect that he had been in contact with Nelson Price, then-chair of the Board of Trustees, who is taking his marching orders from Bob White at the GBC. Bob White’s seeming silence on the current issues stems from the fact that he had written and discussed with pro-GBC trustees, directing them on their responses to the GBC/Shorter lawsuit in 2002. That was brought out in court, however White denied it, and when trustees were questioned, they also denied it.  That incident seems to have shaken White enough to teach him to be more surreptitious in his manipulations. 
b) What has the opposition been like? 
Great outcry in the community. Faculty are incensed but scared. Alumni have tried to have a discussion with Dowless, but he first took an intransigent position, then refused to talk to alumni or community clergy. Of course, there is also the creation of SOS (Save Our Shorter) and the building support of that group. 
c) How many professors are leaving? 
[SOS has what it believes is an accurate count, but asked us not to publish the exact number.]  Suffice it to say that no area of the university is unscathed by this disaster: professors, administrators, IT staff, library staff, coaches... Nursing department is gone, with the exception of one professor who agreed to stay and teach out those students whom the department had recruited. 
d) How does this radical policy affect Shorter today and in the future? 
This is not just an issue about faculty. The lifestyle statement affects virtually every department on campus. Short term, Shorter is facing two challenges, administratively – re-staffing and finding faculty.  They have also had to extend open registration to the end of semester because so many students have not enrolled for classes next fall. Alumni are advising family members and friends not to send their children to Shorter. The Fine Arts department has been decimated. The Shorter Chorale has always been one of the crown jewels of Shorter. Only a handful of students and faculty are remaining. The theatre department, too, has lost the vast majority of its faculty and students.  One of the cultural centers for Rome will have virtually disappeared.
Clearly, Shorter has an unmitigated disaster on its hands.  To make matters worse, Shorter is hosting a visit from SACS (accrediting body) this week.  It's going to be very difficult to convince the SACS delegation that all is well at Shorter.  Thankfully, pro-Shorter advocates are planning a massive demonstration tomorrow morning.  The pro-GBC faction will have to answer tough questions about their bizarre new vision for the college.


What Can We Learn?
The Shorter debacle is obviously a worst-case, nightmare scenario.  But let's not forget that there are very influential people in OBU life who would love to see this disaster visited upon OBU.  Why fire moderates once every year or two when you can induce a few dozen of them to quit all at once?!

The convention's involvement is crucial, yet deliberately kept out of the public eye.  We don't know for sure if Bob White at the GBC is pushing this issue (though he is obviously cheerleading it from the sidelines).  In the same way, we don't yet know definitively what marching orders the BGCO has given  President Whitlock.  Like all Baptist college presidents trapped in the impossible, irreconcilable gap between an increasingly fundamentalist state convention (with its dwindling financial subsidy) and a university community that depends on academic freedom, liberty of the conscience, and open inquiry as core principles.

One difference between OBU and Shorter is that our current Board of Trustees would never go along with forcing OBU staff to choose between their jobs and their consciences.  (I say this with confidence,  but please correct me if my confidence is misplaced.)  That's why we will be formally reaching out to OBU trustees in the coming months.  They have been asked to believe blatant falsehoods about the forced dismissals (that they were merely "contractual disputes") and have not been provided with adequate context for the series of missteps that amount to an unprecedented change in direction on Bison Hill.  But even if, as we suspect, a year's worth of protests have temporarily slowed OBU's slow yet deliberate transformation away from a relatively moderate liberal arts college in the best of the Baptist tradition, it will only be a matter of time until the Takeover proceeds apace.  For now, we have a number of pro-OBU trustees.  But the convention will be much more careful about who it lets onto the Board in the future.  In a matter of a few years, all but a handful could be handpicked pro-BGCO Anthony Jordan loyalists.  At that point, they could wreak untold havoc.

As we've stated all along, the ultimate resolution is for the colleges and the conventions to go their separate ways.  Short of that, we are going to keep fighting these tired, old battles.  At Shorter, the fundamentalists have gone nuclear.  No collateral damage -- including dozens of employees' careers and hundreds of students' college experiences -- is too great for these people.  They have no place in the field of higher education, Christian or otherwise.  But they hold all the power.  For us little people who do not control the flow of funds and the election of trustees, it will take all the unity, solidarity, effort, and protest we can muster just to keep our hallowed traditions and values alive.

God help us all.


  1. Public radio report on Shorter tonight:


  2. Thank you for your coverage of our situation and call for support at the bottom of "our hill" Wednesday, April 18 at 8 a.m. EST...

    Keep the Faith!!


  3. Article on today's SACS accreditation visit to Shorter University:


  4. Atlanta TV station's report today on Shorter and its accreditation issues:



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