Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Save OBU's Vital Role

Over the past four days, we've looked at Baptist schools whose headlong descent into fundamentalism makes OBU's recent missteps seem minor by comparison.  Just as we began the Downward Spiral series with an optimistic note about things stabilizing at OBU, we want to end with an appropriate balance between acknowledging progress and sticking to our guns about the ultimate source of the tension -- the tenuous, mutually draining relationship between OBU and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

First, credit where credit is due: After nearly a year of protests, I absolutely believe that OBU President David Whitlock is in a position to do right by OBU.  The faculty and retirees' efforts, in particular, have let let him know the seriousness of dismissing two professors without providing Faculty Handbook rights to them.  He is now much more aware of the widespread displeasure with the orientation of OBU as a consequences of the several bad policies his administration has adopted.

More good news:  At least one academic department reports being able to move forward with two new hires, both their first choice.  Dr. Norman is not getting to play the Doctrinal Enforcer role he obviously envisioned for himself.  As long as he is constrained by appropriate pressure, he will not be able to do further harm.  Whether he will ever be able to repair broken trust and lost confidence is unknown.  But to the extent he is willing to try, we have to honor that effort.

So if we are ending a crisis-filled year on a tentatively hopeful note, why do we still need Save OBU?

Let's not forget the ugly facts of the matter: Two professors were unethically dismissed.  Several core curriculum areas have suffered.  Faculty search committee recommendations have been ignored and overruled.  Legitimate doubt exists about whether Whitlock and Norman want to be loyal to the BGCO's wishes or to the interests of students and faculty.  That doubt will exist as long as BGCO control does, but given the breach of trust, we need to be vigilant.

Faculty can only do so much.  Yes there was widespread anger, fear, and sadness in the wake of two ideologically-motivated firings.  But the faculty really can't continue to beat the administration over the head with this.  Mistakes were made.  OBU's reputation is suffering.  But the faculty have to move on, though they do not have to forget what has happened.  They have to move forward, engage other issues, and allow trust to be rebuilt if the administration repents and makes a genuine effort to uphold academic freedom and the Christian liberal arts tradition that made OBU great.

We may not be heading down the path of mass firings and a wholesale abandonment of everything we hold dear.  But we have to be prepared for things to get ugly.  While we stand in solidarity with the Save Our Shorter coalition, we are well aware of the dangers inherent in waiting until after another major defilement of academic freedom or our cherished Baptist principles before we get organized and stand up for what we believe is right.

Unfortunately, the past two years have made it abundantly clear that OBU needs a watchdog that brings together the interests and perspectives of students (current and prospective), parents, alumni, faculty, and Oklahoma Baptists.  Just because OBU's takeover is in its infancy while at other Baptist schools it is complete does not mean that we could never go down that road.  We welcome any progress, but we remain absolutely convinced that ending BGCO control is the only necessary and sufficient condition for eliminating threats to academic freedom, integrity, and respectability on Bison Hill.

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