Saturday, April 28, 2012

Houston Baptist University Considers Name Change

A lot of you may have already heard about this, but it was news to me when I read it two weeks ago.  Houston Baptist University, affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is considering a name change that could include dropping "Baptist" from the school's name.

Half a century after being founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas as "a Christian college of the highest order," Houston Baptist University may soon erase the religious designation in its name. 
Saying that the Baptist tag creates a barrier for potential students, university officials are exploring a name change for the 51-year-old school - a prospect that concerns some alumni who fear HBU's religious identity would be de-emphasized.

Photo credit: Houston Chronicle

The tone of the article makes it seem like it's pretty much a done deal, pending action by the school's trustees next month.  The name change committee notes that both the geographical and denominational labels could be hindering HBU in its effort to become a national, comprehensive Christian liberal arts college.  Unlike OBU, where an overwhelming majority of students are Southern Baptist, only about a third of HBU students are.

The name change issue has come up before, but now, under President Robert Sloan's robust leadership, HBU seems ready to expand its profile beyond the sprawling Houston suburbs.  Having commissioned a study regarding the school's name recognition, HBU found that while most people know about the larger and more prominent Rice University and the University of Houston, relatively few people knew much about HBU.

While OBU draws extensively from Tulsa, OKC, smaller towns in Oklahoma, as well as the Dallas and Kansas City suburbs, HBU students are almost exclusively from three surrounding counties.  Proponents argue that a name change could help expand the school's geographical reach.

As for the "Baptist" part, we already know the name carries some baggage.  While we here at Save OBU are exceedingly proud of Baptists' rightful heritage, even the SBC itself acknowledges that the term connotes intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and even a racist past.  One progressive and brilliant thing HBU has done is allow a few non-Baptists Christians to serve on its Board of Trustees.  In fact, HBU is the first BGCT school to make this move.  Since some measure of theological diversity is actually tolerated in the BGCT (unlike in the uniformly conservative BGCO, where moderates are unwelcome and marginalized), there is little fear in sharing university governance with Christians from other denominational families in recognition of the need to attract students and faculty who may not be Southern Baptists.

Naturally, there are some who fear that taking the "Baptist" name away will invariably dilute the school's religious character.  Name change proponents dispute this charge, pointing out that the school's core mission will not change and that one of the proposed new names is "Morris Christian University" (in honor of founding father and major donor Stewart Morris).

At the moment, OBU clearly has much bigger problems on its plate than whether or not "Oklahoma" and "Baptist" are limiting its reach.  So we are not even interested in discussing a name change here.  It's less relevant, anyway, because we already have more of a regional and even national reach than HBU.

But it is a little sad to compare the differences in governance and administration between OBU and HBU in light of recent events.  With administrative leadership free of fundamentalists to appease and deliberate efforts to join the top tier of Christian colleges, HBU is on a dramatic upward trajectory.  OBU has made good on efforts to bolster enrollment and expand its programs and facilities, too.  But the recent personnel and policy mistakes have taken a toll not only on our reputation.  Appeasing fundamentalists consumes too much time and energy, and makes it impossible for OBU to move forward.  At present, it's all we can do to avoid moving backward.

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